Congratulations to Unicorn Grocery

How can I fail to respond to the press release that has come through from the Manchester-based workers’ co-operative Unicorn Grocery?

The press release is advising me of some good news which, in fact, I had already heard elsewhere: that Unicorn has carried off the prize in the BBC Food and Farming awards as the best food retailer.

Unicorn, one of the country’s most successful workers’ co-ops and one which has contributed a great deal to the wider co-op movement, is 21 years old this year. It demonstrated the success of raising investment funds from within the community long before everyone else was talking of community shares, and it has already taken the BBC prize once before, in 2008.

One of the things I learned when I was researching the later nineteenth century co-operative movement a couple of years ago was the strength and importance of the co-operative flour mills in several northern towns, most notably the societies in Sowerby Bridge (which also had a mill in Hebden Bridge and was the largest in the country) and in Halifax. What we would now call food politics was an issue early co-operators understood, too. It’s good that co-ops like Unicorn continue the tradition.

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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.

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.

Fair tax in Manchester

A nice email arrives from Debbie Clarke at Manchester’s workers’ co-operative store Unicorn Grocery, letting me know that Unicorn has just been awarded the Fair Tax mark. Debbie goes on, “we’re not particularly concerned about receiving coverage or accolades for getting accredited as we feel it should be pretty standard business practice, but as it isn’t we are keen to do what we can to promote the mark and make it more visible nationally. It also feels like a really good opportunity to talk about co-operative values and principles and how they are being put into practice.”

Well done to Unicorn, an excellent example of successful worker co-operation.

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.