A pilgrimage to Rochdale

29 Oct

Jonny Priestley, Jenny Broadbent and Gillian Lonergan of the Co-operative Heritage Trust stand outside the newly-refurbished Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum

The dictionary definition of a pilgrimage is “a journey to a sacred place or shrine”.  Ask most co-operators what that means to them, and the answer would invariably be Rochdale.  It wasn’t the home of the world’s first co-op (a weavers’ co-op in Fenwick, Scotland seems to be the top contender for that honour), but it is usually  recognized as the place where the British co-operative movement began.  Most importantly, it was the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers who drew up the Co-operative Principles upon which today’s co-op principles are based.  And as a result, this town a stone’s throw from Manchester is indeed a sacred place.

In 1844, the Rochdale Pioneers rented a warehouse at 31 Toad Lane for £10 per year. Their store, which opened for business on December 21 of that year sold four key items: butter, sugar, flour and oatmeal.  They eventually expanded their line of goods and in 1867, moved to larger quarters.  But Toad Lane has always had a special significance for British co-operators; the building was bought by the co-operative movement in 1925 and run as a museum since 1931.

In August 2010, the museum was closed for renovations, and today, more than two years later, it held its official re-opening. Now owned by the Co-operative Heritage Trust and managed by the Co-operative College,  the museum includes not only a reproduction of the original ground-floor store, but also a plethora of displays, exhibit spaces and a “learning loft” for co-op education.  The renovation was made possible by, among other donations, a £1.5 million contribution from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which uses part of the proceeds from lottery ticket sales to support heritage-related projects.

“Since the college took over, we’ve been moving from just making sure things are preserved to looking at how we move forward – how we use the collection to inspire people,” said Gillian Lonergan, head of heritage resources for the Co-operative Trust. “We don’t want people to just look at history — we want people to come here and know that it’s part of  a living, breathing, worldwide movement.”

The re-launched museum certainly accomplishes that goal.  The historical exhibits are still there, but so are panels about the co-operative movement today.  And it was clear that the dozens of co-operators from around the world who attended today’s official opening were pleased with what they saw.

To find out more about the Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum, visit their website at www.rochdalepioneersmuseum.coop.

— Donna Balkan

One Response to “A pilgrimage to Rochdale”

  1. Jim McCarthy October 30, 2012 at 12:51 am #

    For we fans who can’t be there this piece is not only a history lesson but brings a lump to the throat and a tear of joy to the eyes

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