The UK co-operative story

13 of the Rochdale Pioneers

For over 150 years co-operatives have been giving people across the UK control over things that matter to them – in their communities and workplaces, over the businesses they use, and across the wider economy.

The co-operative movement as it is widely recognised emerged in 1844, when 28 workers in the north of England called time on the expensive and poor quality food the mill owner sold them. They clubbed together to buy basic foods (flour, butter and sugar) in bulk and opened a small shop. Fellow workers could buy these provisions and also join as customer members to become part owners of the co-op and share in any profits.

Workers in nearby towns were inspired and the idea quickly spread. By the end of the nineteenth century there were hundreds of co-ops across the country, modelled on the Rochdale shop, giving customers control over the food they bought. Customer owned retailers now constitute the single largest part of the co-operative sector – accounting for £14.9 billion or 40% of the sector’s turnover. Over the last hundred years, though, the number of these independent retail co-ops has decreased as they have consolidated into large, successful and well-known high street retailers.

While customers were taking control of their shops, farmers were striving for a stronger position in the market by forming co-operatives. A number of experiments in farming co-ops were tried from 1829, but it was in 1867 when a group of British farmers – inspired by European counterparts – pooled resources in order to jointly purchase seeds and fertiliser, thereby creating the country’s first farmer co-operative.

Agricultural co-operatives became increasingly prevalent, enabling farmers to buy in bulk, market their produce together, and transform what they farm into products. Co-operatives now play a vital role in the rural economy. Half of all the UK’s farmers are members of a co-operative, and farming co-ops are the second largest part of the co-operative sector. Today, farmer co-operatives supply some of our best loved brands, from Colman's Mustard to Birdseye Peas, McCoys crisps, Lurpak butter and Ribena. 

As the generation of the 1960s came of age, there emerged a rush of more radical co-operatives, owned and controlled by their workers. They were often trading in wholefoods, books and bikes, with equal pay and no hierarchy. And, quite remarkably and ahead of their time, they pioneered a different way of doing business, pre-empting the participative management style now favoured by some of the world’s most successful businesses. And many of these businesses continue to thrive.

Building on its long history of pioneering co-operatives, today the co-operative model is enjoying a resurgence, providing people with innovative solutions to vital economic and social problems.

Where local shops, pubs and football clubs face the threat of closure, or are being bought by those without the community’s interest, residents are clubbing together, pooling their resources and saving the assets themselves.

When business owners are looking to retire, employee owned co-operatives are a way for staff to save their jobs and take on the business. Where young people are struggling to find work or a home, they are clubbing together to start housing and worker co-ops. Where communities want to generate their own green energy they are turning to co-operatives as a way to ensure the whole community has a say, and can benefit from, its development. And as schools look for greater involvement from staff, pupils and local people, the demand for a co-operative model is increasing exponentially.

Co-operatives have been giving people in the UK control over the things that matter to them since the nineteenth century. Today, we are seeing the next chapter of the co-operative story.