The Rochdale Pioneers
The Rochdale Pioneers themselves were local Rochdale men.
Some were known co-operative enthusiasts and had been involved in earlier co-operative ventures in the town, whilst others were Chartists and idealists. They were all working men. More than half were involved in the textile trade – ten of them were flannel weavers whilst others were cloggers, shoemakers, joiners or cabinet makers.
Initially, there were 28 Pioneers (Rochdale_Pioneers_List). Most of them were relatively well paid skilled artisans and some were in business on their own account. It was their idealism and vision of a better social order that inspired them to form the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. Without that ideal, the Society would never have been formed; without it the difficulties of the early years would not have been overcome, the efforts to promote and assist other societies never have been made, and the developments which created national organisations never thought of. In short, without an ideal, there would have been no Co-operative Movement.
Willian Cooper was appointed cashier from the original twenty eight members and Samuel Ashworth was appointed salesman. Initially, the store was opened two nights a week. After three months, this was extended to four nights a week and the Pioneers expanded the range of goods they sold.
As with all co-operatives, the Rochdale Pioneers was owned and run by its members and so a committee meeting was held on a weekly basis at the Weavers’ Arms public house. After a years trading the membership had increased to 74, the capital amounted to £181 and the total takings for the year was £710.
Rochdale experienced economic difficulties in the late 1840s, but the Pioneers managed to slowly progress and from 1850 this progression speeded up, although it would be incorrect to say that the Pioneers never experienced difficulties.
Many other co-operative ventures in the United Kingdom had been tried. Some were successful, but most were not and people began to look the Rochdale Pioneers for inspiration about how to run a successful co-operative society. Many adopted the Pioneers’ values and principles and started adapting their Rules for their own societies.
It was not long before the Pioneers’ fame spread overseas.
The worldwide links of 31 Toad Lane started as early as the 1860s. As they became better known, the Rochdale Pioneers received visitors from all over the world, who wanted to witness how a co-operative was being successfully run. A visitors book was kept from the 1860s and shows the range of their influence. One of the fist names listed, in 1862, was that of Edward Vansittart Neale, the co-operative leader and Christian Socialist, and later General Secretary of the Co-operative Union. The same year saw German, Spanish and Russian visitors. The following year Alexander Campbell, the Scottish Owenite and originator of the dividend signed the book. The first Japanese signatory was Tomizo Noguchi in 1872.
The first known history of the Pioneers was written in 1858 by George Jacob Holyoake and was entitled “Self-Help by the People”. It aimed to describe the difficulties faced by the Rochdale Pioneers and the way in which they were overcome. The book was translated and published in France, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Spain.