In essence, it's the same idea as trade unionism, communism - or the modern building society.

Co-operation was never intended to be militant. Success would come slowly but surely, its believers insisted, by force of argument rather than by force of arms. Common sense would guarantee victory over capitalism.

Credit for forming the earliest co-operative society in Britain goes to the dockers of Chatham and Woolwich, who had their own little business up and running as early as 1760, while there was a "Co-operative Supply Company" operating in Oldham in 1795.

Ironically, however, it was a capitalist who really started the ball rolling. Robert Owen was never an advocate of co-operative stores.

Instead, this textile manufacturer with a social conscience had that wider vision - a dream of "villages of co-operation" where people could live and work in a decent environment and share the profits of their labours.

These communities, he believed, would eliminate competition and capitalism, leading to a classless society. Somewhat cheekily, he expected his villages to be funded by wealthy philanthropists and, amazingly, several did agree to part-fund such schemes.

Shops, however, were at the heart of the thinking of Dr William King. This Brighton man, who founded The Co-operator newspaper in 1828, believed the only way forward was for workers to help themselves, and they could best do this by contributing small, regular sums which would be used to finance shops. These would begin by selling a basic range of goods to members, and use the profits to pay the unemployed to manufacture a wider range of articles.

Eventually, these self-help groups would open factories and buy land on which to establish the Co-operative Commonwealth. King's ultimate dream was the same as Owen's, but they differed in how to achieve it and, in the end, it was King's theory that came nearer to the eventuality.

However, there were many setbacks on the way. Between 1826 and 1835, more than 250 towns and villages launched co-

TOAD LANE in Rochdale, site of the Pioneers' first Co-op shop.
operative societies including, in 1832, Rochdale, where handloom weavers founded the Rochdale Friendly Society.

They opened the first co-op shop in Rochdale's Toad Lane in 1833, in support of striking flannel weavers who had gone into competition with their employers, selling their finished products on Rochdale market.

The store provided members with provisions and it was an early example of what were always close links between the trades union and co-operative movements.

By 1830, there were 16 societies in the Manchester area and soon attempts were made to set up full-scale co-operative communities.

The first was at lonely Chat Moss, west of Manchester, and then came another at Birkacre, near Chorley. But they came to nothing, as did a scheme by seven fustian cutters, who bought a house and land in the Manchester district of Failsworth where they planned to make themselves self-sufficient.

In May, 1831, the first Co-operative Congress was organised in Manchester by the Manchester and Salford Co-operative Council, and the future of the movement began to look rosy.