150 years together: Here’s the story of Co-operatives UK

A look back over the history of the organisation at the start of its landmark year

As it enters its 150th year, Co-operatives UK is planning a series of events to celebrate co-operation and thank its members for one and a half centuries of support.

The UK’s apex body, which has over 800 members across the UK, grew from the resurgence in co-operation following the successes of the Rochdale Pioneers and the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) in the mid-19th century. But this success also brought anxiety for the movement’s leaders as they began to fear that, in the face of their commercial success, co-op societies might forget their values and principles. 

The first national Co-operative Congress, held in 1869 saw the establishment of the Co-operative Union (initially known as the Co-operative Central Board) in 1970, as a national organisation to hold the movement together and emphasise the role co-ops could play in wider society. Its purpose was described “propagandist and defensive action” and it listed the objectives of establishing and organising co-operative societies and provided advice and instruction on the co-operative principles.

The 1880s saw a split in the worker and consumer sectors of the UK movement (prompted by the CWS’s rejection of the idea of profit-sharing with its employees), and for a long time focused on the consumer movement. The worker co-op movement was represented from the early 1960s by the Society for the Democratic Integration of Industry (Demintry), which began with five employee-owned businesses as members, before being transformed into the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) in 1971. ICOM merged with the Co-operative Union in 2001 to form Co-operatives UK. 

Ed Mayo, secretary general, is the ninth head of the organisation. “This year is a double celebration,” he says, “as it is also 175 years since the Rochdale Pioneers founded their co-operative store that is widely recognised as the model for the modern day co-operative movement that spread around the world.”

To mark this historic milestone, a free Festival-of -Cooperation will be held in Rochdale outside the town hall in June.

“During our 150th anniversary year, we’re shaking up the format of Co-op Congress, which has traditionally been held on this weekend in June. We’re looking forward to going back to our roots in Rochdale to showcase all that’s great about today’s co-op movement, and inspire the next generation,” says Mr Mayo.”

Sponsored by The Co-op and Power to Change, the festival will celebrate Rochdale as the home of co-operation, sharing the remarkable story of its working class co-operative founders and challenging public perceptions of co-ops. It will feature interactive demonstrations and activities showcasing a diverse range of co-ops, free family activities, heritage actors, public debates on today’s big issues, live music and entertainment, and much more.

The weekend will also see the launch of a new pilot ‘Co-op Champions’ programme, which has the ambitious aim of training 100 grassroots ambassadors in one day, giving them the skills, knowledge and confidence to spread the word about co-ops in their own communities and networks.

The tenth annual Co-op of the Year Awards will take place the evening before the festival, while the celebration of all things co-operative will continue with the annual awareness raising campaign, Co-op Fortnight (22 June – 5 July), which this year is calling for people to #JoinACoop (see p10).

But before all of this, celebrations will kick off at the Co-operative Retail Conference (28 Feb-1 March) where founding member co-ops will be presented with an illustrated print celebrating 150 years together, everyone will receive a commemorative pin badge, ‘Spirit of Co-operation’ gin miniature, and a slice of birthday cake featuring the 150th anniversary branding.

“It’s a perfect opportunity at the start of the year to thank the retail co-ops who together founded the co-operative union which later became Co-operatives UK, all those years ago and who’ve worked with us to champion co-ops for an amazing 150 years,” added Mr Mayo.

(This is drawn by Co-operatives UK, with many thanks, from work by the Co-operative Heritage Trust.)

Co–operatives UK: A potted history

1869—

The first modern Co-operative Congress is held in London, with 63 delegates – and messages of support from Florence Nightingale and prominent co-operative activist George Holyoake. A proposal is approved to form a Co-operative Central Board. 

1870

The Co-operative Central Board is formed as a national organisation to emphasise the important role that co-operatives play in society. It soon changes its name to the Co-operative Union.

1884

To formalise its advice and instruction activities, the Co-operative Union forms the Co-operative Union Education Committee.

1903

The letters of Robert Owen – a founder of the co-op movement – are deposited with the Co-operative Union by George Holyoake. This marks the beginning of a co-operative archive.

1911

Holyoake House in Hanover Street, Manchester, is opened as the headquarters for the Co-operative Union. A plaque is placed outside the building dedicating it to the memory of George Holyoake, who died in 1906. 

1940

A WWII Christmas blitz on Manchester destroys the training centre on the top floor of Holyoake House.

1971

The Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) is founded as a national umbrella and lobbying organisation for worker co-operatives.

2001

ICOM merges with the Co-operative Union to form Co-operatives UK.

2013

At its world conference in Cape Town, the ICA launches the Global Co-op Marque – an international co-op logo designed by London graphic design co-operative Calverts. The marque is incorporated into Co-operatives UK’s logo in 2015.

2017

A National Co-operative Development Strategy (‘Do it ourselves’), led by Co-operatives UK, is launched after two years of consultation with the movement.

2018

UnFound, the world’s first business accelerator programme for platform co-ops, is launched by Co-operatives UK and Stir to Action. 

2020

Co-operatives UK celebrates its 150th anniversary, the ICA celebrates its 125th year and it’s also 175 years since the Rochdale Pioneers opened their first shop.

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