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You always remember your Co-op Number: The Amazing Rise of the People's Own Shops

Speaker: Dr Stephen Caunce

Monday, 23 May 2023

The guest speaker at u3a Todmorden members meeting on 18th May was Dr Stephen Caunce, who presented "You always remember your Co-op Number - The Amazing Rise of the People's Own Shops". He began his talk with images of what looked like a middle-class shop in the mid nineteenth century, and the staff who would have worked there. It was one of the earliest branches of the Industrial Co-operative Society Limited in Rochdale.

The unique feature of the co-op was that each of its patrons would not be just customers, but shareholders in the venture, and all the profits would be used on their behalf, rather than shareholders'.

This, and the other shops that the society opened, were aimed at working people at a time when most of the shops in the country were used by the middle and upper classes. It was also the time of the industrial revolution when, because of mechanisation, wages and other factors, working people were the poorest in society. In addition, working class people had little or no say about how they were treated, in terms of their working conditions, their housing or even who would represent them in Parliament.

Stephen reminded us that the main cause of the protests, and the meeting leading to the Peterloo Massacre, was the right to vote. He pointed out that, up to that time, working people seemed to accept their lot - and compared this with the many revolutions and uprisings in other parts of the world. At the same time as the co-op began to be formed, more and more working people began to realise that they were being unfairly treated by the government.

Their feelings were noticed by some members of the upper classes of society, and Stephen mentioned a man called Robert Owen, a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropist and social reformer. Owen treated his employees fairly well compared with other mill owners, but one of his ideas included withdrawing them from general society, building mills and accommodation away from urban areas for them. Stephen showed us a slide what Owen had in mind which, for all the world, looked more like a prison. He had already tried to establish socialist communities in the United States, which were unsuccessful, in the 1820s. But, on his return to Britain he continued to be in support of the working classes, for example supporting child labour legislation.

The actual phrase of 'Cooperation' was coined by William King, who around fifteen years before the first co-ops opened, advised workers to save money for creating a cooperative capital fund which could be used for businesses of their own. He wanted the workers to start their own shops with a small capital, and he believed that they would not fail if they traded for cash. He said that if the profit from shops was used for the benefit of the people who used them, typically among the poorest, then this would result in actually transforming society. He also championed the principle of 'do it yourselves'.

Further away from this area and to Crystal Palace, London, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Images shown by Stephen showed the interior of the famous glass construction, which was packed with bright and shiny new products that the public could buy and have in their homes. Stephen said that it was, for the most part, similar to a catalogue. Anyone could look, but only five to ten percent of the population could afford to buy what was on display. The manufacturers then began to support claims for higher wages for working people, if only to try to ensure that their own companies could remain in business.

The Government had different ideas for dealing with the plight of poor people, including workhouses for people without jobs. The residents, or inmates, of these establishments, as portrayed in many films and books over the years, had such a wretched time that it was thought they would be 'shamed' into finding employment and somehow bettering themselves.

The workshop in Rochdale cost £85,000 to build, paid for by the government, which demonstrated how they were thinking at this time.
Stephen mentioned the 'Rochdale Principles', comparing it with The Communist Manifesto, which was written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels around the same time. Each contained elements of socialism, and mentioned the unfairness towards working people by capitalist governments. But while the co-operative process in Britain helped lead to more equality for the population, communist theories and actions have rarely been successful and have resulted in significant damage, and loss of life throughout the world.

From inception, the co-op had a strict policy of payment for each purchase when it was bought. Other shops at this time might have allowed goods to be bought 'on tick' – a term familiar to most, if not all of our members. This had the effect of the customer rarely being able to clear their debt and having to buy at the same shop each time.
Perhaps the main benefit and success of the co-op came with their customers being able to 'buy' a share of the profits. Each customer was allocated a number and, in time, was able to either spend their share of the profits each quarter of a year or continue to save. Many would have used the second option to save money for things such as clothing or shoes for themselves or their children, in times when few families had savings accounts with banks. In a similar vein, profits were used for building better stores and facilities, and never for speculating or investing in other enterprises.

In London which was then the richest city, but populated by some of the poorest people in the country, the cooperative movement had little or no effect or success. Stephen said that this was because of the working conditions for the poorest. They would often have no regular work, but would be hired for a day, half a day, or even by the hour for poor wages and nothing in the way of rights or security.

But in the north of England, when in 1844 an Oldham terrace house with a small notice board in its window became the first co-op, the ideas and principles had been such a success that in 1867 the society was able to open a department store in the centre of Rochdale. This was a result of the money that had accrued over the years, even with dividends paid to members throughout.

Some four years earlier, independent co-op societies had formed The Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS). This enabled the Co-op to purchase farms and factories to produce their own products, rather than depend on third parties. It went on to become the biggest trading organisation in the world. Towards the end of the presentation, we were shown an image of the SS Liberty entering the Manchester Ship Canal – this had been purchased by the Co-operative Society to import, and deliver goods from abroad, which could be described as the ultimate 'do it yourself'.

Stephen answered questions from our members before his well earned applause, and the end of our meeting.

The next Todmorden U3A Monthly Members Meeting will be on Thursday 15th June, open to all fully paid-up members at the Central Methodist Hall, Todmorden. The speaker for this meeting is Brian Topping, talking about some 'Tales of a customs officer'

Not yet a member? You can attend one talk free by requesting an invitation to this zoom event. We're always delighted to welcome new members. Contact details: website at www.u3atod.org.uk or email at info@u3atod.org.uk.

Many thanks to Colin Sanson for this report


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