Early British consumer co-ops

The British co-operative movement is usually traced back to the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of textile mill workers who set up a consumer co-op in 1844, but let’s go back to 1761, when sixteen (or fifteen–it depends who’s counting) Scottish weavers and apprentices “manhandled a sack of oatmeal into John Walker’s whitewashed front room and began selling the contents at a discount, forming the Fenwick Weavers’ Society.”

Weavers worked at home–this was before weaving was industrialized–and the co-op they formed wasn’t just, or even mainly, about oatmeal. They bought food in bulk and sold it affordably, plowing whatever profits they made back into the society, but the society was also, or maybe primarily, about setting the price they’d pay for their yarn and accept for their cloth. Its members pledged to be “honest and faithfull to one another . . . and to make good & sufficient work and exact neither higher nor lower prices than are accustomed.”

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor, near the ruins of a prehistoric village (notice the line of stones)

They set up a fund to lend money to members and to give money to the poor–and they kept records, which means their history has come down to us in a way that the stories of earlier co-ops haven’t.

They also set up a library and in 1812, along with the Freemasons and a friendly society, built a school. Schools and libraries weren’t free yet, and schooling was anything but universal. Creating them so working people could educate themselves and their children was radical.

In the early 1800s, they created the Fenwick parliament–open meetings to debate local issues. The meetings were held at the village water pump, and someone would keep watch, because local landowners were hostile to–well, whatever it was the local working class might be getting up to. The meetings weren’t exactly secret, but they weren’t exactly not secret either.

In 1839, they set up an emigration society, which speaks to the limits of what any co-op can fix, and in 1846, “as members of the Secession Church” (in a small village, everybody who fills any role at all fills more than one) they brought the anti-slavery campaigner and escaped slave Frederick Douglass to Fenwick to speak. 

Fenwick’s population these days is a bit over 1,000. At some earlier point, it had 2,000 residents, then it dipped to 500, but at any of those sizes they were bringing an internationally recognized figure to a village at, roughly, the end of the earth, to speak about an issue that, however important, affected the town only indirectly. Or directly, but only if you had the vision to see how. It speaks to the organization’s connections and breadth of vision, not to mention Douglass’s generosity in speaking someplace so small and out of the way.

That the co-op survived as long as it did marks it as a surprisingly stable organization. It was killed not by internal problems but by the collapse of hand weaving in the face of industrialization. In 1873, it had only three members and they wound up the society, but its emigration policy had planted co-operators in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, and at least some of them would have carried its ideals with them.

I’ve focused on Fenwick, but other co-ops and friendly societies came and went. See all those little dots flickering at the edge of your vision? There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. What you’re seeing is the spirit of an age: the co-op model answered a need, even if not many of the coo-ops lasted. It strikes me as important to remember the ones that didn’t last as well as the ones that did. 

Now let’s pick up the tale of the Rochdale co-op. It started in 1844. The industrial revolution was chewing up all those skilled, small-scale crafts, pushing their practitioners first out of work and then into factories. Working conditions were somewhere between abysmal and worse than that–child labor, inhuman hours, early death, industrial scale poverty–and a year before the Rochdale co-op was founded (that would be 1843; I’m unreliable with numbers, but I can subtract 1 from any number you throw at me and be reasonably sure of getting the right answer)–

Where were we? In 1843 a strike failed and mill workers were looking for some other way to improve living standards. Enter the 28 Rochdale Pioneers. (Trumpet fanfare here, if you please.) What they settled on was creating an alternative to the company store. 

I haven’t found any information specifically on Rochdale’s company store–or stores: I don’t even know how many we’re talking about. What I can tell you is that company stores in general were known for high prices and bad–often adulterated–merchandise. They were run by the same companies that their customers worked for, making a secondary source of income for the owners and a secondary point of exploitation for the workers. They stayed in business because their customers had nowhere else to go. Often no other store was within reach, and workers could often buy on credit (that’s the thing about working for lousy wages–you’re always broke) or were paid in company scrip (or chits–same thing, different word), a form of money issued by the company instead of actual cash and accepted in no other place else on the planet.

This was a time when store owners in general were known for adulterating their goods. We can’t blame company stores alone for that. But gee, everybody was free of all that pesky regulation and red tape that annoys us so today. And if people ended up buying tea that included recycled tea leaves from someone else’s brew along with a bit of new tea and some leaves picked from the hedge and colored in imaginative and occasionally poisonous ways? What the hell, it’s the price of freedom, right?

The Rochdale co-operative store (which opened, memorably, on Toad Lane) started out with about £16 worth of goods: flour (6 sacks), oatmeal (1 sack), sugar (44 pounds), and butter (22 pounds), plus 24 tallow candles because the gas company refused to supply them, so they lit the place with candles and sold whatever was left to their customers. 

The store was only open two nights a week, but within months it was keeping a five-day week. Before long they’d added the luxuries of working-class life, tea and tobacco.

The founders were conscious of the problems other co-ops had run into and set out some founding principles, which went on to form the basis of the co-operative movement in Britain and elsewhere. The business would be owned by its members, who would control it democratically. It wouldn’t sell on credit. Profits would be first plowed back into the business and then, when possible, returned to the members. It would be politically and religiously neutral. It would promote education.

This was radical stuff. No woman had the vote yet and neither did 6 out of 7 men–and mill workers would have been among the 6, not the 1. But here was an organization opening its membership up to everyone and giving them a say in how the thing would work. And religious neutrality signaled an openness to everyone, because religion was still an important dividing line. 

By 1854, over 1,000 co-operative stores were basing themselves on those principles. Ten years later, the North of England Co-operative Society had formed. 

In 1872, the society formed a division for loans and deposits. This eventually became the Co-operative Bank, which–well, it’s still going but during the years that led up to the credit crunch it decided to stop being so boring and it got crunched when the markets crashed. In 2013, only 30% of it was still customer owned. The rest was owned by private investors and–ouch–hedge funds. So yeah, there’ve been a few hiccups here and there.

But long before all that happened, the co-ops branched out in other directions as well. In many towns and cities, you can still get yourself co-operatively funeraled, pharmacied, or (regardless of your town) insured. 

In 1917, the Co-op formed a political arm, the Co-operative Party, which became a sister party to the Labour Party. How that sits with political neutrality I can’t begin to explain. What I can say is that you’ll find a Co-op store in just about every town near where I live, even though Cornwall wasn’t the heart of the co-op movement. They’re still governed by members, who elect area boards, which in turn elect regional ones and so on up the ladder. 

The stores maintain some of their community spirit and are known as good places for local organizations to turn if they need a donation or a stack of mince pies for a Christmas event. 

59 thoughts on “Early British consumer co-ops

  1. Fascinating stuff. I had never heard of the Fenwick cooperative. Home-based weavers had been well-paid skilled workers before those pesky invenstions meant that massive factory-based machines could do the work at a fraction of the cost. So I guess they would of had the memory of life being a lot better in the past. Despite the limitations of communications (or perhaps beacuse of the limitations of communications) arranging for an internationally renowned speakers to visit their town (2,000 is pretty big in early C19th) wasn’t unusual. Many (if not all) campaigners spent their lives on the road visiting and raising awareness (and funds) from relatively small communities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that, Emma. I didn’t know either that 2,000 was a pretty sizable town or–well, I sort of knew that campaigners spent their lives on the road but without, somehow, letting that knowledge get to any useful part of my brain. As for whether the importance of speakers was in spite of or because of the limits of communication, I’d go with because of. They were carrying the news, opening a window into the world, and the excitement they generated must’ve been immense.

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    • A whole rash of co-ops started in the US in the 60s, but I don’t know the history of US co-ops before that. Except that there was one in, I think, Maine–maybe Vermont–that has a pine-tree logo. I have no idea what they did/sold/made. And in the 19th century, there were some associated with short-lived utopian communities.

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  2. Many of us were aware of the co-ops but kind of (as you said) off in our peripheral vision . It’s important that we remember how valuable these were when they started – and how they still are today. Very active credit unions in my area too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You mention the funeral services…’Go with the Co’ was never their slogan, but one in common use in the last century.
    My mother went with the Co, having booked and paid for her funeral when she was in her eighties. Having lived until one hundred and two she had more than value for her transaction but her local branch of the Co op funeral services skimped in nothing…a wonderful service from start to finish from people both caring and efficient. And for me a first and last…a hug from a funeral director, – top hat, the lot!

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  4. This was fascinating. In the U.S. we have some different names for co-ops. As mentioned by another commenter, credit unions are cooperatives as are mutual insurance companies. I think Benjamin Franklin started the first of the mutual insurance companies in the 1750’s and it’s still going, but I’m not sure HOW mutual it is now. I use another insurance company that’s also a mutual (and get money back each year from homeowners insurance payments). I’m wondering too about whether the Grange operated any co-ops and and there’s certainly Chautauqua yet, which fits into the educational and communitarian movements. A lot of resorts were also cooperatives so people who weren’t rich could go away for some time in summer. AND there’s cooperative housing, which works well with a few committed members. I don’t know the history of housing co-ops, but that would be a project for some research for me as you’ve piqued my interest with this. As for those canny Scots, lots of them poured out of the Highlands during the clearances and came to the U.S. Some of them brought their looms.

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        • Wonderful. And it’s interesting you should say that. I’ve been thinking about how small communities deal with deal with problems, or needs of various sorts, as opposed to the way larger communities do. I’ve never lived anyplace this small before, so I can’t separate what’s particularly British from what’s English from what’s Cornish from what’s typical of any small community–or for that matter, what’s typical only of this one. What I do know is that there”s an assumption that people–not all people, but some–will step in when there’s a need and address it if they can.

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          • There is likely something of a local or national character going on, but it’s also typical of places where people don’t expect help from elsewhere and feel as though they can solve something themselves. Which is the difference between action and inaction in a lot of cases.

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            • I agree, but I’d add that one more element is necessary, and that’s the belief that something can be done. This is probably the first place I’ve lived where people believe that–not of things on the large scale (international, national, county), but at least on a village scale. I hadn’t put that together until I read your comment. Thanks for jogging me into a bit of actual thought here.

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  5. Remarkable story.
    Reminded me of the song Sixteen Tons I remembered hearing Tennessee Ernie Ford sing in 1955.
    “You load Sixteen Tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.
    Saint Peter, don’t you call me cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”
    Merle Travis wrote the song from his experiences living in a poor coal mining family in Kentucky. in the 1940s.
    Seems like there’s a universal theme of income inequality going on here…still going on.

    Liked by 3 people

      • Where I live they actively fed a stereotype, with resulted prejudice, about coal miners generally in non-mining towns and those from other mines in mining towns.

        Such that “black” was an insult, and the polite word (up to about the time I was born) was “colored,” because “black” meant coal miners.

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          • And that it’s so predictable and exploitable.

            “You don’t want anything to do with coal miners, don’t even want them coming into a store to pay for gas and picking up a loaf of bread while they’re in there, because we want them to have to pay even more for the same loaf of bread in OUR store.” Hence, “There’s no way anyone who could do any other kind of job would work in a coal mine.”

            Well…my Significant Other’s done other jobs, but as a teenager, mainly because he was the type who could pass for eighteen before they are and they think that’s so cool, he worked in a coal mine. Like his father.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Minnesota has–or had, anyway–some farmers’ co-ops, but because they didn’t involve consumers I never learned much about them. In the sixties, a rash of co-ops broke out all over the Twin Cities. A few hung on, but mostly by becoming slick and somewhat supermarket-like, although they did continue to function as co-ops.

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  6. This is interesting stuff. I’ve belonged to a couple of co-ops over here, at various points, but I don’t think I do any longer. Unless you consider a mutual insurance company or the open-source software business to be a co-op.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A couple of people have mentioned mutual insurance as at least originating from the co-op movement, although I have no idea how they’re structured or controlled anymore.Open-source software, probably not, although the impulse behind it is recognizably related, I think.

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  7. Pretty fascinating. I can only add that I buy my groceries at a place called “Coop” too, here in Tuscany. I don’t know how it’s owned and operated, but you can watch flamingos mate off its roof on Valentine’s Day.

    (On a different matter, I’m curious if you have seen “Brexit: The Uncivil War” movie and how you have found it. I couldn’t believe how quickly it was made.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • That touched me as well. I ran into one story of a scientist whose first education came from those libraries. I couldn’t work it into the piece, but it’s a reminder of how hard-won an education was for working people then, and how many were self-taught.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Marvellous history of the co-operative movement. I was vaguely aware of its roots in Yorkshire (my ex had Yorkshire roots) but never knew the details. Fascinating, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My pleasure. Researching it reminded me of something that’s easy to lose track of now that the co-op movement’s so thoroughly established: that in its early stages it would have been a radical and terrifying thing to commit to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, these days we just have activists with the Orange one blustering at them on Twitter. In those days they were in danger of being found guilty of Sedition, with the heavy penalties that brought. If I had a hat, it would be taken off for sure.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I keep thinking about those people who met for discussions at the town water pump, all the while a lookout for the local powers-the-were. And presumably ready to send everyone on their way if they spotted the wrong person. What I read didn’t say what the result of being caught would have been, but something worse than a Twitter storm.

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