The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, founded in 1844, was an early consumer co-operative, and one of the first to pay a patronage dividend, forming the basis for the modern co-operative movement. Although other co-operatives preceded them, the Rochdale Pioneers' co-operative became the prototype for societies in Great Britain. The Rochdale Pioneers are most famous for designing the Rochdale Principles, a set of principles of co-operation that provide the foundation for the principles on which co-ops around the world operate to this day. The model the Rochdale Pioneers used is a focus of study within co-operative economics.
The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was a group of 28 that was formed in 1844. Around half were weavers in Rochdale, Lancashire, England. As the mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution was forcing more and more skilled workers into poverty, these tradesmen decided to band together to open their own store selling food items they could not otherwise afford. With lessons from prior failed attempts at co-operation in mind, they designed the now famous Rochdale Principles, and over a period of four months they struggled to pool £1 per person for a total of 28 pounds of capital. On 21 December 1844, they opened their store with a very meagre selection of butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and a few candles. Within three months, they expanded their selection to include tea and tobacco, and they were soon known for providing high quality, unadulterated goods. Ten years later, the British co-operative movement had grown to nearly 1,000 co-operatives.
The archive for the co-operative movement in Rochdale is held by Local Studies, Rochdale Boroughwide Cultural Trust. Rochdale Pioneers traded independently until 1991, with name changes inspired by mergers with neighbouring co-operatives, as Pioneers from 1976, and Norwest Pioneers from 1982, based in Wythenshawe, Manchester by 1991. In 1991, then Norwest Co-operative Society transferred its engagements to United Co-operatives, that was run from Rochdale when it in turn transferred to the Manchester-based national hybrid society, The Co-operative Group, in 2007.
The Pioneers rented their first store at 31 Toad Lane and moved out in 1867 but the co-operative movement later purchased it, and opened it as a museum in 1931. The museum resurrected the legal name Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society in 1989, the name having been abandoned by the original co-operative in 1976 on merger with the Oldham Co-operative.
David Thompson (July–August 1994). "Cooperative Principles Then and Now". #53 (Co-operative Grocer). Article for lay audience, tracing the early history of the Rochdale Pioneers and the Rochdale Principles. Includes the objects of the society.