Rochdale Pioneers Museum
31 Toad Lane,
The Rochdale Pioneers Museum is housed in the building where the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society (the Pioneers) started trading on 21 December 1844. The museum is the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement.
The Pioneers was a group of 28 that was formed in 1844. They had learned a lot from other co-operative ventures that had failed. Perhaps their most important decisions were not to extend credit but deal strictly in cash and to reward customers in proportion to the amount they spent in the shop.
The objects of the Society were stated in "Law the First" of their rules and were:
The objects and plans of the Society are to form arrangements for the pecuniary benefit, and improvement of the social and domestic condition of its members, by raising a sufficient amount of capital in shares of £1 each, to bring into operation the following plans and arrangements:
- The establishment of a store for the sale of provisions, clothing, etc.
- The building, purchasing or erecting of a number of houses, in which those members desiring to assist each other in improving their domestic and social condition may reside.
- To commence the manufacture of such articles as the Society may determine upon, for the employment of such members as may be without employment or who may be suffering in consequence of repeated reductions in their wages.
- As a further benefit and security to the members of this Society, the Society shall purchase or rent an estate or estates of land, which shall be cultivated by the members who may be out of employment or whose labour may be badly remunerated.
- That as soon as practicable the Society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government, or in other words, to establish a self-supporting home colony of united interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies.
- That for the promotion of sobriety, a temperance hotel be opened in one of the Society’s houses as soon as convenient.
As you enter the museum you see the counter on your left and in the corner is the desk at which William Cooper, the society’s first cashier sat. There is little furniture. It's very sparse and that was deliberate. The pioneers didn't want to spend much on fittings or furniture. At the start the pioneers kept things very simple selling only sugar, butter, oatmeal and flour.
Continuing through you find a shop, the reception desk and a small exhibit space. The museum doesn't charge an entrance fee but gratefully accepts any donation given.
Upstairs on the first floor are exhibits which place the co-operative movement in the context of social and political movements and explain the reason why there was a burning need for self-help. A lottery grant helped with the displays though sadly some errors have been made. One display says that all the Chartists' key demands have been met over time. That's certainly true of five of the six main demands: votes for all men; equal electoral districts; abolition of the requirement that Members of Parliament be property owners;payment for M.P.s and the secret ballot but we don't have annual parliaments (the sixth demand). Typographical errors include putting one historical event 100 years out. Inexcusable for a museum dealing with our history. Hopefully this will be fixed.
On the second floor is a 'learning loft' and a cinema screen. There is a choice of six films. I watched four of them:
Co-operette (193&) which is a kind of musical comedy aimed at promoting the Co-op featuring some surreal moments.These include Hollywood style dance routines where one dancer is dressed as a carrot and the other as an onion.
Song of the People (1945) which draws on British history from the 14th century to stress that co-operation is the future.
Out of the Box (1942) which tells the story of the weavers of Fenwick, Scotland who in 1769 who formed what was probably the first documented co-operative.
My favorite was Men of Rochdale (1944) gave a dramatized history of the Pioneers.The film is based on G J Holyoake’s The History of Co-operation.
The film made clear the opposition the attempt at self-help by workers faced. Local businessmen tried to undermine the new shop by spreading rumors that they were going bust, discouraging suppliers from trading with them, threatening customers with the withdrawal of credit and many other dirty tricks. The workers stood firm and overcame all the obstacles thrown at them. The Pioneers had a vision that inspired the formation of co-operatives around the world. But the Pioneers didn't just succeed because of idealism.It was this mixture of idealism and practicality that led to their success. There is a memorable moment in the film when a man is arguing for political solutions when a woman present says she wants solutions now. That's what the Pioneers delivered.
Reviewed by Patrick Harrington, general secretary of Solidarity union (pictured at the museum)