Making use of our history

History is important, I think.

Stephen Yeo, one of our most eminent social historians, has just brought out a new book on the nineteenth century co-operative pioneer George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) which I’ve been reading over the past few days in order to review it for Co-op News.

Stephen titles his book (the first of a series of three exploring bottom-up co-operation and socialism in the last two centuries) A Useable Past? And that is indeed exactly the motivation which has led him to return to the life and the (very extensive) works of Holyoake.  Stephen is suggesting that there is something to be taken from the ‘associationism-socialism’ and moral impulses of Holyoake, and more generally of early co-operation in Britain, which is directly relevant today in rebuilding our radical traditions, particularly in terms of a do-it-yourself, non-statist form of social change.

My review has been emailed off to Anthony Murray at Co-op News, and I understand it is likely to appear in the September issue.  I’ll tell you here when it is published.

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Co-operatives and common wealth

It’s the 50th birthday this year of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies and the organisation is gearing up for its main yearly event, the annual conference which is being held in Newcastle at the start of September.

The event seeks to bring forward the historic concept of the ‘Co-operative Commonwealth’ into our own times. Here’s how the organisers have put it: “The conference looks at the broad concept of ‘common wealth’, which requires re-thinking about ownership, control and management of ‘public’ goods and services. Can co-operatives and multi-stakeholder owned and managed enterprises continue to provide a ‘public’ alternative to the McDonaldization and Uber-ization of society?”

I’m planning to be there, and will be offering a workshop on the Saturday. I’m approaching the theme by looking back as well as forward, exploring the role which an early co-operative leader J.C. Gray played – at the start of the twentieth century –  in trying to encourage the British movement to seize the potential he believed it possessed. You may not have heard of Gray, but I’ll try to convince you that he’s a significant figure in our history and one with much to say that is still relevant today.

Here he is, dressed up for the studio photograph!

Workers’ co-op records to be saved

Well, success!

Over the last few years I’ve been stressing the importance of ensuring that key archives from the co-operative movement are identified and preserved.  In particular I’ve mentioned several times the initiative some of us have been engaged in to focus on workers’ co-op records from the 1970s-1990s.

We’ve had several generous offers of financial support from current workers’ co-ops, from co-operative organisations and from individuals, but we needed the Heritage Lottery Fund to come in and support the project as well.

I’m delighted to say that HLF have indeed now agreed to contribute £43,000 towards the project – so green light to go!

To crib a little text from the press release which has just gone out: “The project, called Working Together: recording and preserving the heritage of the workers’ co-operative movement, aims to identify and make accessible for the first time records from some of the major workers’ co-operatives of the time, together with co-operative support organisations. A trained archivist will be employed for a twelve month period to undertake the work of finding the material, and then in ensuring that where possible it is deposited either at the National Co-operative Archive or in the relevant local county record office or public archive. An oral history element to the project will mean that recordings of the memories of some of those most involved in co-operatives during this period will be made.”

I hope you share my satisfaction that a little part of our history will now be more easily understood by co-operators of the future.

Remembering our past

I was invited yesterday evening to Halifax, to talk to the local history society there. (I should give it its proper name, the Halifax Antiquarian Society, a venerable local institution first established in 1901).  I was discussing the story of perhaps the best known of the later nineteenth century productive cooperatives, the fustian manufacturing coop in Hebden Bridge (also the subject of my 2015 book All Our Own Work).

There were about seventy people there on a cold and cheerless February evening, including the grandson of Thomas Morgan, one of the cooperative’s committee-men, who had made the journey from Morecambe to attend. I must say that it’s very heartening that British cooperative history can still attract this level of interest.

Saving the past, to learn for the future

You’ll know, if you are a regular visitor to my blog, of my involvement in a project which is aiming to ensure that primary material from the upsurge of interest in workers’ coops in Britain in the 1970s-1990s is saved and preserved.  I was at a meeting today in Manchester of the informal committee which is seeking to ensure that this initiative (what we calling Working Together: recording and preserving the heritage of the workers’ co-operative movement) gets the resources it needs to get going.

We worked up a detailed grant application for the project which was submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund this summer, and we have now heard back from HLF.  They say that they had applications for three times the money they had available for distribution – and disappointingly we have been one of the unlucky ones.

However, all is definitely not lost.  HLF accept resubmissions, and we are now going to talk to them again about how we can strengthen our bid and maximise our chance of success.  We hope a revised application can be submitted before Christmas.  I’ll keep you posted.

On ale, and archives

I shared a drink (a modest half-pint of real ale, since you ask) in a local co-operatively run pub on Saturday with members of the Leeds and Wakefield co-operative history group who were spending the day exploring the co-operative past of my part of northern England.

They were telling me of the problems of researching the history of co-operation in Leeds, the result of records from the early days (and indeed more recent times) being lost. Keeping important archive material away from the Great Skip of Destruction is vital if future historians are to be able to do their work.

As you may know from past blogs here, I’ve been working with a few colleagues recently on an archive project to try to preserve records from the late twentieth century workers’ co-op movement. Our project application is currently being assessed by the Heritage Lottery Fund. I’ll let you know how we get on just as soon as I know myself.

Preserving the past for the future

I wrote back in 2014 and again more recently here of the moves being made to identify and properly preserve key records from the workers’ co-operative movement of the later twentieth century. I need to declare an interest as one of the small advisory group that has been working with the Co-operative Heritage Trust on the project Working Together: recording and preserving the heritage of the workers’ co-operative movement.

The project has already received support from co-operatives and individuals in the movement. I’m pleased to say that the project plan and budget was yesterday submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund, who we hope will also endorse and help fund the initiative.  I’ll let you know how we get on.