Rochdale, England, is an industrious, hardscrabble town about 40 miles northwest of Liverpool, nestled in the moors and hill country of the South Pennines. It’s a nondescript sort of place, known for its mills and factories and for the quiet web of residential neighborhoods that ties the region together. It’s also known for something else: the birthplace of the modern cooperative movement—a member-owned, radically egalitarian economic model that boasts nearly 800 million members around the world.
At the height of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, a spirited group of working-class weavers and artisans formed the first successful consumer cooperative in Rochdale in 1844. This was a time when a pound of tea cost a day’s wage, and wealthy merchants would mix flour with ground bone and tea with ground iron, selling it to the poor.
Operating on the democratic principle of “one member, one vote,” the 28 members of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society organized to control the cost and purity of their food. The Pioneers opened their first store at 31 Toad Lane in Rochdale on December 21, 1844.