Rochdale is seen by historians as the home of the worldwide co-operative movement. This is because of a group of men who formed the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. Theirs was not the first ever co-operative venture, but they formed the first successful one and the one from which a whole group of co-operative businesses were formed, some of which are still with us today.
Over half of the original twenty-eight pioneers are buried in Rochdale Cemetery, along with others that were influential in the co-operative movement, and their graves can be visited. Rochdale Pioneers Museum have set up a self-guided trail around the burial ground (there is a link to download this at the bottom of the page). If you visit, you will see that the grave and monument inscriptions add further detail about their fascinating lives. Below, we give a little history of some of the men and their movement.
The Origin of the Rochdale Pioneers
In the 1840s, many people had to no choice but to buy adulterated food, such as flour with chalk mixed in or tea bulked out with hedge clippings. Many traders also used scales that did not measure out fair amounts for their customers. The Pioneers had the idea of setting up a store and selling not only pure foodstuffs in fair measurements, but to treat both workers and customers in a new way. They decided to set up a co-operative business that was run on democratic principles. This included that the management be elected by members, and decisions taken on a ‘one member one vote’ principle, with both men and women allowed to vote. Anyone spending money at the Pioneer’s store would also take a share of the profits. This was the start of the famous co-operative ‘dividend’ system – the more you spent, the higher your return.
Those buried at Rochdale Cemetery include people that were there at the inception of the enterprise. To supply the store on its first evening of opening Samuel Ashworth, William Cooper and John Holt bought food at Manchester’s market and pushed it the ten miles to Rochdale in a wheel barrow. Even the barrow had been borrowed, by their pioneer colleague John Hill. The reason for the long trek is that many local traders would not supply them, being intimidated out of doing so by those exerting powerful political and business interests within the town.
James Smithies took down the shop shutters to begin the first night of trading at the Toad Lane store. He was to go on to introduce the pioneers to new ideas such as the wholesale trade of buying and storing goods in large amounts, efficient transportation of the goods and grouping activities into departments. Like a number of the other pioneers, he was active at teaching adults to read, write and become numerate.
James Standing weighed out the flour for customers in the store. He became involved in the Ten Hour Factory Act, which sought to limit working hours to no more than ten hours a day in the mills.
In the early days of the venture, money could be very tight. Samuel Ashworth and William Cooper worked for three months for free, only being paid when enough money became available. Benjamin Rudman lent money to the society without security. On one occasion, when he was approached by the committee for the loan of more money, he gave it them immediately. He then tore up their receipts, stating he could trust them to repay.
The Political and Religious Beliefs of the Pioneers
Many of the men were originally artisans, mostly being trained as weavers, either of wool or flannel. What united them was a belief in a better society for all, to which end they were committed socialists and chartists. The chartist movement sought to bring full democracy to Britain, with each person being allowed to vote, rather than just a small, rich, privileged minority. (See our page on the famous Chartist meeting on Kersal Moor here). They were also supporters of Robert Owen, a tireless campaigner for the improvement of factory worker conditions and a founder of co-operative communities.
Some of the pioneers were religious preachers. James Wilkinson founded a local church, which became known as the co-op chapel as fourteen pioneers were amongst the congregation. He would stride across the hills, irrespective of weather, to preach in Todmorden, Bacup and other surrounding towns. John Scowcroft worked as a rag and bone man and would deliver Christian greetings while dealing with his customers. He too would walk over the moors to preach, frequently being found at Ramsbottom. When some of the pioneers mooted that religion should not be discussed at their regular intellectual meetings, he disagreed. Scowcroft stated that religion should be examined carefully and critcially, just as politics was.
As the society flourished, the business enterprises diversified. Abraham Greenwood helped set up the Co-operative Wholesale Society, the Co-operative Insurance Society, and the Co-op News. John Thomas Mitchell oversaw the rapid expansion of the Co-operative Wholesale Society into an enterprise that supplied a wide range of goods across the world, earning him the nickname of ‘Baron Wholesale’.
There is much more information on the lives of these fascinating men on the trail guide, which you can download from the Pioneers Museum here. You may well find yourself motivated to seek out the graves of these men, who worked so hard for a better society for everyone and whose legacy lives on today.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden. Thanks to our Rochdale correspondents, Andy and Ally, for accompanying us on this visit.
There is on street parking around Rochdale Cemetery. The main entrance is located on Bury Road OL11 4DG. The cemetery is open during daylight hours.
Rochdale Pioneers Museum website is here
Nearby, just a short drive away
The Rochdale Pioneers’ Graves- A self-guided trail, Dorothy Greaves (2012) Rochdale Pioneers Museum. Available as a free pdf here
The Co-operative Revolution: A Graphic Novel, scripted and illustrated by ‘Polyp’ (a cartoonist). Edited by Paul Monaghan and Claire Ebrey (2012) New Internationalist/Co-operative Group
Rochdale Pioneers Museum, Toad Lane, (1996) Holyoake Books, Co-operative Union Ltd