Friday, January 20, 2012

Those early co-operators

The Manchester and Salford Equitable Co-operative Society which built the Hardy Lane store in its expansion programme of the 1920's and 1930's had humble origins. Most co-operative societies started with renting some small premises and then only branching out when capital permitted. Many hundreds of societies never expanded beyond their one shop.

The M & SE opened for business on the 4th June 1859 in a terraced property at 168 Great Ancoats Street, Manchester. Sales in the first week amounted to £16. The histories of the Society written years later, are brief about the early years and focus mostly on financial growth. However I recently came across a reported speech four years after the commencement of the society. Annecdotes give more insight into the formation events. It was on the occasion of the laying down of the foundation stone for the new Central Stores and Offices in Downing Street, Ardwick on Saturday 7th November 1863.

"Four years last June we opened a shop; but before that it took seven years to organise a committee and commence the society. Out first purchase consisted of eight sacks of flour from the Rochdale Corn Mill, and when the cart drew up, a neighbouring shop keeper asked 'How long before do you expect it to be before you sell all that?' Well it was sold , and before long our weekly sales of flour reached 20 loads; and before the cotton famine the weekly receipts were £1500, but they fell to £500. We have seen the worse, and are not afraid of the future, for the sales are steadily rising"

The speaker is named as Mr. Edwards, and this would have been John Charles Edwards (1833-1881) a founder member of the co-operative and its first president. So he'd be 30 years old when he was speaking. He was also the first secretary and cashier of the newly formed Co-operative Wholesale Society (originally called the North of England CWS founded 1863, he left and joined a rival organisation soon afterwards ).

Note the reference to the trade depression caused by the cotton famine. This was when no cotton was being imported from the Southern States because of the Civil War in America. Most of the mills in Lancashire stopped production and the workers had to live off savings, charity and the meagre poor relief.  J.C. Edwards besides his work at co-operatives was the Honorary Secretary of the Union and Emancipation Society. It published pamphlets and organised meetings in support of the Northern side in that conflict. His fellow Honorary Secretary was Edward Owen Greening (1836 - 1923), "one of the great builders of Britain's Co-operative Movement, and a doughty advocate of International Co-operation" 1.

From the annual sales figures, amounts shown in GBP (Sterling) you can see the impact of the slump in trade, a 47% decrease over 3 years from a 1861 high to a low in 1863.
1860 Sales 23968 ------   5 new branches opened first full year of trading
1861 Sales 46737 +95%
1862 Sales 31804 -31%
1863 Sales 24405 -23%
1864 Sales 27783 +14%
1865 Sales 44864 +61%
1866 Sales 55197 +23%
1867 Sales 70723 +28%

As the speech reports "we have seen the worse" and in 1864 the Central Stores and Offices opened on Saturday 24th December, and earlier that year on Wednesday 16th March a new seventh branch opened at 53 Ashton Old Road, Bradford in north Manchester. There must have been confidence and optimism by the board and members to expand when sales were declining.

1 from ICA Centenial speech 1995 by Graham Melmoth, CWS Secretary - here.
Picture is the Central Stores, Downing Street, Ardwick, Manchester when it was opened, it was later extended and the brickwork rendered.

References thanks to digitized versions on Google Books and Internet Archive
Friendly Societies' Journal, bound into book form c. 1863 page 469
Some booklets of the Union and Emancipation Society, 51 Piccadilly, Manchester 1863, 1865.
The Co-operator
edited by Henry Pitman No.183 January 1869

See also G.J. Holyoake History of Co-operation in an earlier post - here.
Further reading on the Cotton Famine / Britain and the American Civil War see the online publication by

1 comment:

Andrew Simpson said...

A good piece of history writing Lawrence.
Thank you

You can email : coop AT with any information that will help in the making of this history.