Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Co-operative associations in England




In 1845 there appeared an article in the “Edinburgh Review,” from the able pen of Mr. John Stuart Mill, wherein allusion was made to a small work published several years previously by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and which was intended to assist in enlightening the minds of the labouring classes with respect to the true rights of industry, and in dispelling certain prevalent but extremely erroneous ideas respecting the effects of machinery upon the value of human labour. In his remarks on this little book—which, by the by, was written by Mr. Charles Knight, and not by Lord Brougham, as popularly supposed—Mr. Mill stated that it contained some advice to the working classes “which produced considerable comment at the time (1831). It exhorted them to become capitalists. To most labouring men who read it, this exhortation probably appeared ironical. But some of the more intelligent of the class found a meaning in it. It did occur to them that there was a mode in which they could make themselves capitalists. Not, of course, individually, but by bringing their small means into a common fund, by forming a numerous partnership or joint-stock, they could, as it seemed to them, become their own employers, dispense with the agency of receivers of profit, and share amongst themselves the entire produce of their labour. This was a most desirable experiment. It would have been an excellent thing to have ascertained whether any great industrial enterprise, a manufactory for example, could be successfully carried out upon this principle.” But it so happened that while Mr. Mill was thus giving utterance to the foregoing opinions, a few simple-minded working men, with stout arms and trusty hearts, had actually commenced the “desirable experiment.” The poor fellows had been nearly ruined by a strike which had taken place in their trade, and were naturally somewhat weary of a policy which produced no other results to themselves than misery and starvation, without any compensating advantages. This led to some discussion on their part, during which the question of industrial organisation was mooted with success; and immediately afterwards was formed that remarkable association which has since attracted so much attention, under the name of “The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Co-operative Society.”

It is true that such associations were not new in this country—Mr. Charles Knight having, in one of his works, explained that the various companies of actors in Elizabeth’s time were based on co-operative principles, Shakespear himself having acquired his fortune in this way—but it was not until within the last few years that the system began to be properly understood by those who naturally possess the largest stake in its success. The original programme of the Rochdale co-operators was not entirely free from the theoretical leaven which permeated the various social schemes of Robert Owen, St. Simon, Fourier, and other visionary dreamers; but—to their honour be it written—these poor working men refused to be blinded by prejudice, and courageously learned to profit by the teachings of experience, which bade them discard the absurd and somewhat extravagant pretensions set forth in their first prospectus. Commencing in 1844, with 28 members and a capital of 25l., formed of small weekly contributions, they now (1862) find themselves in possession of a fund amounting to 42,961l. 14s. 1d., and numbering upwards of 3900 members. The amount of business transacted at the Rochdale Stores during the past year was not less than 176,206l. 14s. 8d. They also possess several other associations, one of which, the Rochdale District Corn Mill Society, owns a capital of 29,000l., and numbers 700 members; the amount of business transacted last year being 166,800l. Besides these, they have established reading-rooms, libraries, lecture halls, &c., and are voluntarily subscribing 23l. per week towards the relief of their poorer members and the public during the present disastrous crisis in the cotton trade. The example of Rochdale has been followed in other places, such as Bacup, where the association numbers 1848 members, and possesses a capital of 13,439l. 16s. 10½d.

Subjoined is a table of the principal societies:—

Name. Number of Members. Capital or Funds. Business transacted during 1861.
£ s. d. £. s. d.
Accrington 500 2787 13 10½ 12,215 11 11½
Batley Carr 700 4147 14 16,502 8 7½
Blackburn (9 Societies) 932 2742 17 11½ 22,117 3 10½
Bolton 494 2258 4 6½ 10,420 4 0½
Brickfield 347 3200 0 0½ 13,445 0 0½
Bury 1640 8788 0 0½ 67,529 8 6½
Crewe 540 2400 0 0½ 28,000 0 0½
Dukenfield 850 3383 9 2½ 29,172 6
Greenacre’s Hill 924 8122 0 0½ 47,674 0 0½
Halifax 2850 14,000 0 0½ 42,000 0 0½
Heckmondwike 400 1715 0 2½ 15,540 14 4½
Heywood 860 4563 0 0½ 26,233 0 0½
Horsecroft 420 3125 4 0½ 13,520 0 0½
Liverpool 2140 4562 5 11½ 28,135 19 8½
Manchester (4 Societies) 2665 9419 0 0½ 78,754 4 1½
Staleybridge 1800 4000 0 0½ 70,317 0

The above are taken from a list containing the names of 150 societies, of which no less than 121 have commenced since 1856. These societies, which are only a portion of those known to be in existence, number 48,184 members, possess a capital of 333,290l., and transacted business during 1861 to the amount of 1,512,117l.

With few exceptions, they are devoted to the establishment of provision stores, it having been ascertained that such concerns generally prove the most successful mode of investing the subscribed capital.

The mode of business, as generally conducted, is extremely simple. All transactions are for cash, no credit being allowed; and a simple but efficient system is adopted for the purpose of ascertaining and registering the amount of purchases made by each customer. The profits are divided quarterly, five per cent. per annum being allowed on all paid-up shares, and the remainder equally distributed amongst the members in proportion to the amount of purchases individually made by them.

In this way many working men have acquired large sums, with very little risk or trouble; hence it is not surprising to find that these associations are rapidly increasing in number and popularity, or that the principles on which they are based should be applied to purposes of a more speculative nature, such as the formation of manufacturing companies.

The establishment of co-operative cotton spinning and weaving associations has been considerably accelerated by the high rate of profits obtained previous to the outbreak of hostilities in America; and, as might be expected, Rochdale was one of the earliest, if not the first, in the field. The two mills of that town were erected at a cost of 70,000l., and employ about 300 hands. There are others at Bacup and elsewhere. These establishments are conducted for the most part on the same principles as the provision stores, excepting that the workers take the place of the customers in the quarterly participation of profits, but of late there has been observable a tendency to act more on the joint-stock system pure et simple, and to pay the workers the current rate of wages, and no more, leaving the whole of the profits to be divided amongst the shareholders alone. This has given rise to much controversy and discussion on the part of those concerned, which curiously illustrates how the love of gain proves as insatiable in the case of the humble co-operative as in that of the wealthy millionaire.

The present depression of the cotton-trade has severely tested the stability of these associations, not a few (including that of Rochdale) having to work “short time,” while several have had to close their doors, or, in one or two cases, to break up altogether; but there appears to exist a determination to make every possible sacrifice in the attempt to weather the terrible storm which has overtaken the unfortunate operatives of Lancashire. But for the habits of economy and thrift engendered by these co-operative associations, the present distress would have been far more deeply felt by the industrial classes of the cotton manufacturing districts; a fact which should be remembered when the tide of prosperity returns to Lancashire and its suffering population.

In the midland counties the example set by Rochdale has been productive of results pregnant with hope for the future of the agricultural labourer.

Clipston, in Northamptonshire, is an agricultural village, containing about 800 inhabitants, situated near Market Harborough, and not far from the memorable battle-field of Naseby, where the unfortunate Charles lost his crown, and was compelled to flee, a throneless fugitive, to Leicester. The inhabitants of Clipston are principally engaged in farm-labour, which brings them about 10s. or 11s. per week—not a very great sum, yet much higher than can be obtained in many parts of the southern counties.

A copy of Mr. William Chambers’s tract on co-operation fell into the hands of some of the more intelligent of these labourers, who displayed their latent energies by immediately forming an association similar to that at Rochdale, but, of course, on a far more modest scale, which they have successfully carried on up to the present time. This was in June, 1861, when they started with 34 members, and a capital of about 34l. They now (September, 1862) number 56 members, with funds to the amount of 90l.; the amount of business transacted during the first twelve months of their existence being 1110l. 7s. 9d.

No wonder that our friend Hodge has become elated, and, in brisk emulation of his Rochdale brethren, is busily engaged in devising plans for the erection of large bakeries, or whispering of co-operative farms, where the labourers shall be their own employers! The thin end of the wedge has been inserted, and it is impossible to predict the ultimate results which may arise therefrom.

The same influences which have had so large a share in forming the character of the Lancashire operative are busy at work amongst the semi-pauperised inhabitants of our rural towns and villages, and thereby preparing the way for a complete social, moral, and intellectual change in the habits of our rustic populations.

No real lover of his kind can reflect on these silent but widely spread movements in town and country, without a feeling of relief that working men should have learned to economise their hard-earned wages, and to acquire habits of frugality, providence, and self-help, rather than become the victims of senseless and ruinous strikes, or addicted to wasting their time on the alehouse bench. If the spread of co-operative societies produced no other results than these, they would be valuable as popular adjuncts in the social education of the masses, and it is both unwise and mischievous to criticise their proceedings in the narrow and restricted spirit of a false political economy. By inculcating the principles of self-government they are indirectly preparing the people for the exercise of a larger share of political power than that which they now possess; and by familiarising their members with the doctrines of economic science they are bringing about an amelioration of the numerous unhappy disputes which embitter the relations of labour and capital.

John Plummer.