As the Co-operative Union announces a name change after 133 years, Lindsay Jennings looks at how the once small socialist enterprise has grown.

FOR the group of 28 weavers who were fed up with their miserable working conditions and low wages, it seemed like the logical thing to unite and find an answer to their relative poverty.

After years of struggling, unable to afford the high prices of food and household goods, they soon began to see the effects of pooling their resources as they opened their own cheap store in the northern town of Rochdale.

It was 1844, and the socialist-minded weavers, known today as The Rochdale Pioneers, were the forefathers of millions of other co-operatives.

These were all based on the same principles: open membership, democratic control (one man, one vote), political and religious neutrality, and the promotion of education.

Yesterday, the mighty Co-operative Union - which represents the £17bn co-operative sector - announced a name change after 133 years to Co-operatives UK, still emphasising its strong identity but with a patriotic flavour.

Business analyst Anthony Platts, assistant director with Wise Speke, in Middlesbrough, said: "A name change just gives a bit more enthusiasm to a group, and any strategies for development can be reviewed and new ideas can be brought forward. It does sound very patriotic, which is good."

According to Mr Platts, the fact that the Co-op came up with their own name and shunned the help of costly image groups is also to be applauded. But then the Co-op was always built on getting the best for its members.

The very first Co-op in the North-East was the Governor and Company's Teesdale Workmen's Corn Association formed in 1842.

The London Lead Company and its workers clubbed together in Middleton-in-Teesdale to buy cheap flour.

By the end of the 19th Century there were at least 150, mostly based in the mining communities where they fulfilled their members' basic needs, with bakeries and dairies alongside libraries, insurance, dentists, opticians and even piano tuners.

Profits from trading were returned to members in proportion to how much they bought - the origin of the famous Co-op Dividend.

In 1990, the North Eastern Co-op joined forces with the nationally-based Co-operative Wholesale Society and the Cumbrian Co-op joined them in 1992.

Today, the North-East alone has more than 500,000 members. The consumer-owned business employs more than 60,000 people in the UK, and has profits of over £164m.

Chief executive Pauline Green said: ''Co-operatives UK is more than a new name.

"It is our way of showing that the Co-operative Movement now has a single strategic voice in the UK.

''We want people to know that co-operatives, in all their various forms, are uniquely positioned to deliver goods and services in a commercially and socially sustainable way."