Co-operative Century (Plymouth)

Other names

  • 100 Years of Democratic Progress: Rochdale Pioneers 1844–1944 Centenary

Pageant type

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Place: St John's Centre, Devonport (Plymouth) (Plymouth, Devon, England)

Year: 1944

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 13


3–15 July 1944, 6.30pm

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Richards, Charles G.
  • Assistant Pageant Master: Cavendish, Fred
  • Music Master: Mr David Parkes, MusBac (Oxon), FRCO, LRAM
  • Mistress of the Robes: Mrs E.M. Roberts
  • Stage Manager: Mr W.H. Mullineux
  • Orchestra leader: Mrs E. Hamilton Akaster, LRAM
  • Stage Assistant: L.T. Nicholls
  • Stage Assistant: J.S. Sampson

Names of executive committee or equivalent

General Management Committee:

  • President: W.J. Gilbert
  • General Secretary and Chief Executive Officer: H.J. Twigg
  • Accountant: J. Jacques
  • Secretary to Committee: J.W.L. Hawke
  • 15 men, 2 women = 17 total

Education Department Committee:

  • Chairman: H.A. Glover
  • Secretary: Mr C.W. Pell
  • 4 men, 4 women = 8 total

The Rochdale Centenary Celebrations Committee:

  • 9 men, 6 women = 15 total


The Rochdale Centenary Celebrations Committee was perhaps the only pageant committee proper.

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Peach, Lawrence Du Garde

Names of composers

  • Parkes, David
  • Suppé, Franz von

Numbers of performers

100 - 150

Financial information

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion

One hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Rochdale Pioneers (Co-Operative Movement).

Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: 8000

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Associated events

A thanksgiving service in commemoration of the centenary of the Co-Operative movement, held at Plymouth Methodist Central Hall, with the Bishop-designate of Liverpool (Rev. C.A. Martin) as the preacher. The Plymouth Choral Society and the Plymouth Co-Operative Junior Choir contributed, with David Parkes at the organ. Mr W.J. Gilbert (president, Plymouth Co-op society) spoke about the readjustment of social conditions that needed to take place after the Second World War. ‘Co-operation’, he said, ‘had and always would be the fundamental factor in progress, and in the rebuiliding of our national life each and everyone must take a share.’ He went on to say that true Christianity was co-operation and gave his sermon on that theme: ‘we have got to learn that our relations with our fellow-men cannot be competitive and must be co-operative’.

Pageant outline

Overture. Poet and Peasant, Suppé

Part I

Theme and Action. ‘When Wilt Thou Save the People’

Episode I. ‘It Stirs and Moves! Men Take New Heart, Look Up, and See the Dawn of a New Freedom’, c. 1775–83

A time when ideas of liberty were in the air. The American War of Independence broke out, and the voice of the people was heard. Featuring George Washington.

Episode II. Industrial Revolution, c. Mid-to-Late Eighteenth Century.

The rapid introduction of the factory system put home workers out of work and caused great hardship in the Industrial North. There were underground movements. Children were employed at an early age.

Episode III. ‘We Watch the Flame of Freedom Grow’, c. 1789 –99

The French Revolution lit the fires of liberty throughout Europe, and re-actions culminated in the Luddite and other riots. Featuring Desmoulins.

Episode IV. ‘Thirteen Pence for a Loaf of Bread’, c.1840s

The ‘Hungry Forties’ caused famine and riots resulted, the object of which was to smash weaving machinery. Robert Owen, a man far in advance of his time, stood for Democracy, Common Ownership and the proper Education of Children, but he was overcome by the power of capital. Featuring Robert Owen.

Part II

Episode V. The Birth of an Idea, c. 1838-48

These characters lived through the period of the agitation for the Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Movement for a People’s Charter. Featuring James Smithies, William Cooper, Daly Standring, Charles Howarth and John Bright.

Episode VI. The Development of an Idea, c. 1844

‘Is this the vital spark? Is here the gleam / For which, through weary centuries of time / The tired eyes of toiling millions yearned?’ Featuring Miles Ashworth.

Episode VII. The First Shop, Toad Lane, Rochdale, c. 1844

No historical fact in this episode has been altered from the truth. The original Pioneers’ shop in Toad Lane was rented from a Dr Dunlop, who was reluctant to accept the Pioneers as tenants. The opening of the shop and the opposition of the shopkeepers are on record. Featuring Dr Dunlop, Tweedale George, John Hill, Sam Ashworth.

Episode VIII. The Rochdale Pioneers

G.J. Holyoake was a writer and lecturer who spread the idea of co-operative trading. The readings are from his book and standard work, ‘The History of the Rochdale Pioneers’ (1893). Featuring G.J. Holyoake.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Washington, George (1732–1799) United States President
  • George III (1738–1820) king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and king of Hanover
  • Desmoulins, Lucie Simplice Camille Benoit (1760-1794) French journalist and politician
  • Owen, Robert (1771–1858), socialist and philanthropist
  • Smithies, James (1819–1869) co-operative movement activist
  • Cooper, William (1822–1868) promoter of the co-operative movement
  • Howarth, Charles (1814–1868) co-operative movement activist
  • Bright, John (1811–1889) politician
  • Miles Ashworth (1792–1868) Rochdale pioneer
  • Samuel Ashworth (1825–1871) Rochdale pioneer
  • Holyoake, George Jacob (1817–1906) freethinker and co-operator

Musical production

Music included:

  • The Co-Operative Choral Society (Augmented) and Orchestra. 
  • Suppé. Overture Poet and Peasant.
  • ‘Strike for Right and Freedom’, written by David Parkes.
  • ‘Shop at the Co-Op’, written by David Parkes.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Western Morning News

Book of words


Other primary published materials

  • Programme: ‘100 Years of Democratic Progress: Rochdale Pioneers 1844-1944 Centenary’, Plymouth, 1944. In 1495/16, June–August 1944. Plymouth Record Office.
  • The Plymouth Co-Operative Society, Rochdale Pioneers Centenary 1844-1944: A Souvenir of the Pageant ‘Co-Operative Centenary’. Plymouth, 1944. Copy at Plymouth City Library.

References in secondary literature

  • Mick Wallis, ‘Pageantry and the Popular Front: Ideological Production in the Thirties’, New Theatre Quarterly 10, no. 38 (1994), 132-156.
  • Burton, Alan. The British Consumer Co-Operative Movement and Film, 1890s–1960s. Manchester, 2005. At 35.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • ‘100 Years of Democratic Progress: Rochdale Pioneers 1844-1944 Centenary’. In June–August 1944. 1495/16.
  • Letter from H.J. Twigg, General Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of the Plymouth Co-Operative Society, to Lord Astor, Mayor of Plymouth (27 June 1944). In June–August 1944. 1495/16.
  • At Plymouth Record Office:

Sources used in preparation of pageant



The Co-Operative Centenary Pageant 1944, or ‘Co-Operative Century’, was created to commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of the inception of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. It was written by Lawrence du Garde Peach, a playwright and author of national repute, known especially as a pioneer of radio drama.3 He was also enthusiastic about community amateur dramatics, having started a company of thespians in Great Hucklow in 1927; he thus claimed that ‘Co-Operative Century’ was ‘a Pageant of the People, presented by the people, for the people’.4 It was performed in one hundred different places by 150 Co-Operative societies, and was thus a major element of the movement’s centenary celebrations.5 One such place in which the pageant was performed was Devonport (Plymouth), where it was seen by 8000 people during a two-week run, with the only changes from Peach’s script being a small amount of shortening and some new music.6 The Co-Operative movement was right to celebrate; by 1944 it had a membership of 9 million and, in the previous year, had traded over £319 million.7

While a minor success, the Plymouth Co-Operative Society had great difficulty in organizing the event. By this point in the fifth year of the Second World War, Plymouth, as one of the most bombed cities in the country, had lost many of its large halls and theatres. ‘Just when it appeared likely that the Pageant project would have to be abandoned’, a church being used for community social work (St John’s Centre) was offered by a sympathetic cleric, the Rev. L.A. Erett.8 More problems arose when, after beginning rehearsals in early May 1944, the Society struggled to recruit enough men; parts were thus doubled, and women introduced to a greater extent than the author, du Garde Peach, had envisaged. Even in the week prior to the pageant many believed that it should be postponed. The slow recruitment had caused rehearsals to lag; finding costumes in a period of clothing rationing had proven problematic; and bus services had been curtailed. In the end, taking part in the pageant were between 100 and 150 performers, made up of girls from local dance schools, women from guilds, and, of course, members from the actual Co-Operative Society.9 Despite problems, the pageant went ahead and succeeded in attracting a total audience that was 75% of the seating capacity.10

As the souvenir/programme stated, the pageant ‘portrayed in a most dramatic manner, the struggle of the people of a hundred years ago, the gradual emergence of a social consciousness’.11 The first half of the pageant thus took a set of seemingly disparate historical events and developments to portray the seedbed of this ‘social consciousness’: the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and the work of Welsh social reformer Robert Owen. The second part of the pageant focused more on the gradual building up of the support and ideals of the Co-operative Movement. It included: the portrayal of the repeal of the corn laws and the movement for a people’s charter; the spark of ideas of Rochdale men like Miles Ashworth; the development of these ideas in the original Rochdale Pioneers’ shop; and readings from the writings of G.J. Holyoake—writer, lecturer and historian of the co-operative movement.

The pageant, which presented a different and radical interpretation of a national past by taking working-class history as the dominant theme, shared much in common with the wartime Co-Operative films. It was, according to historian Alan Burton, ‘as if Labour was reclaiming a sense of the past in preparation for assuming control of the future’.12 As Burton and Mick Wallis have both argued, the Co-Operative movement’s pageants agitated for a Popular Front and developed support for the notion of a People’s War.13 As well as providing a basis for ideological understandings of the movement, enacted drama, like pageants, was also endorsed and promoted within the movement to serve the ‘mental and recreational needs’ of its members.14 Furthermore, and similar to the more traditional pageantry movement, such performances provided a means for a community to imagine itself.15 As the souvenir programme stated, there had been ‘the forming of a real comradeship from Producer to Doormen, which only those who co-operate can experience and understand.’16 Working class pageants were also attempts to ‘recruit’, to ‘do ideological work’, and to ‘popularize political theory’.17 As Wallis has convincingly argued, such pageants in the 1930s and 1940s were ‘curiously cross-bred between… the resolutely bourgeois civic pageants which had become popular around the turn of the century and remained so still, and… the new Soviet style of mass-declamations with agit-prop intent.’18

Unsurprisingly, due to its wartime context, a thanksgiving commemoration, given at Plymouth Methodist Central Hall during the pageant’s run, championed the necessity of the Co-operative Movement to be closely involved in post-war reconstruction. The Bishop-designate of Liverpool, Rev. C.A. Martin, said that ‘we have got to learn that our relations with our fellow-men cannot be competitive and must be co-operative’, whereas Mr W.J. Gilbert, President of the Plymouth Co-Operative Society, added that co-operation was the fundamental factor in progress and that in the upcoming national rebuilding everybody would have to take part.19 As a short poem at the end of the pageant programme also stated:

The spirit which inspired
These simple men inspires a new born hope
For the new world which, out of all the hate,
The chaos and misery of war,
Shall yet arise.
The spirit of man is free!
The East is red! The long dark night is done!
The light is coming! One great company.
We greet the dawn—the world that is to be!20

A minor success, the Co-Operative Centenary Pageant represents two important developments in this period. Firstly, how pageantry could be used to tell different sorts of histories, including those of working-class organisation, transgressing the national or civic element that was so common in the Edwardian Period. Secondly, it reveals how it was now popular to perform pageants indoors, on a much smaller scale, as a sort of play—eschewing spectacle for ideology and narrative. Finally, it demonstrates the importance that drama maintained during wartime in providing a focus for comradeship, shared loyalties, and voluntary action.

See also entry for the Sheffield Co-Operative Century Pageant and Manchester.


  1. ^ ‘Co-Operation’, Western Morning News, 3 July 1944, 2.
  2. ^ Programme: ‘100 Years of Democratic Progress: Rochdale Pioneers 1844-1944 Centenary.’ In June–August 1944. Plymouth Record Office. 1495/16.
  3. ^ E.D. Mackerness, January 2011, ‘Peach, Lawrence Du Garde (1890–1974)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), online edn., accessed 30 April 2014,
  4. ^ The Plymouth Co-Operative Society, Rochdale Pioneers Centenary 1844-1944: A Souvenir of the Pageant ‘Co-Operative Centenary’ (Plymouth, 1944), np.
  5. ^ Alan Burton, The British Consumer Co-Operative Movement and Film, 1890s-1960s (Manchester, 2005), 33.
  6. ^ W.J. Gilbert, ‘Foreword’ in the Plymouth Co-Operative Society, Rochdale Pioneers Centenary 1844-1944.
  7. ^ ‘Co-Operative Century’, Tamworth Herald, 1 July 1944, 2.
  8. ^ The Plymouth Co-Operative Society, Rochdale Pioneers Centenary 1844-1944: A Souvenir of the Pageant ‘Co-Operative Centenary’ (Plymouth, 1944), np.
  9. ^ ‘Devonport Pageant’, Western Morning News, 4 July 1944, 4.
  10. ^ The Plymouth Co-Operative Society, Rochdale Pioneers Centenary 1844-1944, np.
  11. ^ Ibid., np.
  12. ^ Burton, The British Consumer Co-Operative Movement and Film, 180.
  13. ^ Ibid., 33; Mick Wallis, ‘Pageantry and the Popular Front: Ideological Production in the Thirties’, New Theatre Quarterly 10, no. 38 (1994), 132-156.
  14. ^ Burton, The British Consumer Co-Operative Movement and Film, 34.
  15. ^ Wallis, ‘Pageantry and the Popular Front’, 134.
  16. ^ The Plymouth Co-Operative Society, Rochdale Pioneers Centenary 1844-1944, np.
  17. ^ Wallis, ‘Pageantry and the Popular Front’, 136.
  18. ^ Ibid., 132.
  19. ^ ‘Co-Operation’, Western Morning News, 3 July 1944, 2.
  20. ^ ‘100 Years of Democratic Progress: Rochdale Pioneers 1844-1944 Centenary’, in 1495/16, June–August 1944. Plymouth Record Office.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Co-operative Century (Plymouth)’, The Redress of the Past,