Students step into the Pioneers’ shoes
Over 300 students from Rochdale met their pioneering ancestors at Rochdale Town Hall when they travelled back to 1844 – the year the modern co-operative movement was born.
Victorian weavers and factory workers greeted students from 12 Rochdale primary schools as they arrived and the brass band from the Co-operative Academy of Manchester got the ‘Meet the Pioneers’ day, which was organised by the Co-operative College, The Co-operative Group and Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, off to a swing
Paul Flowers, Chair, Co-operative Financial Services, set the scene for students in his opening address, describing “a time that was a long, long, long time ago, but not that long ago”. He said: “Times were tough in the 1800s. A lot of children your ages were forced to work in mills.”
In 1844, 28 ordinary working men, mainly weavers working in the town’s textiles trade, got together to take a stand against the poor working conditions and unfair trading that was leaving consumers with substandard food products. These ‘Rochdale Pioneers’ set up their own co-operative grocery store in Toad Lane, Rochdale selling unadulterated food for a fair price and rewarded customers for their business with dividend.
Flowers explained why the Pioneers decided to set up a co-operative and what it meant: He said: ‘They called it a co-operative because every person who shopped there could become a member of the co-operative. They had an equal share and every member was the same. At the end of the year, the members of the co-operative had a share in the profits.”
With 2012 designated the International Year of Co-operatives, and Rochdale declared World Co-operative Capital, he reiterated the significance of the Rochdale Pioneers: “The history you have got in this town is important the whole world over. The idea that ordinary folk could take on the people who wanted to screw them into the ground, and take control of their own affairs, spread all over the country and then over the world.”
Flowers also stated the importance of co-operation today. He said: “Co-operation is very much an active thing going on today. It means not being told by lots of other people what we should buy and what we should do.”
Actors from the Shed Theatre Company and Touchstones Rochdale brought the tale of the Rochdale Pioneers to life and gave youngsters a taste of Victorian life – including the stern discipline of the nineteenth century classroom! Students found it hard to visualise how hard life would have been in the 1840s. Leah from St Patrick’s RC Primary School said: “Kids our age and younger were working – I can’t imagine it!”
Other activities included setting up a replica of the Pioneers’ Toad Lane store, taking part in a Pioneers’ treasure hunt, felt-making, banner making, co-operative drawing and visiting the site of the Pioneers’ original shop, now a museum which is reopening this summer after a major refurbishment. The story of co-operation did not stop with the Rochdale Pioneers, and students also took part in activities on Fairtrade, reflecting the co-operative movement’s ongoing support for Fairtrade and ethical trading conditions.
Students pushed a wheelbarrow around the great hall, cheered on by their classmates, in a relay covering the 12 miles between Manchester and Rochdale – the distance the Pioneers had to transport their goods by wheelbarrow from the market in Manchester to Rochdale to be sold in their Toad Lane shop.
In the grand finale to the day, the wheelbarrow finally ‘arrived at the shop’ to three cheers for the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society as students dramatised the Pioneers’ story with a performance and taught everyone the tune to a song about the Pioneers! Musician Will Mace, who worked with students throughout the day, said the co-operative movement inspired by the Pioneers had “become so much bigger than they ever anticipated”!
Students said finding out about the Rochdale Pioneers made them proud to be from Rochdale. Emma from St Patrick’s said: “I didn’t know how the co-op was actually started so it was good to learn what it was at the start. I thought it was just a shop and when I went to the Co-op I thought it was just another supermarket but now I know there’s loads to it. When I found out how brave they were it made me really proud.”
Leah from St Patrick’s added: “Knowing they did all this for fairer trade made me feel proud. I didn’t really care about the co-op before but I do now. I didn’t know why they called the shop ‘co-op’ and I thought they just made it up but now I know it was for a reason.”
Julie Thorpe, Head of School and Youth Programmes at the Co-operative College, said: “One thing I’ve learned today is all of us have got a lot to learn from those people back in 1844. We’ve got a few problems to solve still in the world and we can learn from working in co-operatives to improve our communities.”
She told students: “I hope you’ve all learned how you can make your schools more co-operative places.”
The Meet the Pioneers day was visited by the BBC Radion Manchester show Beswick at Breakfast. Listen again at www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p00rbc2b (feature appears ten minutes before the end).
Published On: May 17, 2012
Written By: Natalie