Challenging times make us question aspects of the heritage we present

Our blogs are written to focus on aspects of the history of the co-operative movement and in response to recent events this one examines ways in which co-ops and co-operators have presented themselves.

Our previous guest blog, written by Historian Tony Webster mentioned the uncomfortable truth of the Co-operative Wholesale Society's owning and managing plantations in the Asian subcontinent based on subjugation, colonialism and all the negative implications of empire building as well as the positive spin placed on it by contemporaries.

One of the founding values and principles was to maintain political neutrality in the way a society was to be run so members could not be discriminated against over their politics. Members were never expected to be unpolitical themselves. Discrimination; against a person of a different political opinion, class, religion, gender and of course race, was widespread and endemic in the 19th Century and has by no means been erased from our experience in modern Britain. The opening of a co-operative in the first half of the 19th Century could itself, have been described as a political act as it gave voice and a vote to members of the community who had no such rights in the wider society. 

But what about the way these societies told their own stories? The Heritage Trust has long been aware of the apparent lack of representation of people of colour in our collections. Imagery (usually of committees and boards) show time and again, rows of smartly dressed older white men being memorialised for good deeds and good deals. The independent societies were established to make life fairer, cheaper and better for poor working class communities which did include people of colour long before migrations which followed the arrival of the Empire Windrush; but we don't often see those individuals when examining our collections. Nor do we see many women in the official portraiture or commemorative items made by regional societies to celebrate a new premises opening or a jubilee. Finding representation in any archival records and museum collections is hard because when a photograph was taken; it was usually commissioned to present a particular image and in times of extreme social and cultural prejudice, even among liberals and social reformers, representation of this kind was not prioritised.

Finding the 'real' people in a photograph or a document is always illuminating and often more interesting to our audiences than 'official' histories published. The original 28 Rochdale Pioneers were all men. They came from different backgrounds and had different circumstances, but would not have been able to achieve what they did without the support of their families and their neighbours, people who were willing to trade with them, buy from them and stand in solidarity with them in the face of adversity. Visitors often tell us that they are interested in the lives of these people, and that they cannot understand why they were not memorialised as individuals. There is one series of photographs of the Pioneers, taken in 1865, when they had achieved a following and the movement was growing but no solid forms such as statues. The building where they opened their first store was later presented as a memorial - not to the men, but to the vision of what they wanted to achieve. 

Why was this though? After all, once the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society had outgrown number 31 Toad Lane and acquired bigger premises, the shop was used by other businesses. It has been said that the 19th Century was a period of 'statuemania' and that many people and events were memorialised as part of a reaction to change and the need to re-establish a sense of national, regional, or even business identity around the achievements of significant people, often long after their deaths. This is the point at which grand town halls were built, along with costly statues to famous people, politicians, traders and merchants as well as campaigners (some of whom had beliefs we find abhorrent today). Although some individuals in the co-operative movement would be memorialised in ceramic or bronze busts in board rooms, conference halls and 'co-operative' spaces, this began to happen with the Toad Lane building as well.

Numerous items in our museum collections relate, not to the Pioneers, but to their store as a symbol of success. Commemorative items were produced with images of the building, such as plates and cups - even small models of the store itself. What is emphasised here is the humble origins of what had become a huge and dominant movement controlling up to 60% of the market share by the end of the 19th Century. This is a case of memorialising a place and not a person as a symbol of the power of collectivisation and what it meant to the identity of people living through the later 19th and early 20th century. Rochdale as the birthplace of co-operation was also deeply tied to the reach of Empire and to Slavery through the production of raw cotton feeding the dominant industry of the town. There was an ongoing relationship through trade with many countries and partly as a result of these connections and the demands of rebuilding Britain after the Second World War; 21% of the population of Rochdale Borough is now BAME and shares this heritage.

There has been a widespread public reaction to and a rethinking of some of the rationale behind memorials and statues, and controversy over who and what to memorialise. As we are increasingly forced to confront not just the inequalities in our society and the historical reasons they exist, we must also seek to understand the messaging in the history we present and do our best tell the stories which are missing openly and honestly.