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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

The Beswick Co-operative Society

The Beswick Co-operative Society.

This society also had a small beginning, but made a fairly rapid progress. It started in 1892 in a densely-populated working men's suburb of Manchester, where, by precept and example, the people were well educated in the principles of co-operation, and well versed in the practical benefits which belonged to it. When the society was registered it had seven members, but the numbers increased so rapidly that the first quarter's business amounted to £700, indicating a very successful start. In twelve years' time, on 11th April, 1904, the society had 4800 members, and the trade for the quarter was £25,460, or a yearly trade of over £100,000. The dividends paid to members on their purchases for the year previous was 2s. 9d. in the £, amounting to £12,943. The page 39 society owned ten grocery establishments, and extensive new premises were in course of construction. The members were increasing at the rate of 50 to 60 a week.

This is the kind of progress which becomes possible when wage-earners are co-operatively educated and co-operatively led. The Beswick society did not escape the early hardships which seem to be invariably characteristic of the movement. In its third year the store appointments were as yet of a bare and primitive character. "The board of management had to sit on empty cheese boxes, and every bit of work had to be done free of expense." This was a statement by Mr. Brooks, who was on the society's committee since its third year, and who added:—" We have taken the movement to the doors of the people, and in the winter time we have visited the people in their homes." Co-operation is a thing that cometh not by the uttering of platitudes about "the uplifting of humanity and the calling of three cheers for God and humanity," backed by the enforcement of Labour laws that would have crushed out co-operation in almost every instance if applied in the initial stages of society formation, when work for long hours and without remuneration were necessary to build up institutions for working men that were to increase the comforts, leisure, and opportunities of all connected with them. The distinction to be drawn between the treatment constantly necessary to check the evils chronic to competition as a trade system, and the temporary difficulties and sacrifices which wage-earners have to encounter in laying the foundations of a trading institution of their own by means of co-operation, have yet to be properly understood and allowed for. Co-operation, to emerge successfully from any difficulty, has to be left very largely free from extraneous interferences. Troubles within itself can be overcome if a sufficient number of members are intelligent enough to understand what they are about, and prove loyal to their own interests, and never fail to give their custom to the store.

Just one instance more to illustrate the capacity of a cooperative society to recover itself from financial difficulties that would inevitably involve private enterprise in ruin.

page 40

The Leeds Industrial Cooperative Society, over thirty-five years ago, lost £50,000 in a colliery venture, and for a moment the existence of the society was threatened. But the directors and members were co-operators who knew what could be accomplished by the powers which lay in them, when loyally and faithfully exercised, and they decided to stand by the store. It has to be remembered that members of a co-operative distributive society, out of which the wealth is created that gives expansion to the movement, are, first and foremost, customers, each supplying his or her own individual share of trade capital. The trade is, therefore, assured with all its great profit-making capabilities, and not dependent upon the public goodwill, which generally fails when most needed. To make up the loss of capital the profits of the Leeds Industrial were reserved for some years to build up a redemption fund; the financial position was soon recovered, and the society again became an exceptionally powerful institution. In 1901 it had 48,960 members, with a capital of £742,140, being over £15 per member. The trade for the year was £1,474,507, and the net profits £237,357; £224,817 was invested in members' dwellings.

The above instances are typical of the many hundreds of distributive co-operative societies which followed in the wake of the success established by the Rochdale pioneers, each and all demonstrating that co-operative success can unfailingly be won by the loyal and faithful observance of well-tried and, withal, simple conditions, neither so venturesome nor hazardous as those which, as a rule, fill the lives of private traders with care and anxiety—a lesson which ought not to be thrown away upon working men. So far we are only on the fringe of the subject as a movement which clearly embraces within its evolutionary sweep the creation of a new social order, and the next step will be to follow its natural and automatic development towards that end.