By wheelbarrow or water?

In marking 175 years since the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened their prototype co-operative store, in December of 2019, we asked ourselves a few things about the movement's 'origin story'.

The story of 28 working class men from industrial Rochdale who came together to establish a member consumer society is one which all modern co-operatives across the world have in common. The rules which the Pioneers established in order to make their venture successful are now the building blocks of what makes a co-operative.

They were: Open membership for anyone, no matter their gender, politics or background to join, an ability to vote equally, fixed interest on capital to re-invest, a dividend or share of the profits for members, a guarantee of pure goods, fairly measured, cash trading to prevent debt and the provision of education for members.

The original members met in the Weaver's Arms on Drake Street in August 1844 and raised the money through subscriptions and loans to rent a store front for £10 per year. During a slump in trade the town was experiencing extreme economic circumstances, with many people out of work and hungry, but there was little left over to spend on stock. On the first opening night, Saturday the 21st of December, 1844 the produce for sale consisted of:

28 lbs of butter

56lbs of sugar

A sack of oatmeal

A sack of wheat flour

The stock had originally also included candles, but as the gas company refused to supply the building, these had to be used to serve the customers on the last payday before Christmas.


The story of the Rochdale Pioneers opening night has traditionally involved a wheelbarrow; the story being that two of the members were sent to Manchester to buy stock and that they walked there and back with the goods in a wheelbarrow.

The wheelbarrow has since become a key part of the story, but how true is it likely to be?

Although the new rules would help sustain and grow the co-operative, it had to be successful on the opening night, and every penny was going to count. It would be vital to be able to buy wholesale goods cheaply enough to offer local people a real choice an an alternative to overpriced and poor quality produce. But did that mean walking to and from Manchester in the dead of winter?

In 1804, the 33 mile Rochdale canal (engineered by William Jessop) was the first of three trans-Pennine industrial waterways into Manchester to be completed, but it cost money to move goods from wharves near Tariff Street where there were numerous warehouses. In addition to raw materials like coal, other cargoes like food were important to feed the growing cities and towns in the North. 'Potato Wharf' is a popular leisure spot in the city of Manchester today.

Corn trading quadrupled in the first four years after the canal was built, but when competition from the railways threatened in the 1840's, carriers were encouraged to make use of cheap rates to haul cotton and woollen goods, but also..'flour, bran and meat between Rochdale and Manchester'. In October of 1844, as the railway between Rochdale and Manchester was being planned, the Canal Company knew that it meant larger quantities of food and cheaper prices and wrote to the Board of Trade to complain.

"Tell the water carriers that the Rochdale Canal Company are determined to have a fair share of the business and are prepared to make any sacrifice to retain it."

Cutting rates of carriage meant that boatmasters might have the upper hand and be tempted to make a deal on the side for cash with smaller traders or individuals which would not have been allowed before.

On the 12th of December, 1844, two Pioneers, John Holt and David Brooks were named 'purchasers' and were charged with buying stock for the opening night ahead. Brooks would later be replaced by Charles Howarth, but records show that during his time buying for the society, he travelled to Runcorn, Liverpool and Manchester between 1844 and 1845. All these places were more easily reached by water than by road through the canal network.

The practicalities of transporting goods back to Rochdale over the Pennine hills in the dark and on foot in December was well beyond a wheelbarrow. It was an unusually wet year, and this factor had contributed to poor harvests as well as the potato blight or 'famine' which struck Ireland particularly badly. Landing goods from a narrowboat at the Halfpenny Bridge Wharf  or at the Rochdale Terminus at Sandbrook Park would have been much easier and only involved a short walk to Toad Lane with a hand cart.

So where does the wheelbarrow come into the story? George Jacob Holyoake was the first historian of the co-operative movement, and wrote a history of the Pioneers in 1858. Although he knew the men themselves, he was writing to spread the word about the values and principles of co-operation and wanted to tell an emotive story. In chapter six of the book he describes a rival shopkeeper coming to look at the stock for the opening night and threatening to spoil the impact of the venture by buying up the whole stock himself and taking it away in a wheelbarrow.

So the wheelbarrow gradually became part of the story of the opening night, and repeated over the next 175 years. The wheelbarrow also became a symbol of the ingenuity of humble people, who came together to answer a common need and by doing so improved the lives of their communities and the future generations who would grow up with their co-operative societies.

The story of the movement is really the story of how a group of people seemingly without power, crippled by circumstances, could have much more influence and impact in positively changing their world as a collective than they ever could have had as individuals. From a handful of societies in the North West and Scotland following the Pioneers model in the 1840's, the movement spread and societies formed all over the country. They were particularly established in places with a large working class population where the need was greatest. This growth prompted the desire to federate and be able to self support through a Co-operative Wholesale Society, established by 48 societies including the Rochdale Pioneers, in Manchester to begin trading in 1864. The CWS later merged with the Scottish Wholesale Society and would eventually become known as the Co-operative Group, but was only one of many societies all over Britain which dominated the domestic market trade until the 1960's. Other organisations followed to enrich and support the co-operative movement and its members. All these organisations share the heritage we celebrate in 2019, as we remember Christmas in Rochdale in 1844.