Frederick Douglass and Co-ops

When Douglass Came to Rochdale, England, a Slave and Left a Free Man

by David J Thompson

Frederick Douglass drew himself up to his height of just over 6 feet, looked out over the packed audience of over 1,000—mostly millworkers—and vociferously and eloquently described his life as a slave in the United States of America. It was October 10th, 1846, and Douglass had just been warmly introduced by John Bright, a British Member of Parliament. Even at a young age, Bright had already emerged as one of the most powerful speakers in Britain against slavery. There was a sold-out house in the Public Room on Baillie Street in Rochdale, Lancashire, England.

Douglass used his time to educate the engaged Rochdale audience about his life as a slave and slavery itself in the United States. Douglass spoke at the Public Hall in Rochdale in 1846, five times between October 10 and 14, and twice more on November 10 and 11. On October 12, Douglass returned to Manchester to speak to 4,000 people at the Free Trade Hall, and then returned to Rochdale.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was 28 years old and had just published his first book: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Because the book was an instant best seller in the U.S., and because the press identified the public places where Douglass spoke, Douglass was at grave risk of immediate arrest. Douglass had fled to Britain because his American owner, Thomas Auld, had announced that he intended to capture Douglass and return him to forced slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, the leading American Abolitionist, had accompanied Douglass to Rochdale, and also spoke at each of the October meetings.

Surely among the audience at the Public Hall in Rochdale that night, and during the other speeches that Douglass gave that week in Rochdale, were some of the founders of the first modern co-op. The tiny store opened by the Rochdale Pioneers at 31 Toad Lane was about a three-minute walk away from the Public Room on Baillie Street. All of the original 28 members of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society were heavily engaged in the social and political change of that era.

Every Sunday, many of Rochdale’s co-op founders and members attended the non-conformist churches, such as Methodist, Unitarian, and Baptist chapels. Here, they would have heard sermons on the evils of slavery. These local activists had started the co-op in 1844 to change their daily circumstances. Every day at work in the mills or walking on its streets, the Rochdale Pioneers were recruiting other millworkers to join their co-op.

John Bright was an early supporter of the ‘self-help’ philosophy of the Rochdale Pioneers and occasionally spoke in Parliament about the accomplishments of his local co-op. Bright supported changes in the law that gave cooperatives greater financial power. Additionally, Bright spoke highly of the co-ops’ ability to be democratic while running a business. Bright noted in his 1854 diary that he was to visit the co-op to check on its progress. Bright used the example of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society to sway other members of parliament in favor of extending the vote to working men.

John Bright
John Bright

Bright’s’ brother, Jacob Bright, was also a strong supporter of cooperatives. In the 1850s he was appointed as an arbitrator of the Co-operative Manufacturing Society and the cooperatively run Corn Mill. Subsequently, Jacob Bright became the first elected Mayor of Rochdale.

During his almost three-year stay in Britain (1845-1847), Douglass gave roughly 300 public speeches in many different towns and cities in Britain. Many of his speaking engagements and stays were hosted by a strong network of Quakers, John Bright being one of them. Bright had arranged for Douglass to speak in Rochdale on seven different occasions in 1846 alone. Douglass was also a regular guest at One Ash, the Rochdale home of John Bright and his family. In The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, page 235, Douglass writes about his first visit to England (1845-1847), “I was, besides, a welcome guest at the home of Mr. Bright in Rochdale and treated as a friend and brother among his brothers and sisters.”

Beginning in August of 1846, Ellen Richardson, a Newcastle Quaker, engaged in raising funds from her circle of Quakers to buy Frederick Douglass out of slavery. As a result of Douglass’ stay with John Bright in Rochdale, Bright immediately contributed one-third of the money needed to purchase Douglass from his American slaveholder.

In October of 1846, Douglass arrived in Rochdale a fugitive slave. With Bright’s contribution, however, Douglass left Rochdale about to become a free man.

Ellen Richardson

Ellen Richardson wrote that with the gift of Bright, they were certainly going to be able to pay the price for Douglass’s freedom from slavery.

By December 1846, Bright and the other Quakers learned that the sale was almost complete. Towards the middle of December, Frederick Douglass learned by steamship mail that as of December 12, 1846, he was no longer legally a slave in the USA, and his papers had been confirmed. On December 22nd, 1846, Douglass wrote a reply to a letter written on December 12th by Henry C Wright. Wright was a fellow abolitionist who occasionally spoke on the same platform as Douglass. Douglass was cautious about being allied with him, as Wright was a fiery speaker with more radical views than Douglass. Wright had written to Douglass severely critiquing him for allowing people to buy his freedom. From the content of each of the letters, it is evident that both Wright and Douglass know that Douglass is being freed. At the time, Douglass was staying twelve miles away from Rochdale at 22 St Ann’s Square, Manchester.

Frederick Douglass remarked on March 30, 1847, at a farewell banquet at the London Tavern in London:

I do not go back to America to sit still, remain quiet, and enjoy ease and comfort. . . I glory in the conflict, that I may hereafter exult in the victory. I know that victory is certain. I go, turning my back upon the ease, comfort, and respectability which I might maintain even here. . . Still, I will go back, for the sake of my brethren. I go to suffer with them; to toil with them; to endure insult with them; to undergo outrage with them; to lift up my voice in their behalf; to speak and write in their vindication; and struggle in their ranks for the emancipation which shall yet be achieved.

In his conclusion, Douglass states, “I came here a slave, but I go back free.”

On April 2, 1847, Douglass stayed with John Bright in Rochdale – the day before he sailed from Liverpool back to America for the first time in his life as a free man.

Thus the linking of Frederick Douglass, John Bright, Rochdale, and the first modern co-op began in 1846. The link between cooperatives and the campaigns against slavery, and for civil rights continues strongly to this very day and for eons to come.

This linkage can be divided into two different eras:

1. Anti-Slavery and Co-ops

Frederick Douglass’ sojourn in Britain in 1845-1847, occurred during the same years that consumer and worker cooperatives were being born all over Britain. The Chartist movement might have been stalled by Parliament, but the struggle for local democratic change carried on in the form of cooperatives. Many of the British Chartist leaders who welcomed Douglass to speak were also engaged in building different types of cooperatives. Due to their strong interest in building democratically owned local institutions, many cooperatives emerged in the same towns where Douglass spoke.

Not only did Douglass speak in Rochdale, the English cradle of the cooperative movement, but Douglass had also spoken earlier in Fenwick, on April 6, 1846. Fenwick is the Scottish birthplace of the Fenwick Weavers (1761-1839), an early model of cooperatives. It was an era of societal change which sought democracy and abhorred slavery of any kind. The audiences that came to hear Douglass wanted to build the same slavery-free world that Douglass spoke of. The fledgling cooperative movement was an ardent activist in the British fight against slavery everywhere. In the West Indies, the last bastion of British Slavery did not end until 1838.

While in Britain, Douglass was introduced to other efforts to obtain democratic rights. The British Chartist leader, the Irish born Feargus O’Connor, led the actions to create cooperative land societies. Members would buy shares in a land cooperative that would use the combined funds to buy land and then by lottery allocate parcels of the land to the members. The intent was to create a parcel of land of the value that would give the member the right to vote. Thousands of democratic activists bought shares in these Chartist Cooperative Land Companies and a number of the Rochdale Pioneers were among them.

Since Douglass spoke, on occasion, on the same platform as O’Connor during his stay in Britain, Douglass learned of the Chartists’ property path to democracy. Douglass also often spoke on the same platform as Herrington, and these Chartists later played a role in evangelizing about working people needing to start cooperatives. There is a possibility that Douglass may have visited one of the Chartist colonies (Heronsgate?) to see how the parceling of property had created a number of voting free-holders.

John Bright was the first president of the similar efforts of the Rochdale Freehold Society. In 1850, the society bought 24 acres of land in Rochdale, which was then divided up into 500 pieces of land for houses that would create over time 500 new voters in the town. There is an area of Rochdale today still called Freehold, centered on Freehold Street. Extending the vote to the middle and working classes would energize new political parties that would later change the face of British politics.

During his lengthy sojourn in Britain (1845-47), while staying in London, Douglass was often the guest of John Bright and stayed at the Reform Club on Piccadilly.

There is a second possibility of Frederick Douglass and Charles Howarth, (one of the original 28 founders of the Rochdale Pioneers and its second President) being in the same room at the same time. It is documented separately that in 1847, Douglass and Howarth were each in the House of Commons in the “Strangers Gallery” (a balcony with three narrow rows of seating for guests and visitors) to hear John Bright speak on the Ten Hours Bill. What has not been possible to confirm if it was on the same date.

2. Chronology of Support for the US North in the Civil War (1861-65): The Role of Douglass, Bright, Rochdale, and Cooperatives

  • Frederick Douglass had a long and strong friendship with John Brown that began in Brown’s home in Springfield, MA, in 1847. In 1858, Brown stayed with Douglass at his home in Rochester, NY, and asked Douglass to take part in the attack at Harpers Ferry. In August of 1859, Douglass met secretly with Brown at a quarry near Chambersburg, PA, to discuss the details of the raid. At that meeting, Douglass told Brown he would not participate.
  • Douglass was giving a talk when he heard that the Harpers Ferry Raid had begun. Douglass immediately fled to England in fear of being arrested as a John Brown accomplice. Douglass arrived in Liverpool on November 24th, 1859, and spent Christmas and January with Julia Crofts and stayed in Britain until leaving from Liverpool on April 1, 1860, until he was assured that his relationship to Brown was no longer cause for arrest.
  • When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the bottom fell out of the cotton market at the Manchester Exchange. Soon hundreds of cotton manufacturers in Lancashire either closed down or substantially reduced production. Sixty percent of the mills were idle. Thousands of cotton factory workers were laid off and they and their families faced new levels of poverty and starvation.
  • During the 1860s, the Rochdale Observer newspaper actively opposed slavery. The paper printed numerous letters from Rochdale millworkers who had immigrated to the USA to escape the unemployment caused by the Civil War. Those letters urged the people of Rochdale to keep up their support by describing the slavery they had seen and learned about in the USA. The Rochdale and other British cooperators who had arrived in the USA immediately organized consumer co-ops in the mill towns of the northeast. A co-op in the town of Lawrence, MA, is a good example of the activist impact of mill worker immigrants from Rochdale. The American co-ops started by British immigrants from the mill towns of the US northeast also took strong action against slavery.
  • In 1863, to honor the efforts of those Americans who fought against slavery and supported the North against the South during the Civil War, the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) in Manchester adopted their motto as “Labor and Wait,” spelling Labor in the American style. In addition, the CWS leaders renamed their annual meeting their ‘Congress’ and the chairman of ‘Congress’ was renamed President. Over 160 years later, the annual meeting of British co-ops is still called ‘Congress’ in honor of those who fought slavery.
  • Lincoln kept a framed photo of John Bright in his office in the White House.

Abraham Lincoln

  • After Lincoln was shot, historians looked at what was in his pockets. One item Lincoln had was a clipping of John Bright urging people to vote for Lincoln.
  • In Britain, Manchester was the heart of the fight against the South and slavery and the Union and Emancipation Society was the leading voice and critical organizer of British anti-slavery opinion during the U.S. Civil War. The largest indoor-attended anti-slavery meetings in Britain were held at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Douglass had spoken eight times at the Free Trade Hall and other Manchester locations in 1846 and 1847, and once in 1860.
  • J. C. Edwards and E. O. Greening were the hard-working, unpaid ‘Honorable Secretaries’ of the Union and Emancipation Society, Britain’s most powerful organization against slavery and in favor of the North. Edwards and Greening were also both elected board members and officers of the Cooperative Wholesale Society. Thomas Bayley Potter, the Chairman of the Union and Emancipation Society, was Member of Parliament for Rochdale from 1865-1895. In 1891, his niece, Beatrice Potter, wrote The Co-operative Movement in Britain.
  • There is a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester—one of only a few in Britain. On the plinth is Lincoln’s personal letter of January 13, 1863, addressed to “The Workingmen of Manchester.”
  • The Touchstones Museum in Rochdale has the only remaining barrel of flour of those sent to Liverpool in 1863, on the SS Griswold. More than 15,000 barrels of flour were sent by sympathetic Americans to feed people in Lancashire hungry from the vast unemployment caused by the Cotton Famine.
  • During the Cotton Famine, The Rochdale co-op used its meeting and reading rooms for classes to increase the educational capacity of the members who were unemployed.
  • In late 1862, thousands of the inhabitants of Rochdale personally signed a petition asking Lincoln to free all slaves in the USA. That petition is in the collection of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Hundreds of co-op members from Rochdale signed the petition. By 1865, there were 5,326 members of the Rochdale co-op.
  • When the Rochdale Pioneers opened their new main store on September 28, 1867, they invited English-born Richard Hinton to speak at the ceremony. Hinton was an avid enemy of slavery and a close friend and associate of John Brown. Hinton had reached the rank of Colonel in command of Colored Regiments and was also Acting Inspector General of the Freedman’s Bureau during the Civil War.
  • In front of the City Hall at Manchester, facing the building, are two large statues of Abel Heywood and John Bright. They are both placed equidistant from the Albert Memorial centerpiece. Both of these reformist leaders spoke out vociferously against slavery and both of them urged working people to join cooperatives.
  • In 1863, 300 Lancashire and Yorkshire cooperatives banded together to form the North of England Co-operative Society. In 1872, that society changed its name to the Co-operative Wholesale Society and in 2001, the name was changed again to its present-day name, The Co-operative Group. No matter the name, from 1863 forward to this very day, Manchester has been the commercial and administrative center of the British Co-operative Movement.
    In short, Cooperatives have always been linked with efforts to build a better and inclusive world. The ties started in 1846 between Frederick Douglass, John Bright, Rochdale, and cooperatives paved the way for a very special road. Cooperators today continue that work in Britain, the USA, and all around the world.

What a great start we were given.

© David J Thompson 2021
Written for the National Cooperative Bank at the request of Chuck Snyder, CEO.

The following two tabs change content below.

David J. Thompson

David J. Thompson is a world-renowned cooperative author, activist, and historian. He is author of Weavers of Dreams: Founders of the Modern Cooperative Movement and co-author of Cooperation Works and A Day in the Life of Cooperative America. He has written more than 200 articles about cooperatives. He is President of the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation and a member of the Cooperative Hall of Fame.