Rochdale Pioneers Museum occupies the building at 31 Toad Lane where, in 1844, 28 working class people came together to establish the first successful consumer co-operative. Drawing on the ideas and ideals of Robert Owen, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society sought to create a fairer way of living, working, and providing for the community in a period of significant deprivation. Today, the Museum is a place of pilgrimage for many national and international cooperators, as well as for school children, casual visitors, and social historians.
The building housing the Museum today was originally an 18th century warehouse, the ground floor of which was first rented by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. The group, approximately half of whom were weavers, were responding in part to the impacts of mechanisation on their livelihoods, leaving many in poverty or close to it. Pooling their resources over a number of months, Rochdale’s Equitable Pioneers opened their store on 21 December 1844, selling a simple selection of basic goods, including butter, sugar, flour, and candles. The intention was to make good quality provisions affordable, and honestly measured, soon expanding their offering to include tea and tobacco. After a year of operation, 74 households were members of the store.
The Rochdale Pioneers formulated a set of principles which inspired many other co-operatives, and remain central to the global movement today. Given their focus on inclusivity, democracy, fairness, and the increase of knowledge, the guiding values are closely aligned to those of humanism. These central principles were:
From 1849, the original store expanded, renting the entirety of the Toad Lane building. The group developed a library, meeting room, and boot and shoe department, providing opportunities for self-education and development. Individual co-operatives were formed around the country, sometimes merging to form larger bodies with more comprehensive stock to offer their members. By 1900, there were well over a thousand co-operatives in the UK. One of the biggest federations was the Co-operative Wholesale Society, formed in 1863, and known today as the Co-operative Group.
The Rochdale Pioneers continued to operate from Toad Lane until 1867, when they moved to purpose built premises. The Rochdale Pioneers Museum was opened in 1931, and today features a re-creation of the original shop, an exhibition on the history of the co-operative movement, and a learning space. The Museum is part of the Co-operative Heritage Trust, along with the National Co-operative Archive, which holds a wealth of material on individual co-operative trusts, the wider co-operative movement, and notable co-operators (including Robert Owen and George Jacob Holyoake).