For nearly 170 years Rochdale has been routinely recognised as the birthplace of the co-operative movement. For the Lancashire town this has meant tourist cash and other spin offs.Yet now there is evidence that the history books have got it wrong. Two researchers, John McFadzean and John Smith, have found that the co-operative idea was in fact born in Fenwick, Ayrshire, Scotland in 1761, thus predating Rochdale's pioneers by some 83 years.
McFadzean and Smith have found that on March 14, 1761 some fifteen self employed weavers met in a barely furnished cottage in secret. They agreed to be "honest and faithful to one another", to maintain "good and sufficient work" and to "exact neither higher nor lower prices than are accustomed." They agreed also to buy and share both their materials and their looms (Cannell 2007).Later, in 1769, the weavers branched out into food and "victuals" by first buying a sack of oatmeal wholesale to sell in small quantities at cut price. The savings were duly divided out amongst themselves. This, McFadzean and Smith claim, was the prototype for the Co-operative dividend or "divi."
The Fenwick Weavers Society -as the new organisation was known- also lent money to needy members and their families. According to records, now kept in the National Library of Scotland, short term loans of 10 to 12 shillings were on offer to members at a flat rate charge of 5%. The Society was therefore a very early example of what we would now call a credit union.McFadzean and Smith note that these "innovations spawned other initiatives." In 1808 a subscription library was established. A body was also set up to offer help to those seeking to emigrate to the New World. And there were even regular "Fenwick Parliaments" held by the village water pump where residents gathered in the open to discuss local issues.
From these humble beginnings in Fenwick the co-operative movement began to spread to places like Glasgow and Greenock. Co-operative principles were not, it has to be said, particularly popular with the ruling class. The idea of workers taking their future into their own hands, becoming more organised and becoming self sufficient was a real anathema to the rich and powerful. As for the Fenwick Weavers Society, it existed until 1873. It folded then partly because emigration had slashed the local population. But Fenwick had shown the way for co-operators far and wide.