The Co-op Movement

The Co-operative movement consists of a number of independent societies

‘The Co-operative Movement’ is not a single national organisation, but a number of separate and Independent societies with a shared set of values aimed at serving the best interests of members and the local community.

Co-op founders - the Rochdale PioneersThe movement has its roots in the 19th Century when the industrial revolution resulted in widespread exploitation and misery for many working people.

At that time many people struggling to make a living found it especially difficult to get quality foods at a fair price. The development of shops had not kept pace with the growth of the new industrial communities and often families were left at the mercy of unscrupulous local shopkeepers charging exorbitant prices.

The formation of non-conformist churches and the development of political movements, such as the Chartists, gave ordinary people a chance to be treated more fairly.

Increasingly popular ideas of social reformers, such as Robert Owen and Dr William King, made people realise that they could achieve far more collectively than as individuals. They formed trade unions to overcome exploitation at work and improve terms and conditions of employment. They also set up their own shops to avoid exploitation of consumers.

The Rochdale Pioneers are credited with starting the first successful retail Co-operative Society in 1844, although there had been earlier attempts. The Pioneers opened a shop in Toad Lane, Rochdale selling unadulterated goods at reasonable prices. They also introduced a dividend that meant that all its customers became members of the Society and received a return in accordance with their expenditure.

In 1860 the Rochdale Society drafted what have become known as ‘The Rochdale Principles’ – the values by which they would trade:

  • Open and voluntary membership
  • Democratic control (one member one vote)
  • Fixed and limited interest on share capital
  • Surplus allocated in proportion to members’ purchases
  • Provision for education
  • Co-operation amongst Co-operatives
  • Political neutrality
  • No credit
  • Quality goods and service

Many of these principles still form the basis of co-operatives throughout the world.

By 1900 the efforts of ordinary men and women had forged a movement of some 1,400 societies across the country, with even more in Europe and beyond.

During the last century however, the Co-operative movement has undergone many changes to meet the challenge posed by multiple retailers, including combining to create larger and more efficient organisations. Today, there are less than 25 retail Co-operative Societies in the United Kingdom ranging in size from small ‘one shop’ societies to giants with sales exceeding £3 billion.

The movement still retains its principles by being owned and democratically controlled by its members. It still uses its profits for the mutual and individual benefit of members and seeks to give its customers a fair deal. Societies also continue to provide a wide range of educational, social and cultural activities and are widely involved in the communities they serve.

The early days of co-operation in Tamworth were very similar to those in many other parts of the country.

In 1844 the Pioneers initiated the Rochdale Society, and by 1865 the Movement had made progress throughout the North of England and had also established itself in parts of the Midlands including Derby, Stafford and Leicester before taking root in Tamworth in 1886.

See also our roots.