The Co-operative Movement (Report 1)
by John Harrison

Do you have occasions when fate appears to be pointing a finger at/for you? Mine was two weeks ago. It began with a read of the “Flashback” page in the Chorley Guardian and the headline “The Co-op”- from 12 stores to none”. It arose from a talk being given on the history of the Co-op in Leyland. I then received a reminder from the Institute of Local and Family History to tell me that I was booked into a one day conference in Preston on………"The Co-operative Movement"!

From the mid-nineteenth century development of the Retail Co-op in Toad Lane, Rochdale (1920s photo on right), Britain saw the growth of the Co-operative Movement, which has a strong claim to be the most successful enterprise of the ensuing century. At its peak it had millions of members and it was a vital part of most working-class communities throughout Britain down to the 1950s. Through its dividend system, its educational activities, and ancillary organisations like the Co-operative Women’s Guild and the Co-operative Party it gave ordinary people a real chance to shape their own lives, and even the way the nation was run.

In 1950 the Co-operative movement had 12 million members which by any measure was a phenomenal figure. That figure is only an indicator of the impact of the Co-op on British people as every member would usually be a member of a family. The figure of 12 million dwarfs other mass member organisations such as the Church of England, the Labour Party and Trade Unions. Industries were important for the generation of wealth and income, but it was in the Co-op that much of that income was spent.

The conference looked at the history and principles of Co-operation and there was discussion about whether or not Robert Owen (painting on left) was an important figure in the development of the movement. There was a paper on Co-operative Cotton Companies which had reference to Greenfield Mill in Chorley. Industrial Co-ops were not long term successes, but were significant for the number of working class investors, most of whom only bought one share. (Chorley’s Co-op mill sold 3788 shares in 1862 when the town’s population was just over 15,000!).

A topic which was new to me was the Women’s Co-operative Guild. We had a paper based on a study of Todmorden which showed that this organisation’s role, which supported wives of Co-op members, was not just one of supporting women, but politicising them. It was convincingly argued that the Guild has been overlooked by historians and was in reality as important an organisation as the Suffragettes in the History of the Women’s Movement.

What did I bring back to Chorley? A wish to learn more about what happened locally. Lots of questions such as who was involved in founding the Co-op mill? Why did they set it up and why did it fail? What do we know about Co-op retail services in Chorley and District? We have on our website lists of halls and mills in Chorley. Shouldn’t we also have lists (and photos) of all the Co-op retail outlets before they are forgotten as they have been the focus of more lives than Chorley’s mills!

John Harrison
October 2008