Wednesday, 13 February 2008

The Anniversary Tea Party

In 1844 a grocery shop opened for the first time in Toad Lane, Rochdale. It was very small and sparsely fitted out, but over a short period of time transformed from humble beginnings to the Co-op movement. With a tiny capital, twenty-eight impoverished workmen founded the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. From bitter experience the Pioneers realised the shop traders, who were mostly the factory owners, forced a trade of inferior goods sold at inflated prices.

The selling of adulterated food was common – sand was mixed with sugar, chalk with flour, plaster of Paris added to bread and perishables passed off as edible. The shop’s first stock order consisted of; “ Butter 1 quarter 22lbs; Sugar 2 quarters; Flour 3 sacks; Oatmeal 1 sack and 2 dozen Candles.” Most of it was sold on the first night. By 1850 the Rochdale store had increased its members to 600 and by 1859 the number of members had risen to 2,703. By now the majority of ruthless shopkeepers were clearly threatened and handbills were distributed with the words “Will the shopkeepers still go on aiding the men who are fostering the system which is destined at no distant period to snatch their daily bread from their very jaws?”

As the store prospered the directors decided to celebrate with an Anniversary Tea Party. The men paid £4 for a ticket and the women £3 a ticket. So committed to the cause of improving the quality of life for its members and community, the Pioneers focused on issues beyond business - education being top of their agenda. In 1845 the directors decided “the members who did not attend the annual tea party be fined or charged the amount”.

Lisa Penny muses over these historical facts through a montage of retro adverts and found moving images, and by placing the sampled track of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’, playfully suggests the lyrics resonate with the spirit and great struggle of the Rochdale Pioneers.

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