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 debtors’ prison.) ‘No Trust, No Tick’ read a sign in their first shop. Indeed as the co-op would be profit-sharing, members would four times a year receive 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’ (Smith). And they had their own workers’ 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’ (Smith). 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 good week’s wages.

Lancaster in 1860 had been stagnant since the end of the eighteenth-century maritime prosperity [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 [Letter 26]. In 1910, the population was 41,000.
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.

These are the locations of several of the co-op shops [Letter 2].

Later branches were architect-designed, featuring the society’s symbol, the beehive.

The main store, on the corner of New Street and Church Street, with another entrance in Market Square, was (still is) especially fine.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. And yet the model faded through the twentieth century.

My mother, a working-class Tory, disdained the co-op, shopped at T D Smith’s, rarely shopped even in their main store.

So the store was a revelation when I was allowed to go there to queue for Stanley Matthew’s autograph. I loved football, and Matthews was my favourite player – although I was a solid centre-half rather than a baffling winger.

After the initial over-excited pushing and shoving, the queue settled into a long snaking line of boredom, with the occasional flare of combat. I ignored all that because, as the line twisted its convoluted way through the – to me – enormous store, I was entranced by the system of copper tubes looping across the ceiling and down to the counters. My brother explained that it was a pneumatic system in which small canisters of orders and money were shot back and forth between counters, stockrooms, and cashiers. My eyes followed the convolutions, my fingers traced the interconnections, the whoosh of air took my breath away. My eyes looking up, my mind spiralling, I saw myself miniaturised inside my own copper 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, even endlessness, of inner space. By the time I arrived at the table behind which Stanley Matthews sat patiently signing his name, time after time, football had faded, and I was Jet Walton, Pilot of Inner Space.

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