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.


Lost: a small part of coop history

An email arrives today from Richard Bickle of the Society for Co-operative Studies who has noticed that Watford Printers Ltd has gone into voluntary liquidation, having amalgamated with another local printing firm. As Richard points out, Watford Printers is – was – probably the last of the traditional productive cooperative societies (‘co-partnerships’). It was registered as a cooperative society in November 1921.

Watford Printers had a rather fine logo, although it seems long ago to have stopped identifying very much with the wider cooperative movement. Still, it’s always a pity to see a small part of coop history disappear.


Invisible (co-operative) histories

It is more than twenty years since I was commissioned by the GMB union to visit the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) in Salford for a feature for their members’ magazine. I was blown away by the wonderful collection of books, newspapers and ephemera from all strands of radical political activity assembled there, the life’s work of two remarkable people from a past generation of activists Ruth and Eddie Frow. Their collection is now held under the auspices of a charitable trust and is housed just across the road from Salford Crescent station.

I strongly recommend a visit if you haven’t been to the WCML before. The WCML tells me that it will be marking this year’s Heritage Open Days initiative with ‘behind-the-scenes’ tours on Thursday 10 and Friday 11 September.

But you’d also be welcome on 30 September when, as part of the WCML’s regular series of free Wednesday ‘Invisible Histories’ talks, I’ll be there talking about early productive cooperatives in Britain and elaborating on some of the themes I explore in my new book All Our Own Work. The talk starts at 2pm (details here).

Back to the future

I’ve been working this morning on the presentation I’ll be giving in a couple of weeks at the Society for Co-operative Studies’ annual conference, being held in Leicester on September 5th and 6th.

I’ve titled my presentation Britain’s early productive cooperatives, why they were forgotten, and why they’re relevant today, although it’s fair to say that my focus will be mainly on one particular cooperative, the fustian mill in Hebden Bridge which was in its day considered one of the exemplars of manufacturing cooperation and which is the subject of my recently published book All Our Own Work.

I’ll be suggesting that the experiences of bottom-up worker self-management in those nineteenth century pioneering businesses could be worth re-examining.  (And, you know what, that this could be surprisingly relevant for those of us currently completing our Labour Party leadership ballot papers…)

Remembering Jesse Gray

The photo I posted here yesterday is of J.C. Gray (Jesse Clement Gray) who was General Secretary of the Co-operative Union from 1891 to 1911, a time when the cooperative movement was riven with disagreements and with the potential for splits. Gray, who combined political adroitness with vision, kept the movement united and built its strength. He also had much to do with the successful development of the international movement following the launch of the International Co-operative Alliance in 1895. He’s been unjustly forgotten.

I will be giving an short informal talk on Jesse Gray this Thursday lunchtime to those working in Holyoake House in Manchester, just in case this may conceivably be you.

Holyoake: an Agitator’s life, on-line

For about sixty years in the nineteenth and early twentieth century George Jacob Holyoake was an important figure in the British cooperative movement. It’s no coincidence that Co-operatives UK’s head office in Manchester is in a building named Holyoake House.

Holyoake was, among much else, a journalist and writer.  When I was researching my book All Our Own Work last year, I burrowed away in the British Library reading several of his writings, including his account of the Rochdale Pioneers. I needn’t have bothered going to Euston Road.  Gillian Lonergan, the archivist at the National Co-operative Archive, has drawn my attention to an excellent website where most of Holyoake’s key books on the early coop movement have been digitised, as well as his autobiography (it has the great title Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life).

You’ll find the website here.

New square in Manchester’s co-op quarter needs a name

Let’s be honest, not all the press releases from the Co-operative Group make gripping reading. But here’s one that has caught my eye.

The ‘co-operative quarter’ in Manchester, just beside Victoria Station, is undergoing a facelift at the moment, with dirty streets being newly paved and a town square created on what was once an unprepossessing warehouse building. It’s a mess at the moment but will certainly look better when it’s done.

The Group and the developers are now inviting the public to come up with a name for the new square. I think the name should have a strong co-op connection, and have sent in my own suggestion (since you ask, I’m suggesting Neale Square, after the co-op leader and long-serving General Secretary of the Co-operative Union Edward Vansittart Neale, since the other great Victorian co-op leader George Jacob Holyoake already has his name given to Holyoake House next door).

You can offer suggestions too. Details here.