The Co-operative Movement (Report 2)
by John Harrison

The Co-operative Movement and its early days in Chorley

It’s now more than a year since I reported back to “News and Views” on a conference that I attended to do with the Co-operative Movement in Lancashire. It inspired me to do some research on the Movement in Chorley at the Co-operative Archives in Manchester and Joan and Kevin Dickinson put together their joint recollections of the Co-op in Chorley in the 1950s and early 1960s. I started writing this up but then the gremlins struck our computer. Firstly the document became corrupted and was lost and then later the computer fatally crashed. So much trauma! What do the experts tell us? “Always back up your work!”
The Co-operative Movement’s history that we learn, about Robert Owen and the Rochdale Pioneers, gives a very simplistic view of the Movement’s development in the nineteenth century. I shall show that the development in Chorley was not particularly straightforward and this was probably typical of local histories of the movement.
The early years of Co-operation in the 1820s and 1830s were characterised by idealism centred around the foundation of largely independent and self-sufficient communities. The leading exponent was Robert Owen with his communities in New Lanark in Scotland and New Harmony in the USA. Owen is rightly credited with helping to establish the principles of Co-operation, however his communities were not long-term successes.
The second phase developed in the 1840s as the economy recovered and has been mainly associated with a group of weavers from Rochdale who became known as the “Rochdale Pioneers.” Their first shop opened in 1844 and established a model for future co-ops. Working class people established the business which was funded by the issue of shares. The members owned the business, assisted in the management, shared in the profits, and democratically elected a management committee. Members meetings were held quarterly of half-yearly. The basic principles included:-

•A commitment to pure, unadulterated food
•Cash payment for goods (no credit)
•Dividends on purchases
•Democratic control
•2.5% of profits for educational purposes
•Creation of a Co-operative Commonwealth through gradual change

The Co-operative movement retained many of the ideals of earlier societies and represented an egalitarian and democratic attempt to improve the living standards and life prospects of the working classes. As well as establishing stores they would manufacture goods and purchase land for cultivation, to provide employment for members out of work or on reduced wages.
This model of co-operation was widely promoted through publications and the work of “missionaries” and as the prosperity of the textile industry grew in the following decades in the Pennine districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, so did the numbers of new societies. By the 1860s it was moving to other parts of the county. By 1870 there were 112 societies in Lancashire, about a quarter of all English societies and many of them continued to operate into the 20th century. One of those was in Chorley, but it was a different society which saw the start of the 20th century.
The foundation date of the first Chorley society has not been precisely pinpointed. Frank Langton in his celebratory book “50 Years of Co-operation in Chorley 1887-1937” suggests that it was around 1860. He refers to it as being the Chorley Pilot Co-operative Society, although according to the Chorley Standard on 7th October 1876, its title was the Chorley Pilot Industrial Co-operative Society. The latter article, to which I shall return, is a report on the 65th quarterly meeting of the Society. That would imply the Society was then 16 years old, although as it is possible that some meetings may have been less frequent than quarterly so it may have been older. Langton refers to the original premises being on the corner of Livesey Street and the Market Place with later premises built at the corner of the Market Place and New Market Street, with branches in Park Road, near Commercial Road, Cowling and Adlington. Langton has the Society closed in 1873. This is clearly not correct, given the Chorley Standard article in 1876 referred to above. The reasons for closure would merit further research. Langton suggests that there may have been a lack of business ability, although from the 1876 article there is a suggestion that members may not have supported the shops as much as they could have. This could have been due to the state of the local economy and the prices of competing businesses. There was some continuity however, the former Adlington branch became the Adlington Industrial Society.
At around the same time as the Chorley Pilot Industrial Co-operative Society was being established, “th’ Co-op Factory” at Greenfield Mill was set up. (Incorporated 23 May 1861)There were a number of Co-operative Cotton companies established around the county, particularly in the early 1860s, and most had little success. Langton believed that this mill had no connection with the retail society. However the fact that 3788 shares in th’ Co-op Factory were sold in 1862 is a strong indicator in the support for the ideals of Co-operation in the town which then had a population of 15,000. Perhaps local working people were still caught up in the idealism of co-operation as it was referred to as the “factory in a garden”, a somewhat different picture to most Victorian mills! Although the mill had a longer life, the co-operative business had ended by about 1880.
There is much scope for expanding this sketch of early co-operation in Chorley, particularly using local newspaper reports such as the one from the Chorley Standard referred to above and there is documentation on the Chorley Co-operative Cotton and Weaving Co. Ltd in the National Archives (BT31/559/2282).

John Harrison
24 November 2009