The Cooperative Society we know today may have its headquarters in Manchester, with a statue of Robert Owen - perhaps the world's most famous cooperative thinker, best known for founding a workers' community in New Lanark and fighting for workers' rights - offering protection to a child outside, but it all started in a small street in Rochdale back in 1844. Today, the Coop's main office is just a stone's throw from Manchester Victoria, where trains to Rochdale take 15 minutes.
28 'ordinary men', who became known as the Rochdale Pioneers, took it upon themselves to open a shop for two hours, two evenings a week, concerned at the exploitation of the poor by unscrupulous traders who 'mixed sand with the grain and soil with the cocoa'.
Back then, the landlord wouldn't allow a group lease, but now the Coop is the biggest consumer owned company in the world and the building where the first shop was opened, which is tucked away behind Rochdale's present day shopping area, is a fascinating museum dedicated to one of the world's biggest social movements.
On arrival, a member of staff gives a brief history of the movement. I was told proudly ‘anything cooperative today is thanks to these lads here’ and given a background to the industrial landscape: 'During the hungry 40s, wages dropped 80 per cent, but this was a chance for workers to work their way out of poverty'.
The museum, which is mainly just one room, is crammed with artefacts like weavers' clogs and looms. Objects such as pamphlets, caps and truncheons used against workers and campaigners during strikes illustrate a timeline of the cooperative movement in Rochdale. Later, letters between different branches show its spread across the world.
There are explanations of divi day, when those who invested in the company could reap their share of the profits, and the principle behind the cooperative movement can be seen first hand through the commodity tokens and Labour notes - a form of currency used mainly by craftsmen that was equal to the amount of time it was estimated goods should take to make - on display.
Cooperativism is based on the idea that labour is exchanged for labour and noone should be able to make a profit out of others.
In the nineteenth centrury, it also offered a way for workers to be educated and improve their lives socially as well as economically.
Toad Lane doubled up as a reading room and classroom to promote the ‘educational, cultural, social traditions’ of the cooperative movement, and the museum has information relating to pageants and plays held by cooperative societies as well as cricket matches between different branches and copies of the Pioneer song book.
Upstairs is like an aladdin's cave of objects donated by people from all over the world, from displays of goods on sale in cooperative shops over the last two centuries - including, intriguingly, haemonglobin capsules - to bikes and banners and a 1920s magic lantern. There are photos of cooperation in action all over the world, from Sweden to South America.
A 1934 article from the Rochdale Observer entitled 'the Romance of the Coop' describes how the Coop ‘started on £28, now handles £346,000,000 a year’, and the Coop is just as successful today.
Cooperativsm based on the Rochdale Principles is practised worldwide, with over 800 million members in more than 100 countries, and a display on Fair Trade shows how the Coop is still helping the less fortunate today.
Rochdale Pioneers Museum
31 Toad Lane
The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm and Sunday 2pm to 4pm.
Adults £1.00, children/students/senior citizens 50p, family ticket £2.00.