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Co-operatives and Co-operation

The co-operative movement in Wales has a long and notable history. Following in the footsteps of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, which is generally considered to be the first successful co-operative enterprise, there has been a constant co-operative presence in South Wales from the 1860s. For over a century it was deeply embedded in local culture, and was a major economic and social phenomenon.

Co-operative societies are different from other commercial enterprises in that they are owned and managed by those who use its services, and that they operate for the common benefit of those involved. The first successful co-operative society is generally thought to be the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, who established their first shop in Toad Lane, Rochdale, in 1844. The principles established by the Rochdale Pioneers formed the basis for other societies and have been developed for the modern environment by the International Co-operative Alliance. Co-operative societies were to be independent and democratically controlled locally, with voluntary membership open to all. Membership required economic participation; the dividend being the most well known aspect. The movement was also concerned with education, with publications and classes about co-operation and other topics of relevance to co-operators. Concern for the community was another aspect of co-operative societies and they often had a vibrant social and cultural life, with events and organisations, such as children’s choirs and sporting clubs. Co-operation between co-operatives was promoted, and although primarily based in consumer co-operation, many productive co-operative societies were also established.

Photograph of exterior of Co-operative Society store and staff, in the early 20th century. [SWCC/MND/137/2/41/22] 

The Archives and the South Wales Miners’ Library at Swansea University have an extensive collection of material relating to the co-operative movement. For further information about these collections please contact us at

Suggested further reading on the Co-operative Movement, and its place in Wales:

• ‘The Co-operative Movement in South Wales and its History: ‘A Task Worthy of the Most Sincere Devotion and Application’ by Alun Burge, Welsh Historical Review, vol.23, no. 4, Dec 20007, pp.59-71
• Caring and Sharing: The Centenary History of the Co-operative Women’s Guild (Manchester, 1983)
• Feminism and the Politics of Working Women: The Women’s Co-operative Guild, 1880s to the Second World War by Gillian Scott (London, 1988)
• The Woman with the Basket; the History of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, 1883-1927 by Catherine Webb (London, 1927)
• South & West Wales: Souvenir of the Co-operative Congress at Cardiff – 1935 (Manchester, 1935)
• Swansea: A souvenir of the forty-ninth Co-operative Congress, Whitsuntide, 1917 (Manchester, 1917)
• A Century of Co-operation by G. D. H. Cole (Manchester, 1944)
• British Co-operation by Arnold Bonner (Manchester, 1961; revised 1970)
• National Co-operative Archive -
• The Co-operative -
• The Rochdale Pioneers Museum -
• Co-operative College -
• Co-operative News -
• International Co-operative Alliance -
• Co-operative Financial Services -
• Coalfield Web Materials -
• Ymgrychu! / Campaign! A century of political and social campaigning in Wales -

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