The Night the Lights Were Lit!
by David J.Thompson
It was dark, damp and cold in the almost empty warehouse at 31 Toad Lane on December 21st in 1844. It was the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year; and it had been dark since 4 pm.
Today, the 21st of December is also St. Thomas's night, he who doubted the Lord. If the co-op had been formed 100 years earlier on December 21st in 1744, under the old Gregorian calendar it would have been Christmas Day. However, for the members of the newly formed Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, the 21st of December in 1844 would not be a day of gifts or gaiety; it would be one of consternation and caution.
On that day, a small group of the Pioneers and their families watched the candles being lit to signal the opening of the store. Lanterns were hung in each of the two windows. One of the men peered outside onto the busy cobbled street. People were hurrying home from work hoping to find warmth from the winter's chill. The appointed hour to open the store was 8 pm. One by one, James Smithies took the shutters off the windows, at first hesitatingly, but by the last, proudly. With the final shutter removed, the modern co-operative movement had begun. Rochdale, England was its birthplace.
There was no cheering at that moment, only the jeering of the "doffer boys" laughing at the idea of it all. The "doffer boys" were the mischievous factory lads of the era. The shop was by their account a silly weaver's dream. Another experiment in brotherhood bound to fail. Inside the store, a few of the members gathered to give support for the first night. They filled the rooms with hope and dared only to dream of tomorrow. The store was composed of two rooms, a front room of about 400 square feet used for retail and a back room of about 700 square feet for storage and meetings.
On the almost bare counter were arranged the co-op's first items for sale: flour, oatmeal, sugar, butter and candles. The entire inventory could have been taken home in a wheelbarrow and was purchased for the equivalent of 25 dollars in those days. The board had approved the purchase of four items for sale. However, on learning that 31 Toad Lane would be rented by a co-op, the local gas company had refused to turn on the gas. As a result, the co-op added candles to its list, buying them at wholesale to either lightup the store or sell at retail.
31 Toad Lane was only a few doors away from the location of a previous co-op located at #15 Toad Lane. A number of the Pioneers had also started that co-op (1833-35) which had failed after a few years. One of the reason for the ultimate success of the Pioneers was that its members had learned from that previous failure. The three-year lease for the warehouse at #31 was $15 per year. However, the owner, Dr. Dunlap, would not rent to the co-op. One of the Pioneers, Charles Howarth, stepped forward and personally guaranteed the lease.