Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Chapter III. — The Spread of the Co-Operative Movement

page break

Chapter III.

The Spread of the Co-Operative Movement.

Like all popular movements, co-operation had to make headway against numerous social and political difficulties, and much hard work had to be done to clear the way.

In a little work written by Messrs. A. D. Acland and Benjamin Jones on "Working Men Co-operators," we read that:—"In the very years in which the small Rochdale society was beginning, working people were making themselves heard and felt in the State, and legislation was making their lives more free and their power for self-help greater. In 1844 was passed one of the most important factory Acts, to be followed in 1847 by the famous 'Ten Hours Act' "(the Act towards which John Bright and the manufacturers displayed so much hostility as to delay its passage through the House of Commons for ten years). "In 1846 the development of amalgamated trades societies was made possible, and legal protection was given to great friendly societies. In the same year the Corn Laws were repealed. It was at the time of the great revolutionary epoch of 1848-9 that co-operation began to march with giant strides. With shortened hours of labour, with cheap food, with encouragement to cooperate for self-help without the old fears of fraud and failure, there was something to work for."

The Provident Societies Act was amended from time to time so as to give greater trading facilities to co-operative societies registered under it, and the passing of the Public Libraries Act, and repeal of the duty upon newspapers in 1850 to 1855, enormously increased the opportunities for educational and social propaganda work, of which ample advantage was taken. The notable success achieved by the Rochdale Pioneers was extensively published amongst the wage-earning classes, and the principles which led to such page 31 strikingly beneficent results were so simple and easily comprehended that societies commenced to be formed in various districts on what came to be known as "the Rochdale plan." So accurately was this system worked out by the plain, sensible men who conducted the experiment that the more completely it was copied by the societies which followed the more successful they became, and that remains true right down to the present time, not only in Great Britain, but on the Continent of Europe.

A highly important lesson taught by the pioneers was, not only that it was possible to make a great co-operative success out of a small beginning, but that a small beginning was a valuable contribution to co-operative success. In the evolution of things it was the birth of a "new social order" that was taking place—a new movement requiring "new men, men with new hearts and feelings," with new ideas and new social aims, and a new and special training in a new school of experiences, which had to progress from simple and easily-understood and easily-dealt-with conditions, automatically developing new tendencies and possibilities, and the workers in it developing the increased aptitudes and attributes necessary to guide it towards higher and wider issues. Until the general public are thoroughly educated in co-operative principles and methods, a society commencing on a large scale is certain to include a quantity of uncongenial and disconcerting elements which have to be assimilated or eliminated before success can be achieved. The smaller beginnings bring the more congenial elements together to start with, and make progress by gathering in more and more of a similar character as time goes on.

But although the initial conditions out of which powerful co-operative societies have grown were simple enough in the sense of being free from complexities puzzling to the understanding, success in most instances was only achieved by the exercise of much patient self-denial, frequently extending over many years of plodding, discouraging hard work. But not greater than, nor probably so great as, the cares and page 32 anxieties and many self-denials endured by the creators of private fortunes, whose risks in working up and conducting businesses under competitive conditions ought to be much greater than those attending the development and management of the business of a co-operative society, with its assured and organised trade. Co-operative societies have outlived crises in their history under which private enterprise must have collapsed, and if the rank and file of wage-earners properly understood this, and the enormous power which rests in their hands unused, they would estimate the value of their leaders less by the vehemence with which some of them apply epithets, of the "fat-man" order, to the owners of private wealth, and more by a display of honest energy to organise their fellow-workers into co-operative societies by means of which they could win for themselves the wealth which now flows into private hands. In order to make this clear and convincing, it will be necessary to give a few instances of how great and wealthy co-operative societies have developed from extremely insignificant beginnings, by adopting, and faithfully adhering to, the simple and easily-understood system discovered by the Rochdale Pioneers, and to prove how open it is for any association of persons of ordinary intelligence and ability to follow the example—perseverance and determination to succeed, and an honest, unselfish leadership, being the qualities most required. The so-called "fat man" is here because necessary to the period of social evolution to which he belongs, and it would be very absurd to think that he was to work "for the fun of the thing," and not for all that he might be able to make out

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.

page 34

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.

The Gateshead Co-operative Society.

In 1859 a few railway men-proposed to open a co-operative store at Gateshead. The idea was ridiculed. A small page 35 commencement was made in 1861, and the business for the first year was so paltry that one of the directors left the store in disgust, and never took further interest in the society. This man was typical of the men who fail. The men who refuse to accept defeat, when convinced of the righteousness of their cause, and that the exercise of patience and common-sense and loyalty to principle only are necessary to command success, were represented by the remaining directors, who stuck faithfully to their work, making up parcels and delivering goods in a hand-barrow up to late hours on Saturday nights, and never losing an opportunity to reason with their fellow-members so as to preserve their loyalty to the store, and induce others to join it. It took years of hard, anxious work, but success eventually crowned their efforts.

In 1899 the society had 11,400 members, with a trade capital of £114,000, or an average of £10 per member. It had nine branch stores, the central store being worth £20,000. The year's business turnover was £374,000, and £58,000 was available for distribution amongst members as dividends upon their purchases. The society had £50,000 invested in members' dwellings.

The satisfactory progress made by this society in two years' time may be seen by comparing the above figures with the returns for 1901. In that time the membership increased to 12,284, the capital to £127,914—more than maintaining the average share per member—and the year's business turnover to £424,888. The profit for the year was £69,256, and the amount invested in members' houses had increased to £66,434.

The York Co-operative Society.

This society had a very weak beginning, starting in 1858 with 130 members, but only £26 4s. 3d. capital, or 4s. per head. For twenty-five to thirty years the struggle was hard, but the right men were there, and, given these, it becomes only a question of time to overcome difficulties which success only could prove not to have been impossible. In 1888 the society had 438 members, with a capital of £635—not quite page 36 30s. per head—and an annual trade of £3420. It took a long time to accomplish this, and one can only marvel at the patience manifested by the devoted and earnest workers conducting this slowly-moving business. From that year things commenced to progress more rapidly. In ten years more—in 1898—the society had 6000 members, with a capital of £40,000—well-nigh £7 per head—and an annual trade of £126,000. In the last five years of that period £52,710 was divided amongst members on their purchases. Numerous branch stores had been opened, and a magnificent pile of buildings, costing £20,000, was completed and opened for business in 1899. In 1901 the society had 7700 members, and £67,417 capital, getting on well to average £9 per head. The year's trade was £179,243, and the net profit available for dividends upon members' purchases was £24,007—a success well worth working and waiting for.

The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, Woolwich.

In marked contrast to the affluent commencement of the Civil Service Co-operative Society of this city, the Woolwich society had a very humble beginning, notwithstanding the powerful body of Government employees to which the promoters belonged. It was started in 1869 "in a little back room, a bench covered with American cloth for a counter, a small desk for the secretary, and a chest of tea for the principal stock." The whole thing was only a few shillings over £7 in value. So stated Dr. William Anderson, Director-General of the Ordnance Factories, in an address given at the opening of an exhibition connected with the Co-operative Congress for 1896, which met at Woolwich. By that date the society had been worked up to possess a capital of £86,000. The trade for the year was £166,000, 10 per cent. of which, or £16,600, was available for dividends upon members' purchases. In September of the following year (1897) the members were called together to inaugurate the opening of a fifth branch store. On such occasions statistics are page 37 produced, so "that all may learn and all may be comforted" by the progress made. In this year the society had 10,000 members, with a share capital of £115,000—being £29,000 more than on the previous year—and the year's trade was over £200,000. From first to last the society had distributed £250,000 amongst members on their purchases, and £45,000 had been advanced upon members' dwellings, and "not one bad debt made."

Co-operative capital and savings increase so fast that new uses have to be found for them, so that the interest charge may not press too heavily upon what otherwise would be an over-capitalised business. This is what Lord Rosebery alluded to when he said, in his presidential address to the delegates which formed the Annual Co-operative Congress, which met at Glasgow in 1890:—" You have got hold of a good live principle that will lead you on, that will push you along the path of progress . . . and I say this, that it is perfectly clear that, as you have realised certain theories, they will carry you on whether you like it or not; having accumulated certain capital, you will have to face its employment sooner or later."

Under pressure of this nature the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society had purchased 175 acres of land, upon which it was decided to build a model town of 4000 to 5000 houses. On the 25th May, 1900, the first brick of the first house was laid, and on the 17th October of the 6ame year the members were called together to inaugurate the scheme. By that later date—that is, in less than five months from the time of laying the first brick—twenty houses were ready for occupation, another twenty had the roofs on, and thirty more were well advanced.

The delegates who attended the Annual Co-operative Congress which met at Stratford in 1904 were conducted over this property, the area of which had apparently been added to, and to which reference is made in the "Co-operative News" of 4th June of that year under the heading:—

page 38

Bostal Estate.

"This estate of 190 acres, the property of the Woolwich society, where houses are being erected by the works department of the society for the members, is possibly unique in the co-operative world. Over 600 houses are completed, and there is no trouble in disposing of the same. Trams, chartered by the society, met the delegates at the gates of the Arsenal for the purpose of conveying them to the estate. Here tea was provided in the Co-operative Hall, after which parties were conducted through the workshop, where the woodwork for the houses is prepared, and the flagstones for the pavement and window sills are manufactured. The Chalk Pit, on the model of a coal mine, was visited, and this being lighted by electricity, was the cause of much wonderment. Messrs. J. T. Harris and T. Smith, of the Woolwich society, conducted small parties through the Bostall Wood, where an al fresco concert on a small scale was held, and thoroughly enjoyed."

In 1902 the society had 18,662 members, with a share capital of £297,765. The trade for the year was £376,536, and the amount distributed to members on purchases £51,936; £163,812 was invested in members' houses.

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.