Time and the laying down of ghostly trails

The first exploratory day at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum was held on 2nd April.

This was partially to introduce the volunteers to the project, and we took the opportunity to explore what a Ghost Lab might look like and how it can best assist in the aims of the museum. In other words, as Bernice pointed out, there were many ‘ghostly trails’ that we could follow – perhaps too many for the project. 

Why the Rochdale Pioneers Museum?

The Rochdale Pioneers Museum provides a case for the social haunting project; one that may contrast with  the more recent and, arguably, more conflictual and violent happenings in the past that reverberate thirty years after the Miners’ Strike in Barnsley. The Rochdale Pioneers Museum is a heritage site, which the Barnsley case is not. And though both cases are based on shared visions and an ethic of mutuality, the Rochdale Pioneers Museum cannot so readily be assigned to Avery Gordon’s idea of a social haunting, and thus may provide the opportunity to consider the limits to social haunting.  

Since its beginnings in 1844 on Toad Lane in Rochdale, the Co-operative Movement has spread worldwide. Although the Toad Lane site (now the Rochdale Pioneers Museum) was not the first consumer co-operative venture, it has become regarded as the starting point of the worldwide co-operative movement because of the models and rules that the Rochdale Pioneers (founders) laid down of  how to run a co-operative society.

Figure 1: The Rochdale Pioneers Museum, Toad Lane

Yet in Rochdale, the co-operative movement has largely left, leaving nonetheless tangible reminders of its legacy around the town; none more so than the first premises for the Rochdale Pioneers which is still located on Toad Lane in Rochdale Town Centre and has now been refurbished as a heritage museum under the direction of a co-operative architectural firm – Loop Systems.

Figure 2: A recreation of the original shopfront in the Rochdale Pioneers Museum



The Rochdale Pioneers story can be read here.

The Rochdale Pioneers set out a rule book in 1844  to govern their enterprise which became known as the ‘Rochdale Model of Consumer Co-operation’. This led to the framework which governs the International Co-operative Alliance. The rule book (objects) of the Rochdale Pioneers contained Law First.



Gillian and Mervyn repeatedly point out that what set the Rochdale Pioneers apart from many of their contemporaries, such as the Chartists, was in the way that they managed to move from ideals to a practical model of implementing co-operative principles, and the model resonated widely. Underpinned by the Pioneers’ confidence and determination to succeed, the impetus to not rely on Government and instead to instil self-help and responsibility, equity and solidarity are the hallmarks of the Pioneers. The question, perhaps a ghostly trail for us to follow, is whether the ‘sod waiting for government’ mentality exists now. Mervyn reminds us to follow the components and we are provided with the Pioneers’ really radical piece entitle Law First. This linked the visionary to the practical. Would it be possible to explore that piece today? Is this the starting point for understanding the main principles of co-operation and how it still remains prescient (if at all)?


Important aspects of the co-operative movement was paralleled by worker owned factories were even the women had shares which could be paid off. The Queen’s Mill in nearby Burnley is a product of that system. Gillian also notes that the minutes of the Rochdale Pioneers indicate that shares could be traded. That led us to a discussion of what is a co-operative and what is not a co-operative. Apparently it is difficult to register a co-operative because of the expense in doing so over simply listing it as a company. There are 100 co-operative schools but they are limited companies. In essence, one needs to apply the duck test: if it looks like a co-operative, acts like a co-operative, sounds like a co-operative, then it probably was a co-operative. Yet it was only in 2014 that co-operatives were, technically, legalised. Now, a co-operative can claim to be a ‘registered society under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014’. The 2014 act replaced the former Industrial & Provident Society Act.


The global spread of the co-operative movement is emphasised. In fact, Mervyn points out, many overseas will recognise the association of Rochdale with the Co-operative movement more than the people of Rochdale today: ‘although Britain did much to inspire today’s international movement, it is likely that co-operatives are better understood outside the UK than within it’.[1] This leads us to exploring these global links. Rochdale today is ethnically diverse with particularly strong representation from the Asian community, particularly in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Many of these groups come from distinct regional areas – have they come across co-operative ideals before? Bangladesh did have some small co-ops providing rural electricity whilst in Pakistan there were strong housing co-ops in the past.

We are then led to discuss how the Pioneers educated and assisted others in setting up their own co-operative groups. The records document a link to South Africa in 1863 – overseas visitors came to the Toad Lane site to learn from and speak with the Rochdale Pioneers. Another possible recreation? However we do need to be mindful of the spectre of colonialism, although it is pointed out that the Simonstown co-operative was powerfully anti-racist.

The amount of visits, Gillian notes, was a problem for the Pioneers. When George Holyoake came to write the history of the Pioneers, he found it difficult because of the terse nature of their minute taking. Yet the visitor book does give a tangible insight to the ‘pilgrimage’ (if that is the right word) that many undertook. Some German visitors came and looked and could identify the people that they were visiting and, dating to around 1860, there are descriptions of the visitors. The Pioneers had so many that they tried to define what one could expect when on a study visit. In the end, the establishment of the Co-operative Union was how they achieved this (founded in 1870 as the Co-operative Central Board). This leads us to ponder how one communicates the inquisitiveness that is the hallmark of the Pioneers.


One of the ways that we think that ghostly trails can be explored in the Rochdale case study is by accessing it through tangible remains – streets and buildings. The volunteers highlighted a number of potential strands.

1. The Pioneers in Hopwood Hall. The further education college in Rochdale, has rooms named after the Rochdale Pioneers. Does the current cohort of students feel anything about these names? Does the room naming exert a sense of co-operative framing?

2. The Co-op Blue Badge. Volunteers – particularly Bernice and Neil – have been foremost in documenting the built remains of the Co-operative movement across the wider borough, including Rochdale, Littleborough and Wardle. These have been made available as a series of leafleted walking trails – including those people who live on streets whose names are associated with the Co-operative Movement. As part of this they asked property owners who reside in former co-operative buildings to display a blue sticker to signal that they were formerly associated with the co-operative movement. It could be that these are followed up.


Figure 3: JTW Mitchell (1828 – 1895) joined the Rochdale Pioneers in 1853. He lived in a modest terraced house on John Street in Rochdale which is still there today.

3. Managing decline. It was pointed out that the remains of the Co-operative movement may be perceived as evidence of decline, and that this is the negative to explore. The group, with HQ in Manchester, may perceive its near eradication from its original source as an untimely reminder of decline and questions could be asked regarding how that decline is best managed.

4. The Graveyard Promenade. Many of the original Rochdale Pioneers are buried in the nearby cemetery. In 1912, a gentleman named Crossley surveyed the graves of the Rochdale Pioneers. Since then a walk has been created in which Museum volunteers take visitors around the graves explaining the lives of the Pioneers. It could be that this is re-created, perhaps with a theatre group. It is also noted that school-children and descendants of the pioneers often make the museum’s staff aware of their connection.

5. #Coopgraphy – there is a buildings database but not photographs. #Coopography inspired people to send pictures of their favourite Cooperative buildings and an exhibition was created to display them. The Museum still have all of the details of people who sent in buildings.

6. Exploring local identity. Something we don’t know but seems still to exert an influence is the strong local identity around the various townships in the Rochdale Borough. Were members of the co-ops responsible for the identity which is still, pervasively, valued today? Did Heywood start a co-op in spite of Rochdale? In which case, when and how was this identity formed?

7. Scale. No one seems to have come to grips with the scale of the movement. Co-ops were always designed to be local. When mergers began to take place, there were winners and losers (See the Co-operative Wholesale Society). Since the 1960s it seems to have become too much on the economic side of keeping the co-operative movement going at the expense of the social principles (see Law First!) that underpin it all. These social principles should form the backbone but seem to be forgotten about.

8. Generational Gaps. The volunteers tell us that most of the people who remember the cooperative movement in the borough are approaching their seventies. Bernice tells us of some conversations that she had with members of the cooperative college in the 1960s who became managers. They had real pride in training as cooperative managers and spoke warmly about the syllabus. There are links to adult education to – particularly Ruskin College which enabled many returning from war to retrain. Is there a link up here between current students in further education and those people still with memories?

Above all, we have to come back to Law First and the Principles.

[1] John F. Wilson, Anthony Webster, and Rachael Vorberg-Rugh, Building Co-Operation: A Business History of The Co-Operative Group, 1863-2013 (Oxford University Press, 2013), 4.