Co-op Days Remembered

In this photograph of a Co-op grocery managers' outing in front of the Eccles Central premises in 1939, Hilda Williams' mother stands in the centre of the front row wearing a small patterned dress. Her father can hardly be seen.

In this photograph of a Co-op grocery managers’ outing in front of the Eccles Central premises in 1939, Hilda Williams’ mother stands in the centre of the front row wearing a small patterned dress. Her father can hardly be seen.

WHEN my father was the grocery manager of a Co-operative store I’d watch his deft hands weighing and packing sugar into blue bags, cutting loose butter from the barrel before patting it into uniform shapes using old wooden butter pats and carving symmetrical cheese wedged with a long piece of wire – all fascinating to a small child as it was done with such speed and accuracy.

Quality cooked meats were carefully weighed on shining balance scales, with the tall arm and hand swinging upwards pointing to the number of ounces. Measurements were exact – overweight to the customer meant loss of profit to the branch. Deliveries of weekly orders to the home could be made on request, and for this a printed order book had to be filled in, ticking off the items required, adding names and addresses. One of the most important details was the Co-op membership number, duplicated on a tiny slip of coloured paper and kept carefully to record the amount spent in a year.

The aproned butcher’s boy brought steak, sausages and juicy lamb chops for Sunday dinner. It was the highlight of the week for me to ride in the meat basket on the front of his bicycle, legs hanging over the front wheel. Milk was delivered by horse-drawn
float, and bread too. Coal arrived on the shoulders of big black men with wide eyes and white teeth off a flat-bed lorry.

There were many trade names associated with the Co-op. CWS was, of course, made up from the initials for Co-operative Wholesale Society, and the Pelaw label came from the town of the same name on the banks of the Tyne, where there were huge factories processing all kinds of goods. The Wheatsheaf emblem indicated the wholesomeness of the products, and we seem to have gone full circle today with green, environmentally-friendly symbols becoming popular again.

Tinned goods such as meat and sardines and salmon were labelled Lokreel, and Silver Seal margarine came from the works at Irlam, Lancashire. Household soaps came from the same area, and toilet soap was sold under the name Galeta; similarly Crumpsall biscuits were made in that region near Manchester.

The Co-op diversified and used every marketing tool available. Drapery departments supplied outer and underwear for ladies, including Desbeau corsets and bras, and men were catered for with an excellent full tailoring service in addition to off-the-peg items. Even the buildings were used for meetings in the evenings; often rooms were
located above the larger branch shops, and here Men’s and Women’s Guilds flourished. There were Children’s Circle groups too, so that everyone within the community felt included.

The Eccles Co-operative Society’s Swinton branch shoe shop in the 1920s.

The Eccles Co-operative Society’s Swinton branch shoe shop in the 1920s.

The Women’s Guild had its own monthly magazine, Womens Outlook. Its purpose was to enlighten women as to the benefits of Coop membership and the value of the movement. Visiting speakers would elaborate on a variety of subjects, and many women benefited from these evenings away from family duties. These meetings were in existence before the coming of the Townswomen’s Guilds, and were another indication of the forethought put into attracting customers by the Co-op.

Members of the Co-op were paid a dividend in cash or shares on ‘quarter days’. The small coloured receipts mentioned earlier were attached to a gummed sheet which could be obtained from the grocer’s counter. On ‘divi’ days the totals were reckoned up and payments made to members’ share books or in cash.

In Eccles, Lancashire, May Day was celebrated with a Co-op Carnival which ended its journey in the sports field. There were games for children, a band playing and a general excuse for a very good day. During the evening there was usually an exhibition in Togo Mill, where they made confectionery and bread; there might be a demonstration of making ‘Selected Silk Cut’ cigarettes, or toffee-making in operation. There were fashion parades of both men’s and women’s clothes. I remember seeing mannequins wearing Desbeau corsets, complete with long elastic suspenders, parading up and down the catwalk. At the age of eight I thought it was very rude, and although it must have been quite daring at the time it was another indication of the CWS’s advanced programme to attract business. Alas, this celebration of May Day ceased in 1940 and was never revived.

Head Office of the Co-operative Wholesale Society was in Balloon Street, Manchester, where the offices for insurance are to this day. There’s a Co-op Bank in Stockport which is very modern in design, incorporating lots of blue glass, and well worth a visit, especially at night when it is floodlit. It can be seen from the air when landing at Manchester Airport. This has all come a long way from Toad Lane in Rochdale when the first shop, which is now a museum, opened in 1844.

What would Robert Owen think today regarding his primary idea of profit-sharing? The song sung at every meeting of the Children’s Circle, Each for All and All for Each, perhaps reflects more closely his original plan,

Hilda Williams