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History of the Co-operative Movement

Robert Owen (1771-1858) fathered the cooperative movement. A Welshman who made his fortune in the cotton trade, Owen believed in putting his workers in a good environment with access to education for themselves and their children. These ideas were put into effect successfully in the cotton mills of New Lanark, Scotland. It was here that the first co-operative store was opened. Spurred on by the success of this, he had the idea of forming "villages of co-operation" where workers would drag themselves out of poverty by growing their own food, making their own clothes and ultimately becoming self-governing. He tried to form such communities in Orbiston in Scotland and in New Harmony, Indiana in the United States of America, but both communities failed. 

Although Owen inspired the co-operative movement, others--such as Dr. William King (1786-1865)--took his ideas and made them more workable and practical. King believed in starting small, and realized that the working classes would need to set up co-operatives for themselves, so he saw his role as one of instruction. He founded a monthly periodical called The Cooperator, the first edition of which appeared on May 1, 1828. This gave a mixture of co-operative philosophy and practical advice about running a shop using cooperative principles. King advised people not to cut themselves off from society, but rather to form a society within a society, and to start with a shop because, "We must go to a shop every day to buy food and necessaries - why then should we not go to our own shop?" He proposed sensible rules, such as having a weekly account audit, having 3 trustees, and not having meetings in pubs (to avoid the temptation of drinking profits). A few poor weavers joined together to form the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society at the end of 1843. The Rochdale Pioneers, as they became known, set out the Rochdale Principles in 1844, which form the basis of the cooperative movement today.

Co-operative communities are now widespread, with one of the largest and most successful examples being at Mondragón in the Basque country of Spain (see link below). Co-operatives were also successful in Yugoslavia under Tito where Workers Councils gained a significant role in management.

In many European countries, cooperative institutions have a predominant market share in the retail banking and insurance businesses.

In the UK, co-operatives formed the Co-operative Party in the early 20th century to represent members of co-ops in Parliament. The Co-operative Party now has a permanent electoral pact with the Labour Party, and some Labour MPs are Co-operative Party members. UK co-operatives retain a significant market share in food retail, insurance, banking, funeral services, and the travel industry in many parts of the country.

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