Origins of Cooperation
The beginnings of much of the modern cooperative movement can
be traced back to Great Britain in the early part nineteenth century.
As the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain was one of
first countries to experience the pains of transition from
an agrarian to an industrial economy. The story of how people
reacted to these sweeping changes includes the origins of the
The economic and political transitions associated with the Industrial
Revolution had many consequences. Often workers in traditionally
agricultural jobs found their wages dropping steadily as mechanization
made the production of agricultural products cheaper and more
efficient. These laborers were then forced to stop their independent
enterprises and began working in factories for steadily decreasing
wages. Soon industrial production became so efficient that
overproduction occurred, thereby driving down both prices and wages
further. Moreover, the wealthy new industrialists who controlled the
factories also controlled the political landscape, thereby making it
difficult, if not impossible, for workers to change their wages and
working conditions. For example, workers were restricted from farming
traditionally common lands, forbidden from organizing labor unions,
required to buy goods only at company stores which provided poor
quality products at inflated products, and forced to build large debts
from buying on credit in order to just survive .
Even skilled artisans found their professions to be less in demand as
the mechanization of production resulted in the splitting of tasks
into simpler parts requiring less skill and the paying wages for
piecework . With conditions deteriorating to the
point where labor was commonly considered as a mere commodity to be
bought and sold at whatever price (regardless if this price was
sufficient for the workers to provide for themselves and their family)
and with the dominant economic theories of the day arguing that such a
development was inevitable, people began to react to try to change
Several approaches were possible. First, workers could try to reform
the laws that governed labor and property rights through political
action. A movement known as Chartism (1838-1848) attempted to secure
better working conditions through mild social reform legislation but
failed to have a lasting effect . A second, more
aggressive measure was to illegally organize labor unions and exert
influence via strikes. After many failed attempts, the unions
eventually became powerful enough that they were recognized by law and
acted as a major power broker in industrial capitalism. But in the
early part of the nineteenth century, this activity was risky and, for
the most part, ineffective . A third, even more
extreme reaction was the philosophy of revolutionary socialism
advocated by Karl Marx whereby the capitalistic exploitation would
eventually lead to the overthrow of the industrial system and
redistribution of wealth to the proletariat masses. While this
movement also eventually established itself, mostly notably in Russia
and China and to a lesser extent worldwide, it too was in a nascent
state in England at that time with more ideals than practical plans.
Finally, a more immediate and practical response developed under the
name of "friendly societies" or "cooperative societies" whereby
members would pool resources to develop enough capital to open their
own mills, bakeries, stores, etc. They could then sell the produced
goods at market prices but redistribute the surplus revenue back to
members. Of course, cooperatives also faced difficulties in
establishing themselves. In fact, many different cooperatives were formed
prior to Rochdale (see the selected chronology below), all of which eventually
failed. What made the Rochdale cooperative different was that it was
the first cooperative that was successful over a long period of time.
In summary, the modern cooperative movement was founded as a response to
the rise of poverty caused by the redistribution of wealth that
occurred during the Industrial Revolution. In an effort to ameliorate
their poverty (or at least ease their pain), people began to work
together to create cooperative organizations that provided good
quality products at prices affordable to themselves.
Brief Chronology of Cooperation Prior to Rochdale
|???? ||Ancient China and Japan
In China, loan societies called Yao Hui allowed members to
contribute a given amount every week, creating a total sum which was
drawn out by lot until each had received his share. A similar system
developed in Japan called tanomushi .
|1756 ||Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Benjamin Franklin helped to form the Philadelphia Contributorship of
Insurance of Houses by Fire .
|1760 ||Woolwich and Chatham dockyards, England
Cooperative bakeries were set up by shipwrights to provide reasonably
priced bread to their families in reaction to a local monopoly of
millers and bakers. The Woolwich mill was eventually burned down and
the local bakers accused of arson .
|1769 ||Fenwich, Scotland
A pioneers consumers' cooperative was founded to purchase work
materials for its members and later food supplies .
|1794 ||Mongewell, Oxfordshire, England
A local bishop set up a shop to allow villagers to buy goods at near
wholesale prices. However, it was a
cooperative only in the sense that it eliminated
the "profit element." The shop was really only patronage store relying on
the backing of a rich philanthropist and did not teach the values of
|1812 ||Lennoxtown, Scotland
A consumer cooperative named the Lennoxtown Friendly Victualling Society.
was established. The Lennoxtown Society distributed patronage
refunds before the Rochdale pioneers, and hence some claim the
Cooperative movement began in Scotland, not England .
|1816 ||Sheerness, England
Skilled artisans rebelled against millers who were adulterating flour
with china clay by establishing a cooperative baking society. Later
this developed into a cooperative store run by the Sheerness
Economical Society .
|1825 ||Brighton, England
Local artisans organized the Brighton Co-operative Benevolent Fund
Association to set up a cooperative general store, buy land, and
employ unemployed members .
|1828 ||London, England
George Mudie and some London printers founded the London Cooperative
and Economical Society to attempt to put into practice a plan for a
self-supporting community of 250 families and develop the first cooperative
newspaper, The Economist .|
Editor's Note: This is not a complete chronology, but only
a sample of some of the cooperative efforts
prior to the Rochdale Pioneers.
Johnston Birchall, Co-op: The People's Business
(Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK, 1994), pp. 1-3.
Birchall, p. 6.
E.S. Bogardus, History of Cooperation
(Cooperative Publishing Association, Superior, Wisconsin, USA,
1955), p. 10.
Birchall, p. 3.
Bogardus, pp. 57, 59.
Bogardus, p. 72.
Birchall, p. 4.
Bogardus, p. 19.
Birchall, p. 3.
Bogardus, p. 19.
Birchall, p. 5.
Birchall, p. 9-11.
Birchall, p. 9.
Copyright 1999 by Ronald Kumon
Laurel House Co-op & Laurel Net Cooperative /
Austin, Texas, USA /
Created 11 Mar 1999 / Updated 02 May 1999
This page is published by Laurel Net Cooperative, a registered student
organization. This page is not an official publication of The
University of Texas at Austin and does not represent the views of The
University or its officers.
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