It’s always a treat to visit the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the quite remarkable collection of books and material from progressive movements of all kinds in Britain and beyond which was the life’s work of Eddie and Ruth Frow, and there was a particular pleasure in being there on Saturday for an informal gathering of cooperative historians, facilitated by the UK Society for Co-operative Studies. Useful discussions, and a chance to catch up on what other research initiatives other people are engaged in at present.
And as it happened the day before I was at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, in Toad Lane, Rochdale, also talking cooperative history. The museum will be hosting a small exhibition of the story of the Hebden Bridge textile mill run successfully by its workers in the nineteenth century, as a tie-in to my forthcoming book on the subject All Our Own Work. If you want a sneak preview you’ll find a short graphics-led account of this story which I have produced already available online on the Co-operative Heritage Trust’s website.
I mentioned previously that I’d sent in a photo or two for the photography exhibition of cooperative buildings being organised by the Rochdale Pioneers museum. The exhibition is now up, and I dropped in earlier today to Toad Lane in Rochdale for the cheese-straws-and-cocktail-sausages-and-chat launch event.
As you’d expect, there’s an eclectic mixture of photos which have come in, ranging from images of the golden years of the Victorian cooperative period to the (perhaps somewhat tarnished) present day. It’s good to be reminded about the way in which members’ pride for their cooperative societies in the early years was reflected in the fine architecture they commissioned. In those days the coop was often much the most impressive secular building in many towns and villages, at least in the north of England heartlands. So there’s an inevitable sense of sadness to see some of these buildings photographed in their twenty-first century guise, boarded up and derelict.
The photos at Rochdale reflect not only the Victorian architecture but also the often very exciting art deco architecture chosen by cooperatives in the 1930s. I’m pleased to see a photograph of Huddersfield’s once-mighty coop department store, put up in the mid 1930s and now sadly awaiting the return of better times, in the exhibition for example.
The Pioneers museum at Rochdale remains an important place of pilgrimage for many cooperatively minded visitors from overseas. Sometimes it gets rather less attention from British visitors.
It’s sometimes forgotten, I think, that many of Britain’s early cooperative societies weren’t set up just with the idea of running shops. The Rochdale Pioneers themselves, for example, had the idea of “building, purchasing or erecting a number of houses in which those members desiring to assist each other in improving their domestic and social condition may reside”. By the start of the twentieth century, Britain’s local coop societies had collectively spent £1.8m on building or buying houses which they then let to their members.
I know all this because I’ve recently been reading Ernest Aves’ 1907 book Co-operative Industry which I picked up second-hand some time back. Aves also includes details of a fascinating early (1888) housing coop initiative, the Tenant Co-operators Ltd, which built working class housing in Penge, Upton Park, East Ham, Camberwell and Epsom. Investor members received 4% interest and surplus profits went to the tenant shareholders.
The housing coop movement in Britain is small but creative (a report I wrote on it a few years back for Co-ops UK can be found on my website). My own feeling is that there’s a great deal of scope for new community-led cooperative housing initiatives. One which has recently been drawn to my attention is the Lancaster Cohousing project, a fascinating development on the banks of the river Lune. If I can, I’ll write further about this in due course.