Co-operative Century (Manchester)

Other names

  • A pageant play of the people

Pageant type

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Place: Manchester Opera House (Manchester) (Manchester, Lancashire, England)

Year: 1944

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 7


3-8 July 1944

[3–7 July at 6.30pm; 8 July at 2.30pm and 6.30pm]

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Produced by: Doran, F.E.
  • Secretary: Alban E. Curtis

Names of executive committee or equivalent


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

  • Peach, Lawrence Du Garde

Names of composers


Numbers of performers


Financial information

The Pageant cost £2000 to stage

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion

Centenary of the first Co-operative store founded in Rochdale.

Audience information

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


The Opera house held about 1950 people: ‘Opera House (Manchester)’, Theatre Trust, accessed 6 December 2016,

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

4s 6d–1s.

Associated events

One of around 150 other performances of the pageant.

Pageant outline

Part I

Episode I. Trouble in the American Colonies and Revolutionary Fervour

We are first introduced to the pageant with news of the troubles in the American Colonies. Questions are being raised over to what extent Magna Carta is being followed and whom the MPs in Westminster serve—many of the same questions are being raised in the colonies. Talk quickly turn revolutionary, and disputes break out, with some remaining loyal to the king—but all expressing hatred of Lord North. The scene then changes to the American Revolution with George Washington addressing the crowd on issues of freedom and liberty. Suddenly, George III and a group of English ministers appear, and the two Georges argue about their competing ideas of government. The argument ends with George III declaring war. We then see the entrance of a recurring character named ‘Little Man’ who questions the rousing speaker’s ability to unite the crowd. 

Episode II. The Weaver’s

The crowd, off stage, are heard jeering and discussing while the main attention is focused on a weaver’s house. The weaver, in discussion with the speaker, expresses his disapproval with all the revolutionary talk; he simply wants to be an honest man working an honest job. These words, however, antagonise the speaker who says that honest men have started and been involved in revolutions before. The weaver reaffirms his belief in there being a right and a wrong way of doing things. The son expresses interest in joining his father and is keen to learn his skills; but he also wants to join in and sing the rebellious songs—he is not allowed to do so as his father says that men were put on the earth for honest work, not bad deeds. The ringleader then questions the weaver on not joining in with the revolutionary discussion. The talk then turns to the factories, and the weaver seems convinced by the newly entered owner’s argument that the new factories will provide employment for the many. The ringleader then challenges the factory owner over a variety of different issues including working conditions and pay. The owner then turns to the weaver and says he will see him at work at 5pm, but the weaver refuses as he has his own loom. The owner responds by cutting off his supply of wool, and so the weaver is forced to work for him in the factory, and to send his children to the workhouse. Whilst trying to protect his children, the weaver is shot.

The scene then changes to the French Revolution and the ‘Marseillaise’ is played. A character named Desmoulins declares the individual’s liberty and freedom much like Washington did. 

Episode III. The French Revolution

There is an aristocratic party in France, and King Louis XVI walks in. Soon after, Desmoulins disturbs the party, and the ‘citizens’ shout about equality after a scuffle breaks out.

The ‘Little Man’ returns, saying that though the violence brought an end to the ancien régime and Louis XVI, it also brought the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte, and we are ‘worse off than ever’. He also notes that America is still essentially the same nation as it was under the British, with the elite controlling most aspects of life—the only difference being that, because they fought for the idea of liberty, they are blind to the fact that they still have little of it in practice. He points out that the high price of a bed (a major gripe for political campaigners) is down to Napoleon and the French Revolution. 

Episode IV. The Luddites and Robert Owen

The episode begins with talk of the high price of bread and the mass starvation that is occurring; there are demands that the shops must be smashed and broken up to rectify the situation. The Luddites enter, who say that the breaking of shops would not be effective, and instead argue that the machines in the factories should be smashed—since they are the root of the problem. As the crowd readies itself to attack the factories, the magistrate and soldiers move in to disperse it. After a brief exchange of words during which the Luddite leader refuses to give in, the magistrate then reads the Riot Act, and a fight breaks out between the soldiers and rioters; the former triumph and the crowd is violently removed from the stage. The socialist Robert Owen then walks in, and the children he has been educating perform a dance. They then turn to their lessons, which all focus on poverty, freedom and equality. Owen tells the crowd that the issues are not with the machines but with the social system and that is what needs to be changed. The clergy, MPs and capitalists all agree that Owen is a dangerous man and he should be removed from society. 

Part II

Episode V. The Beginnings of the Co-operative

We are taken to Rochdale, and weavers are discussing setting up a co-operative after their last endeavour has failed. Howarth then comes up with a new idea that profits should be shared according to the amount of money spent/invested in the co-operative.

Another Corn Law protest approaches the town, and a speech is made by its leader, but the Chartists then arrive. There is obvious tension over the disagreements regarding the major social issues of the time.

‘Little Man’ reappears and comments that they cannot agree on how best to resolve their issues. The speaker states that it is better for man to fight his friend than not to fight at all because it shows that he wants to fight for something he believes in. 

Episode VI. The Co-operative Is Set Up

In a meeting of townspeople, the members agree on a committee and where and from whom they should rent the site of their new shop. Members raise a total of £28, and a rousing rendition of ‘England Arise!’ is sung. They agree that their name should be the ‘Rochdale Pioneers’. The speaker emerges and asks whether these men have succeeded where the kings and ministers have failed, and a suggestion is made that the men’s way of peacefully trying to change the status quo is better than a violent way.

Episode VII. The Opening of the Shop

The scene opens with Dr and Mrs Dunlop, the owners of the shop that the Pioneers wish to rent, talking about the ongoing social issues; they are generally scornful about the working classes, saying they are asking for too much. They are then disturbed by the Pioneers, who offer a business proposal to Dr Dunlop. After some hesitation, because of the Pioneers’ previously precarious economic situation and their socialist beliefs, the Dunlops agree to rent them the lot on the understanding that advance payment of rent will be made, and that all the work of the shop must be carried out by the Pioneers. A Pioneer then enters with a pile of stock gathered from Manchester. Some members of the society are worried that the shopkeepers will not be happy with the endeavour and may use their power over the townspeople to stop it. Such fears come true when one shopkeeper threatens the wife of one of the Pioneers with the collection of her mother’s outstanding credit. He proceeds to threaten the rest of the town, but they refuse to give in to the shopkeeper’s demands. Another song, ‘Shop at the Co-op’, is played.

Episode VIII. Looking Back at the Success of the Pioneers

The scene recalls the early Pioneers. The last remaining Pioneers take a photograph together, one that is required as a prop and widely circulated amongst co-operatives. The scene is then revealed as being set 21 years after the founding of the Rochdale Pioneers, and the speaker reveals the great success of the co-operatives today. With 72.5 million members worldwide, the early Pioneers are lauded as true heroes of the cause, and it is stated that their methods are intrinsic to further social progress.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Desmoulins, Lucie Simplice Camille Benoit (1760-1794) French journalist and politician
  • Washington, George (1732–1799) revolutionary army officer and president of the United States of America
  • George III (1738–1820) king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and king of Hanover
  • Bonaparte, Napoleon (1769-1821) French military and political leader
  • Owen, Robert (1771–1858) socialist and philanthropist
  • Bright, John (1811–1889) politician
  • David Brooks (1802/3–1882) Rochdale pioneer
  • James Daly (1811/12–1849) Rochdale pioneer
  • James Smithies (1819–1869) Rochdale pioneer
  • William Mallalieu (c.1796–1863) Rochdale pioneer
  • Miles Ashworth (1792–1868) Rochdale pioneer
  • Charles Howarth (1814–1868) Rochdale pioneer
  • Samuel Ashworth (1825–1871) Rochdale pioneer
  • John Holt (1777/8–1852) Rochdale pioneer
  • Cooper, William (1822–1868) promoter of the co-operative movement
  • William Taylor (1813/14–1854) Rochdale pioneer
  • Holyoake, George Jacob (1817–1906) freethinker and co-operator
  • James Tweedale (1818–1886) Rochdale pioneer

Musical production

A choir of 50 with an augmented orchestra. 

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Manchester Evening News
Manchester Guardian
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer

Book of words

Peach, Lawrence du Garde. Co-operative Century: A Pageant of the People. Manchester, 1944.

Other primary published materials

  • 1844-1944. Co-operative century: a pageant play of the people, presented by six Manchester co-operative societies, Opera House July 3rd-8th 1944. Manchester, 1944.

References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Copy of Programme in Manchester Rylands Library with cast autographs, reference R197416

Sources used in preparation of pageant



The opening night of the Manchester Co-Operative Pageant was one of ‘150 such “first nights” all over the country’,1 with similar performances of the pageant taking place from Plymouth to Sheffield to Newcastle in celebration of the centenary of founding of the first Co-operative Society in Toad in Rochdale. It was written by Lawrence Du Garde Peach, a playwright and author of national repute, known especially as a pioneer of radio drama. He was also enthusiastic about community amateur dramatics, having started a company of thespians in Great Hucklow in 1927; he thus claimed that the Co-operative Century was ‘a Pageant of the People, presented by the people, for the people’.2 Peach would go on to direct a number of pageants, such as the Sheffield Pageant of Production (1948), the Wolverhampton Centenary Pageant (1948), and the Nottingham Quincentenary Pageant (1949), all of which combined a populist left-wing interpretation of history with a modern—some would say showy—theatrical style.

Aside from the production of the Pageant at La Scala theatre in London, which prompted questions in Parliament (the theatre was de-requisitioned specifically for the Pageant, prompting Nigel Colman, Conservative MP for Brixton, to accuse the government of undue favouritism towards a left-wing organisation),3 the Manchester performance, held in what had become both the spiritual and organisational home of the Co-operative Society, was the largest and most prominent staging.

The Pageant featured three hundred performers, some ninety percent of whom had never previously acted, drawn from the Salford, Beswick, Droylsden, Failsworth, Pendleton and Blackley Co-operative Societies. These were joined by a number of professional actors including Wilfred Needham and George Morrall of the Warrington Repertory Company (Morrall playing the key part of the Speaker), who featured alongside members of the Kathleen Lloyd School of Dance and the Manchester Ballet Club.4

The Manchester Guardian was highly sympathetic to the pageant which, it felt, ‘conveys a sense of great movements and of the surging, even if suppressed, spirit of the working people… All of this pageant was impressive and some of it moving. Its touching quality was its sincerity… To see these, the direct descendants of the Rochdale Pioneers, was to see no artificial display but a living movement.’5 The newspaper stressed that the pageant was not mere socialist propaganda but was both a fitting commemoration of the movement and a celebration of the global struggle against tyranny, declaring that ‘The play embraces both the American and French Revolutions as well as the “Hungry Forties” and, Mr. Doran points out, is not an economic argument but a tribute to the “Rochdale Pioneers” in the light of the achievement they made possible.’6

A film, Men of Rochdale, was subsequently made by the Co-Operative Wholesale Society using parts of the pageant script; this was premiered at the Market Street Cinema in Manchester in August 1944.7 Fortunately, the Pageant was exempt from the Entertainments Tax as the Secretary, Alban E. Curtis, had pointed out to Inland Revenue that the pageant ‘was propaganda by a political body which made no contribution towards national expenditure.’8 A book, A Century of Co-operation (1944), was written in commemoration of the anniversary by the socialist historian G.D.H. Cole.

The Pageant was reprised at Scala Theatre in London in May 1946.9 It was a testament to the importance of the Co-operative Society and its history during the mid-twentieth century, which continued a tradition of pageants celebrating working class history such as the Pageant of Labour (1934), the Wembley Pageant of Co-operation (1938), and the South Wales Miners’ Pageant (1939).


1. ^ Manchester Guardian, 20 June 1944, 6.
2. ^ Lawrence du Garde Peach, ‘Introduction’, in Co-operative Century: A Pageant of the People (Manchester, 1944), unpaginated.
3. ^ The Times, 10 May 1944, 8.
4. ^ Manchester Guardian, 20 June 1944, 6.
5. ^ Manchester Guardian, 4 July 1944, 3.
6. ^ Manchester Guardian, 20 June 1944, 6.
7. ^ Manchester Guardian, 11 August 1944, 3; ‘Men of Rochdale’, Moving Image, National Library of Scotland, accessed 6 December 2016,; Alan Burton, The British Consumer Co-operative Movement and Film, 1890s–1960s (Manchester, 2005), 35.
8. ^ Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 12 July 1944, 3.
9. ^ Manchester Guardian, 20 May 1946, 3.

How to cite this entry

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