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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

The Derby Co-operative Society

The Derby Co-operative Society.

This society was started in 1849, in a hay-loft, by a few poor carpenters and joiners, who injudiciously, as it turned out, limited membership to persons of their own trade. For may years they had a most painful struggle. The thing looked hopelessly poor. For the quarter which ended with December, 1853, the sales only amounted to £173, and the page 33 profits out of which to pay interest on capital and dividends on purchases to £5 0s. 10d. For the second quarter of the year 1855 the sales were only £200, with a diminishing trade, and in 1857 the sales were falling off at the rate of £10 a month. This seemed too absurd altogether, and it was no wonder that the proposal was made "to smash the thing up," yet the resolution was not carried. Four of the directors opposed it, and resolved to continue the struggle. They made a recommencement by rectifying the error committed when the society was started, and made membership open to persons of any trade or calling. The immediate response was far from reassuring, for in 1860 the society consisted of only forty members, the not very brilliant result of over ten years' work. If the promoters had been socialistic politicians they would have abandoned this absurd fooling with socialism at a very early stage of its miserable existence, and claimed the experiment as conclusive evidence that this was a matter for State initiation and administration, and impossible to bring about by means of a voluntary association of private individuals. The directors and few members who remained loyal to the society evidently felt otherwise. The Rochdale society, which was started only five years before theirs, was thriving steadily, an object lesson which must have inspired them with a dogged determination not to be beaten, which eventually brought its reward. Nothing else would account for the display of so much perseverance and fortitude. In 1862—fifteen years after the commencement of business in the hay-loft—the society had 700 members, with sales amounting to £450 per week, or £22,500 per annum, making savings which admitted of 1s. 8d. in the £ to be returned to members on their purchases. The period of distress was now over; the society prospered rapidly, and grew into a powerful and wealthy institution. In 1902 it had 15,939 members, and a share capital of £224,426. The year's turnover was £439,000, and the profits £64,409, of which £54,882 were returned to members as dividends upon their purchases.

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In the "Co-operative News" of 9th April last a report is published of a "Big Demonstration" which took place to celebrate the opening of a new five-story warehouse, erected by this society at a cost of over £21,000, to stock which "took the contents of nearly sixty railway waggons." With the exception of some ironwork, "the entire building had been erected by the society's own workmen," and the stock was supplied by the Co-operative Wholesale Society—loyally co-operative right through. "The new warehouse has been erected on a site in close proximity to the St. Mary's Wharf of the Midland Railway Company, having a frontage to Wood-street of 212 ft., and a frontage to Fox-street of 116 ft. The total length of the warehouse is 128 ft., and its width 72 ft. It contains five floors and basement, all of concrete, and supported on iron columns, with rolled steel girders and joists. The total area of floor is 56,000 ft. For lighting the interior of the buildings there are 390 lamps, equal to 6000 c.p., while outside five arc lamps are fixed. At the rear of the premises are the stables for twenty-five horses, with harness room, lofts, &c., and a cottage containing living room, parlour, three bedrooms, and bathroom."

The article from which the above is an extract opens with the statement that "so far as money and members were concerned the pioneers of co-operation in Derby held a very weak position . . . their total capital was only £2, and their numerical strength was a dozen."

From such an origin developed a society of 17,000 members, with corresponding trade and wealth, yet, not with standing the marvellous results eventually arrived at from an origin so despicably and hopelessly insignificant, it will be found to form no unique record in the history of co-operation. Similar results can always be achieved when the right men take the work earnestly in hand of urging, instructing, and organising their fellows.