CHORLEY HISTORICAL AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY
The Co-operative Movement (Report 1)
by John Harrison
Do you have occasions when fate appears to be pointing a finger at/for
you? Mine was two weeks ago. It began with a read of the “Flashback”
page in the Chorley Guardian and the headline “The Co-op”- from 12
stores to none”. It arose from a talk being given on the history of the
Co-op in Leyland. I then received a reminder from the Institute of Local
and Family History to tell me that I was booked into a one day
conference in Preston on………"The Co-operative Movement"!
mid-nineteenth century development of the Retail Co-op in Toad
Lane, Rochdale (1920s photo on right), Britain saw the growth of
the Co-operative Movement, which has a strong claim to be the
most successful enterprise of the ensuing century. At its peak
it had millions of members and it was a vital part of most
working-class communities throughout Britain down to the 1950s.
Through its dividend system, its educational activities, and
ancillary organisations like the Co-operative Women’s Guild and
the Co-operative Party it gave ordinary people a real chance to
shape their own lives, and even the way the nation was run.
In 1950 the Co-operative movement had 12 million members which
by any measure was a phenomenal figure. That figure is only an
indicator of the impact of the Co-op on British people as every
member would usually be a member of a family. The figure of 12
million dwarfs other mass member organisations such as the
Church of England, the Labour Party and Trade Unions. Industries
were important for the generation of wealth and income, but it
was in the Co-op that much of that income was spent.
looked at the history and principles of Co-operation and there
was discussion about whether or not Robert Owen (painting on
left) was an important figure in the development of the
movement. There was a paper on Co-operative Cotton Companies
which had reference to Greenfield Mill in Chorley. Industrial
Co-ops were not long term successes, but were significant for
the number of working class investors, most of whom only bought
one share. (Chorley’s Co-op mill sold 3788 shares in 1862 when
the town’s population was just over 15,000!).
A topic which was new to me was the Women’s Co-operative Guild.
We had a paper based on a study of Todmorden which showed that
this organisation’s role, which supported wives of Co-op
members, was not just one of supporting women, but politicising
them. It was convincingly argued that the Guild has been
overlooked by historians and was in reality as important an
organisation as the Suffragettes in the History of the Women’s
What did I bring back to Chorley? A wish to learn more about
what happened locally. Lots of questions such as who was
involved in founding the Co-op mill? Why did they set it up and
why did it fail? What do we know about Co-op retail services in
Chorley and District? We have on our website lists of halls and
mills in Chorley. Shouldn’t we also have lists (and photos) of
all the Co-op retail outlets before they are forgotten as they
have been the focus of more lives than Chorley’s mills!