The Rochdale Pioneers Museum appeared on TV screens across the country last night (Wednesday 8 January) when it featured on the popular BBC2 programme Great British Railway Journeys.
Great British Railway Journeys follows in the footsteps of the 19th century writer, traveler and guide George Bradshaw, using a series of train journeys to explore aspects of the country’s social, political, architectural, industrial and culinary heritage. Presenter Michael Portillo visited Rochdale last year to record the episode, where he met Gillian Lonergan, the Co-operative College’s Head of Heritage Resources, to discuss the nineteenth century origins of the co-operative movement and the helping hand it gave to the town’s working families. Lonergan discussed local opposition to the Corn Laws in the 1830s and 1840s, a movement in which MPs John Bright and Richard Cobden were involved, while showing Portillo the grand surroundings of Rochdale Town Hall, one of the town’s architectural legacies from the cotton trade. She then took Portillo to the Pioneers’ store at 31 Toad Lane, which now houses the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, to discuss another movement to benefit working people.
Lonergan explained that whilst Rochdale’s cotton trade generated great wealth for the town, ordinary working people were starving, and discussed the practical measures that 28 ordinary working people of the town took to solve the problem by each saving up £1 (a considerable sum at the time) to enable them to get together and open their own co-operative grocery store selling good food at fair prices. She showed Portillo examples of adulterated food, including oatmeal mixed with gravel, to demonstrate the problems working people faced accessing good, affordable food in the 1830s and 1840s, and explained that the Pioneers had their scales on open display as another common exploitative practice at the time was weighting scales to make customers think they had bought more than they had.
Portillo’s journeys around the county are inspired by a Bradshaw’s guide published in 1863, and Lonergan explained how the co-operative movement had become so successful that in 1863 a Co-operative Wholesale Society representing the North of England had been formed. She also showed Portillo the Pioneers’ first visitor book, which showed that by the 1860s the store had received visitors from all over the world.
The episode was broadcast on BBC2 at 6.30pm on Wednesday 8 January, and is available to view on iPlayer at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03pmz4f.