where it all began

A brief history lesson

Co-operation between people goes way back to early humanity. However, the industrial revolution is generally considered the era that heralded in the modern form of co-operatives that we know today.

Mike Brown Profile

The global history of co-operatives

The industrial era

The first recorded purchasing co-operative with surviving records, called the Penny Capitalists, was established in 1769. The Penny Capitalists were a group of weavers in Fenwick, Scotland, who came together to purchase weaving supplies.

In the 1830s Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, mayor of the small German town of Flammersfeld, recognised that farmers’ financial needs were not being met by the larger, urban financial institutions of that time. He devised a system in which farmers’ savings were collected together which provided a sound financial basis for credit, establishing the first co-operative bank.

At the time, this was a new approach to banking, combining idealistic principles within a business framework.

The original co-op principles

The Rochdale Pioneers’ First Law

Meanwhile during the 1840s, a group of people in Rochdale (near Manchester) were establishing a business that traded in basic commodities including flour, sugar and milk. The purpose was to ensure fairness in trading of quality goods.

From the development of the Rochdale business, came a set of business principles that were adopted and extended into various forms of business.

Today in Toad Lane, Rochdale, the Rochdale Pioneers Memorial Museum is open to the public. It celebrates the establishment of the co-operative trading business in the very building used by the famous Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society when it commenced business on 21 December 1844 with 28 members and £28 in capital. By 1860, the society had 3,450 members and capital of £152,000.

Rochdale may not have been the first such co-operative but from its decisions, methods and practices, what are now known as the Rochdale Principles evolved to provide the pattern for consumer co-operatives.

Back at home

Co-operatives in New Zealand

To the best of our knowledge, Nelson Building Society was the first co-operative (and building society) established in New Zealand in 1864.

Established in 1869 in Southland, SBS Bank is believed to be the first building society in the world to have achieved bank registration while retaining its mutual structure.

New Zealand’s first recorded producer co-operative was formed in 1871. While attempts to set up consumer co-operatives have been recorded as early as the 1840s, the earliest record of a producer co-operative in New Zealand reports the formation of the Otago Cooperative Cheese Co. at John Mathieson’s Springfield farm on the Otago Peninsula, near Dunedin, on 22 August 1871.

This pioneering co-operative is now part of Fonterra.

According to the Historic Places Trust, this was most likely the first co-operative dairy factory in the southern hemisphere, preceded only by those in Norway and Switzerland.

By 1900, there were 111 co-operatives operating within the New Zealand dairy industry and 152 investor-owned companies.

Nowadays, there is over 330 co-operatives, mutuals, societies and credit unions in New Zealand, ranging across almost every sector. Learn more about them in the 2021 Co-operative Economy Report here.

Two people at laptop
Two people at laptop
Two people at laptop
Two people at laptop
Two people at laptop

The global picture

An international co-op timeline


First co-operative congress held in Manchester, England


Equitable pioneers of Rochdale Society established first co-operative principles


Establishment of Reiffesen (co-operative banks in Europe)


International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) is founded


ICA revises co-operative principles. They do this again in 1966 to ensure they remain relevant


Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Co-operatives founded


ICA revises co-operative principles to current edition


United Nations celebrates the year of the co-operatives


ICA signs an partnership agreement with the European Commission on International Co-operative Development


ICA begins consultation on a revision of the co-operative principles