(This article was written by David J. Thompson of the International Cooperative Information Centre)
It was dark, damp and cold in the almost empty warehouse at 31 Toad Lane on December 21st in 1844. It was the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year; and it had been dark since 4 pm.
Today, the 21st of December is also St. Thomas's night, he who doubted the Lord. If the co-op had been formed 100 years earlier on December 21st in 1744, under the old Gregorian calendar it would have been Christmas Day. However, for the members of the newly formed Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, the 21st of December in 1844 would not be a day of gifts or gaiety; it would be one of consternation and caution.
On that day, a small group of the Pioneers and their families watched the candles being lit to signal the opening of the store. Lanterns were hung in each of the two windows. One of the men peered outside onto the busy cobbled street. People were hurrying home from work hoping to find warmth from the winter's chill. The appointed hour to open the store was 8 pm. One by one, James Smithies took the shutters off the windows, at first hesitatingly, but by the last, proudly. With the final shutter removed, the modern co-operative movement had begun. Rochdale, England was its birthplace.
There was no cheering at that moment, only the jeering of the "doffer boys" laughing at the idea of it all. The "doffer boys" were the mischievous factory lads of the era. The shop was by their account a silly weaver's dream. Another experiment in brotherhood bound to fail. Inside the store, a few of the members gathered to give support for the first night. They filled the rooms with hope and dared only to dream of tomorrow. The store was composed of two rooms, a front room of about 400 square feet used for retail and a back room of about 700 square feet for storage and meetings.
On the almost bare counter were arranged the co-op's first items for sale: flour, oatmeal, sugar, butter and candles. The entire inventory could have been taken home in a wheelbarrow and was purchased for the equivalent of 25 dollars in those days. The board had approved the purchase of four items for sale. However, on learning that 31 Toad Lane would be rented by a co-op, the local gas company had refused to turn on the gas. As a result, the co-op added candles to its list, buying them at wholesale to either lightup the store or sell at retail.
31 Toad Lane was only a few doors away from the location of a previous co-op located at #15 Toad Lane. A number of the Pioneers had also started that co-op (1833-35) which had failed after a few years. One of the reason for the ultimate success of the Pioneers was that its members had learned from that previous failure. The three-year lease for the warehouse at #31 was $15 per year. However, the owner, Dr. Dunlap, would not rent to the co-op. One of the Pioneers, Charles Howarth, stepped forward and personally guaranteed the lease.
The rent was a lot for the cash-strapped Pioneers (sales for 1845 totaled $1050 and net profit was $33). However, the store was located on one of the busiest streets in Rochdale and near the Town Center. Though the location had great potential, it was not proven that night.
Samuel Ashworth and William Cooper were hired as staff and agreed to be paid only if the store was profitable after the first three months. It was! The first sale to a member household was to a woman wanting sugar. Ashworth, who was 19 at the time, was so nervous trying to wrap it in newspaper that he spilled it everywhere. The woman took matters into her own hands, poured the sugar into her apron and carried it home safely. For the first three months, the co-op opened two nights a week for two hours. By March of 1845, business had grown so much that the store could be opened five days a week for a total of 20 hours. The opening hours were mainly at night as most adults worked 16 hours a day and did not get off work until 8 pm.
The Pioneers numbered 28 on the day the store opened. Most of them had invested in a share for a dollar fifty (equivalent then to two weeks wages). Many of them had placed three cents a week into a fund until they had reached their first share. They had drawn up their principles and rules of operation. They had a utopian purpose and a practical bent. They intended to build a strong organization capable of changing the world. The need appeared so great that nothing but something powerful could change their circumstances. Lacking no other choice they were destined to become weavers of dreams. One hundred and fifty years later, over 700 million people are members of co-operatives. The lights lit that night in Rochdale now shine all around the world.
*All dollar amounts are arrived at by multiplying the English pound amount of 1844 by 1.5 (today's approximate dollar exchange).