But within a couple of years, it had all turned to ashes. By 1834, societies were collapsing everywhere, and it appears there were two main reasons.

Firstly, those early co-operators were largely ignorant of the rules of business, and were too ready, it seems, to extend credit to members who, themselves, were more interested in the benefits to be derived from co-op shopping than in the co-operative ideal itself.

Secondly, the movement suffered from the fall-out following the collapse of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, of which Owen himself was a sponsor, and which counted many co-operators among its members.

The union planned to use strikes as a weapon to bring down capitalism and replace it with a Co-operative Commonwealth, but succeeded only in bringing itself down through internal dissension. As we have said, militancy was never a co-operative trademark, and the idea of overthrowing the state by flexing industrial muscle must have jarred in the minds of many.

For the next decade, the co-operative candle burned low, kept alight largely by Owenite groups in Northern towns who met socially to discuss their ideas.

It was one such group in Rochdale who finally took the plunge back into the retail business when, in 1844, they formed the Society of Equitable Pioneers and opened their first, simple warehouse-cum-shop on the ground floor of No 31, Toad Lane, four days before Christmas. The floors above were occupied by a Sunday school and a chapel.

They used half the capital they had raised from their members in fitting out the shop with shelving and scales, and the rest went on provisions to sell - flour, oatmeal, sugar, butter and candles. These were bought at wholesale rates and sold at retail prices, but with one key difference:

Because there were just 28 founding members, they needed to expand their numbers rapidly to survive, and to do this, they decided to return part of their profits to customer-members in the form of dividends. It was not a new idea, but this time it appeared to catch the imagination of local people.

Initially, progress was steady rather than spectacular. The original membership had grown to 74 a year later and 80 the year after that. By 1848, the number had risen to 140, but the turning point came when Rochdale Savings Bank collapsed in 1849, taking with it the life-savings of many workers.

Supported by other manufacturers as trustees, Rochdale millowner George Howarth had run the bank to encourage workers in thrift and good housekeeping. But he turned out to be an embezzler who used the money to bail out his ailing business.

The trustees wriggled out of their moral responsibilities and paid only partial compensation. By doing so, they convinced many workers that their salvation lay in their own hands. They felt their money needed to be under their own control,

ROBERT OWEN ... philanthropic industrialist who envisaged a world of co-operation
rather than in the hands of middle-class businessmen whom they could no longer trust, and by the end of the year Rochdale Co-op membership had soared to nearly 400.

And if the bank's collapse provided a sound financial reason for the switch to co-operation, the demise of Chartism provided a moral incentive.

Chartism had been the big white hope of Northern workers, but following the failure of the Plug-Plot strike of 1842 this movement was now imploding, and workers had to divert their reforming energies elsewhere.

Now, co-operation spread like wildfire. By 1850, more than 40 societies were sending delegates to a conference in Bury, and later in that decade the Pioneers began to experiment in the wholesale business, manufacturing goods to sell in their own shops and to other retail societies.

Reading rooms, libraries and adult education facilities flourished alongside the retail business and by the turn of the century, co-operation was a way of life for hundreds and thousands of British workers.

Co-operation, however, is a notion that contains its own self-destruct mechanism. Its aim is to use the power of unity and self-help to advance the working man, but once that advancement reaches a certain point, the need for co-operation diminishes.

Co-op societies flourished until well into the 20th century and they still exist in Britain today. But in the main, they are now just another form of retail outlet, and the new-world vision of men like Robert Owen and William King is largely forgotten.