Small museums #13: Rochdale Pioneers Museum

Claire Bend
Photo of the co-op tea sign on the building

We visit the birthplace of the co-operative movement, where the Rochdale Pioneers came up with a new and groundbreaking way of trading.

In Rochdale stands a piece of Greater Manchester’s radical past. You’ll find it just behind the Shopping Centre, near to the back of B&M Bargains. It’s a modest, red-bricked building, with the world’s first all-in-one lamppost-postbox just outside. This, then, is the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, home to the modern co-operative movement. Born from a crisis of low wages and high food prices, the philosophy with which the Rochdale Pioneers first set up shop in 1844 has now spread to around 1.4 million co-operative societies around the world.

Number 31 Toad Lane opened as a museum in 1931, and now hosts exhibitions and events. There’s a large mural advertising “co-op tea” painted on the on the exterior, and a lovely traditional frontage. Stepping into the first room, which would have been where the original shop stood, I get that lovely feeling of being in touch with history.

The Rochdale Pioneers philosophy has now spread to around 1.4 million co-operative societies worldwide

This despite the fact that there’s not a lot in there. Our eyes are drawn towards the model of a massive slab of butter, and in the corner above a wicker basket I see my favorite combination of words: “Try on our Victorian costumes”. We get a brilliant and very enthusiastic introduction to co-operative values from one of the staff, who explains that there would have been very little in the way of produce; when the shop first opened, it sold only essentials like flour, sugar and oatmeal. It looks like they had enough butter though.

Through into the next room there’s quite a bit of reading to do, but I can see why – there’s a lot of story to tell, from organized labour through to women’s rights, local manufacturing to global development. There’s more here to think about than there is to see. Of the objects that are on display, however, the Defiant radio has one of the best stories. During the 1930s radio manufacturers had a pricing cartel and objected to the dividend that co-op customers received, viewing it as an underhanded discount. They eventually refused supply. So the co-operative decided to manufacture their own radios, and gave them that wonderful name – Defiant.

The assistant tells me that there are far more memorabilia and artefacts than there is room to display them, which means exhibitions change all the time. Today the theme is “Tour de France”, creating the opportunity to wheel out some of their old trade delivery bikes, along with some amusing vintage bike adverts and catalogues.

The top floor looks like a classroom, and I briefly wonder if we’re supposed to be in this bit. There’s a big screen at one end and after a poke around we find some buttons that you can press to watch some old films, which turn out to be brilliant. I recommend Men of Rochdale, a 1944 dramatisation featuring some very creative attempts at the local accent.

There’s also a computer that will give you access some of the collections from the National Co-operative Archive. There are some fantastic photographs of old shop window displays and vintage food packaging, all tied in with social history. You can apparently visit the archive itself, by appointment; it’s on Hanover Street in Manchester.

The Rochdale Pioneer’s simple idea, formed 170 years ago this December, had such global impact and infiltrated so many aspects of society that you won’t fail to find a topic here of interest, whether it be workers rights, feminism, fair trade or just reminiscing about the old co-operative “divy” (a small amount that was put back into your account from each purchase). I must have walked past the statue of Robert Owen, one of the original Pioneers, on Manchester’s Corporation Street a thousand times. Next time, I might just stop and give him a nod.

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