Tucked away on a side street in a small town you will find the Rochdale Pioneers Museum. With just three members of staff and a limited budget it is a modest institution but big things have happened here. When 28 men got together on a cold night in 1844, they had the idea of fighting the injustices that they saw around them. They wanted to offer honest food at honest prices to improve the lot of those people who were suffering at the hands of the hungry forties. Each put in a pound of their own money until they had twenty eight; enough to start a business. These men made up the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society and their shop is credited as being the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement.
When I began my work placement I knew very little about this. I knew about the shops but then that was co-operative with a big ‘C’ and I wasn’t sure what the difference was. If I’m honest the things that I had heard about Rochdale had not been good and most people that I spoke to about the museum, even people from Manchester, did not know that it existed. And yet people in Japan knew it was there. People from Spain, Thailand and Denmark came to visit in big groups. There is a district in Sao Paolo, Brazil named after Rochdale. There is a Rue de Rochdale in the French town of Tourcoing and a Parco Rochdale in the north of Italy. People come from all over the world to see the shop and to walk around the museum which tells the co-operative story.
Not only is the RPM a museum in the more traditional sense but it is also a pilgrimage site. The building itself almost functions as an original artefact. Although the rest of the museum is set out as a modern museum with a permanent gallery, a temporary exhibition space and learning loft, the original co-operative shop is recreated as it would have been on 21 December 1844. The first items that the Pioneers sold are set out on a checkout made of barrels and planks of wood. They sold butter, sugar, flour and oatmeal and artificial versions of these foodstuffs are laid out for visitors to see. They can get their photo taken and stand in the place where it all began.