The Co-operative Movement in the 21st century

The first workers co-operative was founded over 500 years ago in Aberdeen.  Co-operative principles developed during the Industrial Revolution, infuenced by philanthropists such as Robert Owen in New Lanark.

Today, co-operative principles are regaining popularity as localism encourages decision-making and wealth at community level.

The Co-operative Movement is a complex subject because it is a philosophy, a political ideal and a philanthropic belief.  Today it is also a major commercial activity which some would say has moved away from its nineteenth century roots and its principal purpose of giving the less fortunate in society the power to make changes to their lives.  

Brief character outlines of the most prominent pioneers can be misleading because of this complexity.  Compared with the founders of many of the High Street brands we are familiar with today, who were focussed on making money by innovation, hard work and commitment, the co-operative pioneers held many other beliefs and principles which sometimes worked together, but were often in conflict.  Despite many disparities, Religion, socialism, philanthropy and commercial entrepreneurialism combined to create something remarkable.


The Industrial Revolution provided employment for hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers, but as larger and faster machines were introduced into the mills and factories, the livelihoods of skilled workers and their families became threatened, with many suffering extreme poverty.  The adjective 'extreme' is accurate.  The 1840s became known as the 'hungry forties', partly because of the free trade policies of the British Government under Sir Robert Peel, and because of the consequences of potato blight which had caused this vital crop to fail across Europe.   In France, it is estimated that 10,000 people died from famine. In Ireland, there were one million deaths and two million refugees.

Peel had promised 'modest' reforms. In 1844, the Factory Act became law, which moved some way to limiting the hours that children and women could work in factories, and it was his repeal of the Corn Laws which ended his tenure as Prime Minister; but the effect of his reforms did little to improve the lives of the working-class population.

The Grosmont Co-operative Society - the oldest independent co-operative society in the UK, founded in August 1847
The Grosmont Co-operative Society - the oldest independent co-operative society in the UK, founded in August 1847

In England, a large percentage of the population was living in conditions which would today be described as 'third world' with inadequate housing and no access to nutritious food. In addition, the mill owners and manufacturers had created a system designed to produce the largest-possible profits. The 'truck' system paid workers in kind, which meant many had to buy back at inflated prices the produce they had grown.   The health and wellbeing of the workforce was of little or no consequence.

The first societies

The co-operative idea had existed long before the industrial revolution created the need for it to be put into practice. The Shore Porters Society, which is a removals and haulage business based in Aberdeen, was founded in 1498 as a co-operative for porters working at Aberdeen harbour.  Their records show that in 1666 the society set up an arrangement for providing for retired members and those in ill-heath.  Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the society has been a private partnership controlled by six active members, six retired members and two widows.  The Shore Porters was, until its demutualization, a form of friendly society, rather than a commercial co-operative.  

Arguably, the first of these in the UK, the Fenwick Weaver's Society, was also founded in Scotland in the village of Fenwick in East Ayrshire.  The original purpose of the society, formed in 1761, was to foster high standards in the craft of weaving, but eight years later, it set up a consumer co-operative to enable the collective purchasing of bulk food items and books. After being dormant for many years, the Fenwick Weavers were reconvened in 2008 as an industrial and provident society so that its records and heritage can be researched and catalogued for the future.

By the 1830s there were several hundred co-operative organisations, but most were short-lived. Of these early societies, the Lockhurst Lane Industrial Co-operative Society, which was founded in 1832 founded by ribbon makers in the Foleshill area of Coventry, is still trading, and is now the Heart of England Co-op. The Galashiels and Hawick co-operative Society, which was active by 1839, merged with others and is therefore still trading today as part of the Co-operative Group.

The Lockhurst Lane Co-operative Society
The Lockhurst Lane Co-operative Society

The Rochdale Pioneers

The principles of the Co-operative Movement were laid down by a group of twenty-eight workers in Rochdale in 1844, although similar concepts were beginning to form elsewhere. Over a period of four months, each member contributed one pound to form the capital needed to start trading.  Four days before Christmas, they opened a shop selling a small range of butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and candles. Within ten years, nearly 1000 co-operative stores were trading.

The key to the success of the Rochdale Pioneers, was their clearly-defined set of co-operative principles which became the foundation for all such groups worldwide. These rules defined a 'co-operative' as 'an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically controlled enterprise.'  According to the International Co-operative Alliance.

The history of the movement is one of optimism, suffering, desperation and frequent failure.  It was perhaps the first time that very high utopian ideology combined with the suffering of the impoverished working-class population of the British Isles. The result was a confusing mix of hope, aspiration and political pragmatism.

Robert Owen

Several key thinkers guided the concept of the Co-operative Movement in its earliest years. Undoubtedly the greatest of these was Robert Owen, although his philosophies were much wider than simply running shops in which customers could share in the profits. 

The son of a saddler and ironmonger in Newtown in Montgomeryshire, Owen began his working life in a drapery shop. In 1792, he became manager of a mill in Manchester at the age of just twenty-one years and two years later set up his own Chorlton Twist Mill in partnership with other entrepreneurs.  His intelligence and deep humanitarian convictions were already being recognised.   In 1793, he was elected as a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society.

Robert Owen
Robert Owen

Owen was more than a skilled entrepreneur, persuasive speaker and successful manager.  He was a man who genuinely cared for others and saw his workers as people who deserved the same quality of life as himself.  He was also a practical man who could take philosophical theories and turn them into reality.  It was at New Lanark in Scotland that he set about his task in the mills which had been built by the industrial pioneer Richard Arkwright.  Owen had married Caroline Dale, the daughter of the owner of the New Lanark Mills.  One year after his marriage, his dynamism meant he had made his home at New Lanark and was part-owner of the vast complex.

Robert Owen's house at New Lanark Mills
Robert Owen's house at New Lanark Mills

It was here that he could provide a better, healthier and more wholesome way of life for many hundreds of workers, and where he set up the first true co-operative shop.  It was common practice at this time for workers to be paid in part or completely in tokens which could be exchanged only for goods purchased in the mill-owners' shops.  This allowed mill-owners to sell shoddy goods at high prices.   Owen paid his workers in ordinary currency, and opened a shop on site. He not only charged fair prices for goods - only just above the price he had paid for them - but also passed on to the workers the savings he made through bulk purchasing.

Reconstruction of the workers' shop at New Lanark Mills
Reconstruction of the workers' shop at New Lanark Mills

Owen was not always successful in the practical extensions of his philanthropic and socialist ideas, and he faced considerable opposition from many other businessmen; but his work at New Lanark became respected nationally and further afield.  He was supported and respected by the greatest thinkers of his time and his concepts influenced later parliamentary social reforms.  Although many of his grand ideas failed, and he may have lost faith in some of his utopian plans in later life, Robert Owen is regarded as the father of the co-operative movement.

William King

Far away from the 'dark satanic mills' of northern England, William King lived in Brighton on the south coast.  He was not from a working-class upbringing.  Born in Ipswich 1786, he was the son of the Master of Ipswich Grammar School.  He trained as a physician and married one of the daughters of Dr Thomas Hooker, the vicar of Rottingdean in Sussex.

Dr William King
Dr William King

King took Robert Owen's co-operative ideas, simplified them, and made them work.  He is also regarded as Robert Owen's publicist, putting into printed words, the ideals of Co-operation.  He did so by launching, in 1828, his own newspaper called The Co-operator.  The first issue was published on 1 May 1828, providing a mix of co-operative theories and practical advice about running a co-operative shop.  King encouraged working-class people not to withdraw from society, but to create societies within societies.   He recommended that these co-operative groups should start by opening a shops because it was a basic element of everyone's daily lives.

'We must go to a shop every day to buy food and necessaries - why then should we not go to our own shop?'

King was a practical man.  He drew up simple and sensible rules based on common sense which included keeping a weekly financial record, appointing three trustees (so that majority decisions could be made) and refraining from meeting in public houses where there was a temptation that any profits might be lost through drink.  The journal ran for only 28 issues and each was only four pages in length; but it was read across the country, was very influential, and at one time achieved a circulation of 12,000.

It was largely because of William King that Brighton became a centre and early pioneer in the co-operative movement.  He became known as the 'poor man's doctor' because although there were plenty of wealthy men and women who came to Brighton for reasons of their health, he treated poor people free of charge or asked them to contribute what they could afford.  In 1837, he opened the Brighton Self-Supporting Dispensary for which he acted as physician, and in 1842 he was appointed consulting physician at the (Royal) Sussex County Hospital for 'the sick and lame poor of every country and nation'.  He also supported the creation of the Brighton Institute which provided education for working-class people, and where he often lectured.

His most important legacy was his own co-operative shop called the Brighton Co-operative Trading Association which opened in 1827.  At the time, Brighton was not the popular seaside resort of later years. In the early decades of the nineteenth century it was expanding but still had only two main streets.  The advances in factory mechanisation had hit the area hard resulting in mass unemployment.  The skilled workers, out of work and with little money became the nucleus of the new co-operative movement.  With a capital of only three pounds, they opened their shop selling basic foodstuffs.  With the money that came in from sales, they acquired 28 acres of land where the unemployed could cultivate crops.  They also funded workshops where the redundant craft skills could be rescued and used once again to earn a living.

The Brighton and Hove bus fleet includes a double-deck vehicle bearing his name following a campaign by David Lepper MP who was the Labour Co-op member for Brighton Pavilion from 1997 to 2010.

Alfred Waterson

Retailing and politics have often been interwoven in the fabric of our society; but the relationship also produced a political party which was born on 17th October 1917.  The Co-operative Party put up several candidates in the 1918 General Election but just one succeeded to Parliament. Alfred Waterson was elected as the Member for Kettering.  He had been born in Derby and was a railwayman, and a trade union activist.  He lost his seat in the 1922 General Election and became the National Organiser of the party until 1945. He contested seats in Nottingham in 1930 and 1931 but failed to attract the support of the electorate. He died in Wood Green in the London suburbs in 1964.

Alfred Waterson MP
Alfred Waterson MP

The 1918 Election was significant for the working classes.  It was the first general election to be held after the Representation of the People Act of the same year. It was therefore the first election in which women over the age of 30, and all men over the age of 21, could vote. Previously, all women and many poor men had been excluded from voting.  It resulted in a landslide victory for the coalition government of David Lloyd George.

Waterson frequently took part in parliamentary debates on a wide range of topics that were relevant to the working classes.   In one exchange across the House, in December 1919, he addressed the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George with an accusation so outrageous that the Speaker demanded he withdrew the remark:

Is the right honourable Gentleman aware of the fact that the co-operative movement was compelled to enter into politics because of the action of vested interests in this House; and, further, is he aware that over two-thirds of the question submitted to him is a complete falsehood, from beginning to end?

Following repeated calls for him to withdraw the remark he agreed to substitute 'inexactitude' for 'complete falsehood'.

The success of the co-operative societies in the last half of the nineteenth century led to a steady increase in their numbers, and this in turn caused some private shopkeepers to view them as unfair competition.  A small number of the more powerful shopkeepers even lobbied manufacturers and wholesalers to stop supplying to the co-ops.  This very rarely happened in practice, but the threat was real enough to prompt co-operatives to work together to set up their own wholesale operation. 

In 1863, the North of England Co-operative Wholesale Industrial and Provident Society Ltd was launched in Manchester, serving three hundred separate co-operative groups across Yorkshire and Lancashire.   It later became the now familiar Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS).  A similar Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Society was founded in 1868.  The CWS grew quickly into a powerful and innovative organisation not only wholesaling but manufacturing as well.  By 1890, CWS was making its own footwear, biscuits, soap and clothing.  By the outbreak of the First World War, it had reached far beyond UK shores with activities across the world in Australia, Denmark, the United States, and even its own tea plantation in India.

Some of the Co-operative retail societies saw the expansion of the CWS as a threat to their independence and strove to source stock from other suppliers, rather than allow CWS to become a monopoly. CWS responded by diversifying, creating other services which local societies needed.   These included providing loans for new buildings and developments, insurance and legal services. 

The Second World War forced changes on all manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing operations, with CWS finding a role in sourcing overseas goods for UK consumers, and manufacturing items for military purposes.   In the decades that followed, the co-ops failed to keep with the trend for modernisation in retailing, although many moved into self-service formats. In 1968, to address the trend of dwindling business which included much less member investment, the Co-ops adopted, for the first time in their history, a national corporate branding, the familiar clover leaf.  A period of mergers and reorganisation followed in which there was little unified strategy, and in 1973, serious financial issues with the Scottish CWS led to its merger with CWS to form a single wholesale society.

The future

Adding the prefix 'community' to the word 'co-operative' has created, in recent years, an entirely new concept.  Away from the High Streets, in more rural areas where there are few amenities, community shops have opened, which are similar in their structure to food co-operatives.  Over 400 of these small stores are now trading, with some providing healthcare and library facilities.  Similarly, where pubs tied to brewery chains have become unprofitable, local communities have stepped in to rescue them under a provision of the Localism Act which allows for such amenities to be declared 'assets of community value'. 

Some of these community pubs also provide space for a shop, perhaps in a converted out-house or former stabling area.  The latest co-operative concept is in community energy projects where small investors can own and operate small-scale renewable energy projects including find farms or solar-power installations on village halls and other community buildings. 

The financing of these forward-looking initiatives harks back to the earliest days of the co-operative movement, with profits being returned to the community and to the individuals who committed the start-up finance.