Yesterday, I had the amazing experience of visiting Rochdale and the Rochdale Pioneer’s Museum, a location that co-operators throughout the world know of and view as a centre for the beginning of co-operation as we know it today.
Many know the story and have seen the famous photograph of thirteen of the original members, and we have seen the original shop space at 31 Toad Lane, all of which are inspiring and even more so once you see and are able to stand in the doorway of the very place where it all began but last night I heard the a less well known story, the story of the first female member of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society-Eliza Brierley. Eliza joined the co-operative just 15 months after it opened in March 1846. Her name is in the minute book along with the record of her membership payment. She paid a full 1 pound, which was rare at the time as this was a couple of weeks salary and therefore members would pay a few pence at a time until their complete membership could be paid off. There are no other records about how she continued to be involved in the co-operative or what other contributions she made to the Rochdale community. As Gillian Lonergan, head of heritage resources for the Co-operative Trust was telling me, there may have been other female members in these early days, there were certainly no restrictions against female membership within the Society, but the reality of the times, money was often controlled by the male in the household. Memberships to the Rochdale Society in these early years were most often taken by the male on behalf of the family versus each individual and therefore it is only the name of the male that is listed in the membership roster.
So last night almost exactly 168 years after the pioneers first opened their Rochdale co-operative, as we gathered for remarks everyone was handed a postcard size note with the question on it “What does Toad Lane mean to you?”. Visitors to the Museum have the opportunity to leave their thoughts on this card or on a very cool video message recorder on the second floor.
So let me share what Toad Lane means to me… Toad Lane is a place of inspiration, a place and a symbol of what people can do when they come together, and I would like to think that the motivation within the original pioneers and within Eliza Brierley continue to be relevant motivations that drive co-operators like myself and co-operators throughout the world. The formation of the Rochdale Equitable Pionner society gave voice to ordinary working individuals in Rochdale and this has grown into 1 billion people-co-operative members- around the world having a voice and a way to contribute to the betterment of their lives through social and economic participation. Toad Lane is a symbol of what can happen when dreams are translated into action.