Dec 21, 1844: The Night the Lights Were Lit

A bit of co-op history for a winter day.

by David Thompson
President, Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation

On the 21st Day of December in 1844 the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened a small store in England with five items and little fanfare. Thus humbly began the modern cooperative movement. Let’s step back into that time to get a sense of how cooperative history was made.

In the summer of 1843, a thirty-one year old Charles Dickens journeyed to Lancashire, to see for himself how life was lived in the industrial north of England. To feed his insatiable journalistic curiosity, he visited a workhouse in Manchester to see how the poor were surviving the “hungry forties.” Dickens was taken aback by the terrible conditions he saw in the midst of the burgeoning wealth. In the bustling heartland of the Industrial Revolution he saw the two Englands of rich and poor.

The next day, speaking to an audience of well-to-do aristocrats and mill owners at Manchester’s prestigious Athenaeum Club, he urged the audience to overcome their ignorance which he said was “the most prolific parent of misery and crime.” Dickens asked them to take action with the workers to “share a mutual duty and responsibility” to society. On the train back to London, impacted greatly by the poverty and misery he had seen, he conceptualized “A Christmas Carol.” He began writing the classic Christmas story a week later and completed it in six weeks. Since the book was published on December 19, 1843, Christmas has never been the same.

On the eve of revolutions throughout Europe, Dickens counseled that hearts must hear and eyes must see for society to change. In Dickens’ mind, the Bob Cratchits and Tiny Tims of the world would have to wait for the Ebenezer Scrooges to literally go through hell before heaven could be made upon earth. Dickens later returned to the Lancashire mill towns to gather information for a later novel “Hard Times.” Dickens’ solution in much of his writing was the voluntary transformation of the rich and powerful.

However, for Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” was semi-autobiographical, reflecting his father having been in debtor’s prison and the suffering within his own family. It was also a social commentary on the tremendous conflicts transforming British society from top to bottom as a result of the Industrial Revolution. However, Scrooge’s peaceful transformation was not repeated enough by a self-interested industrial aristocracy. Five years later, revolutions occupied center stage in much of Europe.

In the summer of 1843, at the time Dickens visited Manchester, a group of Bob Cratchits and their spouses were meeting regularly just eleven miles away in the nearby town of Rochdale. One of the Pioneers, John Kershaw, recalled a key step in organizing the “co-op.” A few days before Christmas 1843, a circular was issued calling a delegates’ meeting to be held at the Weavers Arms, Cheetham Street, near Toad Lane. At that meeting, the Rochdale families decided that rather than wait for the mill owners to do something for them they just better do it for themselves. It took the determined mill workers almost two years before they had collected enough of their meager savings to open up their small co-op. Their immediate aim was to get better quality food at decent prices and give some of them jobs. Their ultimate goal was to use the co-op’s profits to create their own community where working and living conditions would be better. Amongst the “satanic mills” they would build their “New Jerusalem.”

December 21, the Winter Solstice, was the longest night of the year. Under the old Gregorian calendar, December 21 was also Christmas Day. The co-op opened almost one year to the day after the publication of “A Christmas Carol.” However, for the members of the newly formed co-op called the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, the holiday season would not be one of gifts or gaiety but of consternation and caution.

On that Saturday night at 8pm, a small group of the Rochdale Pioneers and their families huddled together in the shop to witness the store’s opening. The temperature was below freezing and made worse by the damp in the almost empty warehouse at 31 Toad Lane (T’Owd is dialect for the old Lane) in Rochdale. Outside on the busy lane they could hear the clattering of wooden clogs on the cobbled streets. The tired mill workers were hurrying home to find warmth from the winter’s chill. As the church bells across the street struck the appointed hour, the founding members heard each chime with beating hearts. Then, James Smithies went outside and bravely took the shutters off the windows. With the final shutter removed and a few candles bravely lighting the store’s bay windows the modern cooperative movement began. This little shop in Rochdale, England would be its lowly birthplace and these humble hard working families its founders.

When the co-op opened there was no ceremony or cheering to be heard, only the jeering of the “doffer boys” laughing at the silly idea of it all. The “doffer boys” were the mischievous factory lads of the era. The shop was by their account a silly dream of weavers and another idealistic experiment in brotherhood bound for bankruptcy. On the almost bare counter were proudly yet sparsely arranged the co-op’s five items for sale; six sacks of flour, one sack of oatmeal, 2 qrs*. of sugar, 1qr. 22lbs of butter and two dozen candles. The entire stock, worth £16.11 shillings 11 pence (about 25 dollars), could have been taken home in a wheelbarrow. The ground floor they rented for 10 pounds (18 dollars) per year measured 23 feet wide and 50 feet deep (a total of 1150 square feet). The shop itself was only 17 feet deep and measured 391 square feet; the remainder was used for storage and as a meeting room. Fortunately, the staunch beliefs of the Pioneers filled the store with hope. This opening day would be difficult as would the next day and the day after, but their strength was their daring to dream of tomorrow.

The day before the store opened, the Pioneers supplied the volunteer staff members with green aprons and sleeve coverings the same shade of green used by the Chartists. Many of the Rochdale Pioneers were Chartists, a people’s movement for political rights and democracy in Britain. At that time, Parliament gave voting rights only to property owners. In 1840, the census showed that Rochdale had a population of 24,423. Of that only about 1000 could vote. Two million people signed the Chartist’s petition to Parliament. After the petitions were rejected, the disappointed Rochdale Chartists turned to self-help and cooperatives. The sad ending of one democratic movement gave birth to the success of another.

On the day the co-op opened, membership in the Rochdale Pioneers numbered 28. Most of the Pioneers invested in a share of one pound each (equivalent in 1844 to two weeks wages). They had drawn up their principles and rules of operation which combined a utopian purpose and useful practicality. The need appeared so great that nothing but something powerful could change their circumstances. These weavers had dreams and what is more they were going to do something about them.

The cooperative idea soon took hold. In town after town, the Cratchits of England joined their local co-op. The Bob Cratchits of the land lent their skills, optimism and idealism to the fledgling organizations and the Bess Cratchits lent their money management, organizational capacity and determination. For the first time in their lives the women of England had a vote of their own in a co-op of their own. Life in England changed dramatically when eight million families owned their own co-op stores, factories, houses, and a co-op bank, and insurance company just as the Rochdale Pioneers had dreamed of.

Just as in 1844, people on every continent are now using their cooperatives to meet the needs for food, credit, housing, work and enterprise. Cooperatives continue to help develop people and communities, economies and democracy.

At this time of year the candles are lit for Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza and other festivals. Around the world, people in different languages and different faiths pause for a moment to give thanks for family, fellowship and a better life. However, no one speaks for all humanity better than Dickens’ Tiny Tim, “God bless us everyone!”

The Rochdale Pioneers would be proud of their legacy of economic and social justice. The candles that gave light in Rochdale that night now shine strongly all around the world. The cooperatives and credit unions serving over 800 million families worldwide are strengthening communities everywhere. And in Rochdale during the holiday season and especially on December 21, the Victorian gas lamp outside the original co-op store on Toad Lane seems to shine a little brighter. It is on this very night that the lights were lit.

  • One British qr., or quarter, represents 1/4 of British hundredweight, or 28 lbs.

David J. Thompson is author of “Weavers of Dreams: Founders of the Modern Cooperative Movement,” co-author of “Cooperation Works,” and “A Day in the Life of Cooperative America,” and has written over 200 articles about cooperatives. He is President of the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation, sponsor of the Cooperative Community Fund Program.

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