Saturday 29 January 2011

Shopping Saturday - 'The Co-op'

Co-operative Wholesale Society billhead 1930s
One of the best-known and oldest established retail outfits in the United Kingdom is 'The Co-op'. It is more accurate to refer to the Co-operative Movement, of which the retail stores are just one part. There is lots of useful background information on the website of the National Co-operative Archive and for the retail side of the movement the Rochdale Pioneers Museum . Although the museum itself is closed for refurbishment until 2012, the site is full of useful information, including photographs. According to the site
Toad Lane, Rochdale is widely regarded as the home of the modern worldwide co-operative movement. This is not because it was the first consumer co-operative venture but because its Pioneers (founders) laid down a model of values and principles in their Rules that set out how, and why, to run a co-operative society.
This is a suitably careful wording, because, while Toad Lane is widely celebrated as the first Co-op shop, this can be disputed. In fact, the likely truth is that retail co-operation was an idea 'whose time had come'. In 2010 Co-operative News reported that a shop in Ripponden, Yorkshire could lay claim to being the first, in 1832, twelve years before the Toad Lane shop.

Retail co-ops were an early example of consumer power, where people banded together to purchase goods in bulk to get the best prices. Although this is mainly associated with the working classes, there were middle  class co-ops too; the Army & Navy Stores, now part of the House of Fraser group, began when a group of army and navy officers realised that it was cheaper to buy wines and spirits by the case. The now-defunct Civil Service Stores started in the same way, except that the commodity in question was tea!

The co-ops developed into regular retail shops, where the shareholders were the customers. Many people will have fond memories of shopping at the Co-op (or the 'Co-perative') as we called it in Scotland, and giving the cashier their 'divi' number, which would be marked up in a book, and the dividend would be distributed at intervals, according to how much you had spent. And you thought trading stamps, and now supermarket loyalty cards, were new ideas...?

Old stagers like me might also remember the overhead cash systems that were used in many shops, including the Co-op. There were a number of these systems, first introduced in the 1850s, and the one on the left shows the two halves of a wooden ball that were screwed together and used to send the customer's payment to the cashier's booth, and then back again with a receipt and any change. The wooden ball system used an arrangement of levers and pulleys to send the containers zipping back and forth over the heads of the customers. They must have made quite a racket on busy days in the shop. The system I remember used cylinders that were sucked through pneumatic tubes with a characteristic whooshing sound. I last saw them in use about 25 years ago in a very genteel department store in Cheshire. The wooden balls in the picture are from the reconstructed Co-op draper's shop in the wonderful Living Museum of the North at Beamish, County Durham. It's one of my favourite museums, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Visit if you can - if you're interested enough to read this blog all the way to the end, you'll love it. But wear comfortable shoes, there's a lot of walking.

Co-op draper's shop, Beamish


1 comment:

  1. I am enjoying reading your "shopping" blogs. This brought back memories, especially the cash system in the little "jars" on the cables above the counter, and I remembe the wee slips of paper to be stuck down to later claim your dividend. I was at Beamish in the summer and it is a brilliant day out.