Letter: Rochdale Pioneer Day 2018 - 21 December
Date published: 23 December 2017
The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened on 21 December 1844
'Welcome to Rochdale The Birthplace of Cooperation' reads the familiar and reassuring sign welcoming weary motorists as they approach our town at the turn off from the M62.
After being away for often long periods of time in the past this local landmark and the surrounding Lancashire hills, topped in more recent years with the occasional wind turbine, has always caught my eye when passing.
The old grey cast iron railway bridge with its painted message has always been the first indication of journeys end and being home once more.
I have always loved and been fascinated by history.
Rochdale to be sure has its fair share, some good, some bad some indifferent; some swept under the carpet, some reluctantly remembered, but much which we can be immensely proud of.
It has struck me for some time now that a town seeking to reinvent itself and carve out a future in the twenty-first century should pay more than a passing glance at our industrial heritage. This is more than mere nostalgia.
The Victorian spirt of entrepreneurship, civic pride, and the nascent internationalism of 'Laissez-faire capitalism' has much to teach us in an increasingly globalised economy as we enter the third industrial revolution.
Rochdale to be sure played a pivotal role in the first industrial revolution.
I find it dispiriting in the extreme that succeeding Rochdale Councils, in a slew of civic apathy, see fit each year not to mark the fact that the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened their first shop selling flour, butter, sugar, oatmeal and some candles on 21 December 1844.
This was the foundation of the Co-op as we know it today, a £9 billion nationwide business and the world’s first (modern era) cooperative movement.
This was a truly momentous historical event with economic and social consequences that have yet to be concluded.
Christmas shoppers on Yorkshire Street may have noted how past and present collided where the traditional 'hurdy-gurdy' man complete with flat cap and clogs cheerfully singing traditional Christmas carols accompanied by an ornate mechanical wooden music box gave a flashback to the kind of Dickensian picture post card winter scene we all know and love.
Whilst only a few streets away homeless spice and heroin addicts huddled freezing in back alley doorways waiting to be fined £1,000 for the unenviable privilege of being marginalised victims of a system they are simply not personally equipped or resilient enough to cope with.
There are as some readers will know parts of 'hidden' Rochdale where the twenty-first and the nineteenth century co-exist in heartless and dangerously close proximity.
What we can only wonder would the twenty-eight founders of The Toad Lane Pioneer Shop would make of the Rochdale Foodbank, another social enterprise still having to put food in 'empty bellies' a full hundred and eighty-three years later.
Two things strike me immediately about this forgotten local anniversary. Apart from wondering along with many others where exactly the town centres Coop store fits into the Council's Riverside ambitious development plans and noting that 21 December is also the Winter Solstice with the shortest number of daylight hours of the whole year.
Firstly, would it not be appropriate for a £9 billion nationwide business to find some funding for a commemorative statue to honour the original founders of the Toad Lane Coop, after all we have the ‘Our Gracie' statue taking pride of place outside Rochdale Town Hall?
The cost of such a statue would amount to little more than 'small change' for a multi-billion-pound company.
Secondly since we mark a wide range of commemorative events, festivals, remembrances, international flag raisings and the like throughout the local calendar why is this important local historical date so forgotten, unremembered and totally ignored by Rochdale Council?
After all this is part of the cultural heritage of each and every Rochdalian.
Along with continuing to celebrate the wide range of annual events that now make up our towns rich multi-cultural tapestry the time is long overdue for us to gather, celebrate and take pride in a similar ' Rochdale Pioneer Day' marked in Rochdale on the 21 December each year.
We have a number of Cooperative Labour councillors who might like to take a proactive lead on this project, so the town centre heritage award could next year be enhanced and include an public inauguration event for Rochdale Pioneer Day 2018.
The views expressed are those of the author of the letter and not those of Rochdale Online.