Letter from Lancaster 18

The Lancaster Co-op

In 1860 workers from the Phoenix Foundry and Ridge Lane Silk Mill met to start a co-operative to sell groceries. Their aim was to break the monopoly of the existing grocers, and their use of the credit or trust system, which tied customers to a retailer and kept them in debt; the equivalent of today’s pay-day lending. (The slipperiness of accounting terms: to buy on credit means to be in debt; and trust could lead you to Lancaster’s new debtor’s prison.) ‘No Trust, No Tick’, read a sign. Indeed, as the co-op would be profit-sharing, members would receive, four times a year, as dividend, a percentage of what they had spent. They were following the example of The Rochdale Pioneers of 1844, and the many co-ops that followed. All this before working-man (much less woman) franchise, legalised trade unions, state elementary education. But, their minds unencumbered by these, they had ‘more time to think’. And they had their library at the Silk Mill.

With their motto: ‘Strive to increase the good of all. Thus only can the share of each increase’, they rented a shop in Penny Street, where ‘burly blacksmiths and mechanics weighed flour and sugar, cut up bacon and cheese, measured treacle, and dispensed groceries “like mad” on a Saturday.’ Men were allocated products to buy: meal, flour, rice and grain; tea, coffee, sugar, treacle; spices and tobacco; bacon and cheese. All this in their spare time. Soon they were breaking through the monopoly of existing traders and buying in the wholesale market. The Co-operative Wholesale Society, founded in 1863, helped.

Growth was remarkable. In 1861 branches were opened in Skerton and Galgate (a local village where the silk mill was manned by spinners from Rochdale). In 1865 they bought a shop in New Street which, extended many times, became the town’s only department store. In the first decade, brush, drapery, coal, millinery, boot & shoe and butchery departments were added. By 1867, sales were £20,000 a year (multiply by 100 for today’s equivalent). In 1885, £48,000, with a dividend paid of £5,500 between 2,700 members – an average £2 a member, a week’s wages.

Lancaster in 1860 had been stagnant since the end of the eighteenth-century maritime prosperity [see Letter 14]. It had shared none of South Lancashire’s cotton boom: in 1801 the population was 11,000, Oldham’s was 12,000; in 1861, 17,000 against 72,000. It was only in 1870s that Lancaster had its industrial boom, with linoleum, table baize and oil-cloth factories, and their ancillary cotton mills. In 1910, the population was 41,000. That’s a story for another blog.
This helped the co-op to grow – but at the same time it faced competition from T D Smith’s, and later the new multiples, Liptons, Maypole, Home & Colonial, Freeman, Hardy & Wills, Hepworth’s.

In spite of this new competition, in 1910 the Lancaster and District Co-operative Society had sales of £200,000, a fine new department store, twelve suburban shops, and eight out-of-town shops. It employed 240, at higher wages than other shops. It had built dozens of houses for sale and rent, and given mortgages to members to buy their own houses. It paid burial money. It spent £500 a year on education (remember to multiply by 100), had a lending library of 8,700 books, five reading rooms, gave WEA scholarships, and paid technical school fees. It paid 15% dividend.IMG_5187

The co-op model looked the ideal system to counter the capitalist model. It provided innovation, employment, service, value. Owned by the members, profits went to the members. I will ponder, in another blog, why the model faded in the twentieth century.

And why his mother, a working woman, disdained the co-op, would never go into their shops.
He was allowed into the department store once: to queue for Stanley Matthew’s autograph. He loved football, and Matthews was his favourite player – although he himself was a solid centre-half rather than a flamboyant winger.
After the initial over-excited pushing and shoving, the queue settled into a long snaking line of boredom, punctuated by flares of combat. He ignored all that because, as the line twisted its convoluted way through the, to him, enormous store, he was entranced by the system of copper tubes looping across the ceiling and down to the counters which, his brother explained, was a pneumatic system in which small canisters of orders and money were shot back and forth between counters and cashiers. His eyes followed the convolutions, his fingers traced the interconnections, the whoosh of air took his breath away. Head up, mind who knows where, he saw himself miniaturised inside his space canister, speeding through the convolutions, visiting each department as a secret presence, discovering ever more exotic worlds in the ramifying tubes, and with it, the vastness of inner space. By the time he arrived at the table behind which Stanley Matthews sat patiently signing his name, time after time, football had faded, and he was Jet Morgan, Pilot of Inner Space.

Note: the information and quotations come from Co-operative Congress Souvenir, Lancaster, 1916, by W A Smith.

This is my last blog for a while, as I take break to reconnect with my inner Jet Morgan. Best wishes.

Letter from Lancaster 17

Walking Across Lancaster Sands.

In the wide horizontals – the curves of the channel, the waves of estuarine sand, the flights of birds, the ranges of Lake District hills – the Arnside railway viaduct is a comb set on its teeth. Before the railway came in 1867, the way to Lancashire across the Sands – until 1974 Lancashire embraced the Bay, down to Barrow-in-Furness, up beyond Coniston – was across Lancaster Sands. Wordsworth walked it. Ruskin took the train. The right of way across the Sands is marked on OS maps with ‘Warning – seek local guidance’. 216137925The guidance is a guide, paid £15 a year by the crown, since 1963 Cedric Robinson, ‘sand pilot’, ‘man of the sands’, who has fished the Bay all his life. But never from a boat – cockling with jumbo board and rake, fishing with fixed nets to catch the tides, shrimping with horse and cart and then tractor. There’s no longer a full-time living, and it’s left to part-timers, and chancers like the gang-masters who kept the Chinese cockle pickers too late on the Sands in 2004, and 21 drowned.

There are many accounts of the caravanserais crossing the ‘wet Sahara’ – “oxen, sheep, horsemen, carriers, carts, chaises, gigs, all in close succession, instead of the dromedaries and turbaned inhabitants of the East”. And deaths are recorded from earliest times – being caught in the incoming tide, “swifter than a galloping horse”, or wheels trapped in quicksand, carriages overturned.

And then came the railway. And then a few recreational crossings. I crossed in the early 1950s, it must have been with William Burrow (“1950–1963. Died in office”.) A Sunday school outing? Not many in the party, anyway. Now there are 18 crossings a year. And today I and the other 499 sponsored walkers are wearing “Friends of The Lake District” tee shirts as we head down the coast from Arnside. It begins to rain.

Just short of where the Chinese cocklers died (the last skull was found by a fisherman who thought it was a pair of false teeth grinning up at him from the sand) we turn west and head out into the Bay. At the Keer crossing I take off my trainers – walking across ridged sand through ankle-deep tepid gently-flowing salt water is perfect foot therapy, and my feet are tingling at the other side.

Then a long walk across featureless sand. IMG_5894Surprisingly large ups and downs, like wet dunes; in the dips, the horizon disappears. How easy to go astray without landmarks, Arnside Knot, Heysham Power Station, the gap that is the Irish Sea, Barrow, Coniston Old Man, Grange-over-Sands promenade, bleached and softened by the rain.
Settle into the walk. The walkers. The silent, erect woman, remembering the husband she did this walk with forty years ago. The father and son, bonding. The two boys, eleven, best friends, dashing this way and that, chasing, hiding, splashing, laughing, giddy with the water and the vast space, the best day of their lives. Remembering that crossing so many years ago, the guide showing us how to tread for fluke, ‘shoes off, walk carefully through the water, feel the movement under your foot, press firmly, bend, hand under, thumb on top , there – a fish for your tea!’ Holds out the wriggling flat fish, I pull back, he drops it in his bag with a smile. And on a wide expanse of dry-looking sand, with rhythmic pressings of his feet setting the sand in motion, like a trampoline, so that soon it’s undulating, moving in waves, under my feet, making me giddy, I can still feel it. ‘Quicksand,’ he says, ‘break the surface and you’ll sink, straight down. You won’t be swallowed up, like in the films, but you’ll be stuck – it sets like concrete around you, so you drown in the next tide. So tread carefully.’ How I trod carefully!

The rain is steady. I’m wet through. The wind has come up. I’m cold. The sands are wide and empty. The shore is far away. We are shepherded between a tractor and a quad bike. But the walking is easy, and this is good, I’m crossing the Sands again after 65 years.

The main river, the Kent. A hundred yards wide, thigh deep, pushing through the thick water, against the strong side current, a sense, in the long, splashing crossing, of the scale and power of this alien environment, the grandeur and the jeopardy. The stream of people crossing is biblical.IMG_5910

Surprisingly quickly we’re splashing across the last channel and climbing up to the station at Kent’s Bank. Ced’s daughter as always is waiting, umbrella in hand for him to sign books under. As he signs, I thank him for Sand Pilot of Morecambe Bay say how much I enjoyed it, a gentle ‘thank you’, warm smile. Train, bike, home, dump everything in the bath, dry clothes, crumpets and tea. It won’t be my last crossing of the Sands.

Letter from Lancaster 16

The Heysham Labyrinth

“Heysham has one of only two possible examples of pre-Roman labyrinths in Britain”, wrote Dr George Nash, Bristol University archaeologist, in 2008.

An ancient labyrinth? At Heysham? I’m interested. I like labyrinths. I’ve written about a labyrinth in Crete1, a labyrinth in Amiens cathedral2. A friend made a turf labyrinth in Dorset that we walked.
A labyrinth is not a maze.There are many ways through a maze, you can get lost in it: it is a puzzle to solve. There is only one way through a labyrinth; it combines circle and spiral in a path that meanders but is purposeful: it is a path to follow. At Chartres it is called the Road to Jerusalem, the Road to Paradise. As a meditative practice it is the road to the self. As a religious artefact it is the portal to another realm.

From their origin in Crete (the Theseus and minotaur story is accepted to be a Greek distortion of a Minoan labyrinth ceremony conducted by a bull-masked priest), they spread along the Bronze Age trading routes the Greeks took in search of tin, to Iberia and then to the British Isles. Pytheas wrote of his 4th century BC journey to the Orkneys  – it is likely that the Ring of Brodgar is the ‘circular temple’ in which Apollo was worshipped. [Letter 13]. The other British labyrinth is at Tintagel, close to Cornish tin mines. And Heysham is on old Irish Sea trade routes – St Patrick is said to have visited, and the hogback stone in the church [Letter 10] is thought to be the grave marker of a Viking trader.

labyrinthThe Heysham labyrinth was discovered in 1996 by a local reporter, and a photograph printed in the Morecambe Visitor.
Working from the photograph, Nash concluded that the labyrinth had been pecked – rather than carved – consistent with pre-Historic petroglyphs. But when he visited in 2008, he found it smoothed and eroded. It was fading away. Time for me to find it.

It isn’t easy to find. I have a couple of photographs, but there are acres of sandstone ledges on the headland, pavements and cliffs, and I am looking for a faint carving eight inches across. It takes two visits. IMG_5958On my first visit I find a boat engraved into a rock face. On my second, from reference points on the photographs, I find the place. It is on a flat outcrop of rock, at high tide level, that would be submerged by the highest tides. It is on a wide ledge, next to the engraved boat.Version 2 Is the labyrinth here? I see it. I don’t see it. It is only when I photograph it that I fix it. But when I bring a friend the next day, neither of us can see it. It is in yesterday’s photograph. But I don’t see it now. Is it there?

What to do with this story? Perhaps it is from pre-History, having a significance, long covered but revealed by an exceptional storm, and we have from 1996 to the moment it finally disappears to resolve our relationship with it? Perhaps it is a hoax, like crop circles, created as bait for New Agers to fit into their theories? Perhaps it was created by a group as their talisman, a group I should be seeking out …? Or this:

‘On the day Ship arrived [Letter 10], she saw the identical figures facing away from each other to different worlds, and realised that he would go far, naming, and doing great things; while she would stay, come again and again to experience the sea and sky cupped in the steel hull, and listen for what the wave says …

The day he leaves, wandering the shore, she finds the engraved boat. And close by, as if directed to it, the labyrinth. All the times she and he clambered over, sat on, swam from this ledge, without seeing the boat, the labyrinth … This day, and from now on, the boat represents him; the labyrinth is hers.

She studies the labyrinth, each curve, in minutest detail. She wets her finger, touches the labyrinth, tastes the sandstone, the salt. She follows the curves with her fingertip, the involutions and evolutions, in to the centre, out to the edge. And sometimes, at the centre, through. Eyes closed, her fingertip reads the story, like braille. So many stories. Eyes closed, the walls of the groove rise high on either side as, like the needle in a vinyl record, she brings into existence its song. So many songs.
On sunny days at low tides she sits beside it and looks out over the vast tawny pelt of the Bay, smooth as chamois, and inscribes words, makes patterns, creates worlds upon the pelt.
On moonless nights at high tide she stands over it, the dark water lapping at the ledge, aware of the limitless surging ocean, is drawn to dive in; instead draws the ocean into herself, encompasses it.

The labyrinth in the stone fades. Her finger continues unerringly to follow its curves. The labyrinth in the stone erodes away, is erased. But it is there, she feels it, knows it, touches it, holds it to herself. While she lives, the labyrinth lives.’

1 Dionysos’ Island, p147-164.
2 In Search of France’s Green Meridian, p43.