STORY OF A PEACEFUL REVOLUTION.
Wholesale Co-operation — Organisation, Government and Theory.
organisation of the English Co-operative Wholesale Society is that of a
pure federation of consumers’ associations, including in its membership
only registered societies or bodies corporate, and trading only with
such societies. The control is entirely in the hands of its constituent
members, democratically exercised through accredited representatives
sent to general meetings of the society.
The following extracts from The Wholesale of To-day give the essential points of the principles upon which the constitution of the English Wholesale is based :—
|“To consider the economic character of the Co-operative
Wholesale Society, we cannot isolate the society from the whole scheme
of co-operation in England, and discuss it as we might a single
distributive society. In the latter case operations are confined to a
definite small area, and the policy of the society is absolutely
controlled by an arbitrary body of members with only a moral dependence
on the rest of the movement, and such a society is capable of
independent existence if all similar institutions ceased to exist. The
Wholesale, however, occupies a totally different position, being
unlimited as to the extent of its operations, but restricted as to the
nature of them, being incapable of separate existence, and essentially
dependent on the rest of the movement.|
“Serving all co-operative
societies alike in all parts of the country, being criticised by all,
owned and controlled by all, it becomes, as it were, a focus of the
ideas common to all the Co-operators of England. Its policy becomes an
indicator of the state of economic thought among co-operators in
“Co-operation as we have it in England to-day presents the
spectacle of millions of persons combining together to supply
themselves with the commodities they require in order to prevent the
waste and loss caused to them when the various services of distribution
are performed by irresponsible individuals. Just as local associations
of co-operators undertake this work for the ﬁnal or local distribution
of goods by employing persons at fixed wages to issue the goods from
shops and stores belonging to the community, so they undertake the work
of wholesale supply and distribution by employing persons to obtain for
them at home or abroad the goods they require, and to arrange for their
the general meetings of the society, the report, statement of accounts,
and other business on the agenda are ﬁrst discussed at the branches,
and at “divisional meetings” held at various centres, and ﬁnally
discussed at the central meeting, held in Manchester. All the
votes cast at the several meetings are reckoned together, and the
under discussion is decided by a majority of votes. No new rule
made, nor any of the rules repealed or altered, except by a vote of a
majority of two-thirds of the members voting at a general meeting of
BOARD OF DIRECTORS AND THEIR POWERS.
management of the society is in the hands of a General Committee of
Directors sitting at Manchester, and of Branch Committees and
Sub-Committees which meet locally, weekly or oftener, and report to the
General Committee. The full Board consists of thirty-two members —
sixteen elected for Manchester, and eight each for Newcastle and London
Branches. The sixteen Manchester members and two representatives each
from the branches form the General Committee, which has a veto and
jurisdiction over the affairs of the whole, appointing, apportioning
salaries, and dismissing all officials of the society. The general
powers exercised by the Committee are practically the same as those
exercised in the management of retail societies. 
It is one of the remarkable facts about the Wholesale Societies that
the men to whom is entrusted the executive control of this vast
organisation are all workers who have risen from the ranks of
Co-operation, having won the respect and conﬁdence of the Movement by
years of service, and, once elected, a director is rarely unseated in
subsequent re-elections. It is also interesting to note that cases are
on record of a director having become an employee of the society, and
of an employee having been elected a director. 
THE LATE J. T. W. MITCHELL.
admittedly standing high above his colleagues in force of character,
the late J. T. W. Mitchell — for twenty-one years the President of the
English Wholesale Society (1874-95) — may be regarded as the type of
man who has made the directorate of the Wholesale the most honourable
official position within the movement to which the co-operator may
aspire. Born at Rochdale in 1828, of humble parentage, and struggling
to manhood through many disadvantages, Mr. Mitchell joined the
Pioneers’ Society in 1854, early taking ofﬁce on the committee, and
serving as secretary for a time. He served also on the educational
committee of the society, and devoted every moment of his spare time to
furthering the movement, and that of the Sunday School and temperance
cause, with which his whole life was closely connected. His character
was strongly inﬂuenced by deep and sincere religious feeling, and it
has been said of him: “Plain living, hard work, love for the children,
purity of motive, love of God, and kindness to his fellow-men, marked
and ennobled his whole life.” An appreciation of
Mr. Mitchell, written after his death by Mr. William Maxwell, President
of the Scottish Wholesale Society, contains the following graphic
picture of the man and his methods  :—
|Alike in committee as in the great meetings of shareholders,
his conduct was impartial, his temper equable, his tact and resource
unlimited, his replies straight, and his general demeanour tolerant in
the extreme . . . . His power of explaining intricate and difficult
questions gained for the institution over which he presided, conﬁdence
and respect . . . . He could not be corrupted . . . . All those who
differed from him most in co-operative policy now recognise how sincere
he was. In business he was punctuality itself, his ﬁrm grasp of the
ﬁnancial position of the Wholesale was always remarkable, . . . . and it
may not be too much to claim that he was largely instrumental in
placing the Wholesale Society in the secure ﬁnancial position it
THE THEORY OF CONSUMER’S PRODUCTION.
As indicated in Chapter XIII., the importance of the Theory of Consumers’ Production,
as carried out by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, makes it
necessary that a clear statement should be presented to the student in
this chapter. The following authoritative passages are, therefore,
quoted from the Co-operative Wholesale Societies’ Annual (1982) in order that the attitude of the society towards this question may be fully understood.
|“As co-operators engage in commerce and manufacture solely to
supply their own needs, the open market and foreign trade being unknown
to them, they may be regarded as a close community buying and
manufacturing goods for themselves. They do not buy to make proﬁt by
selling to others than themselves; that the ordinary retail store is
open to the general public is merely evidence that co-operators are
anxious that everybody should join them, and non-members’ trading is a
most efﬁcient system of propaganda.|
co-operative production as carried on by the Wholesale Society, certain
general facts must be noticed. Co-operators have undertaken production
solely to supply certain of their own needs. The goods made by the
Wholesale are made not to be sold for proﬁt, but to be consumed by the
proprietors of the factories where they are produced. Though one hears
of Wholesale goods being bought and sold, and of proﬁts made on them,
it is of the utmost importance in studying certain aspects of the
Wholesale Society’s production to remember that neither in the
Wholesale Society nor in the distributive store are the goods “sold” to
the members at a “proﬁt” as these terms are understood in the World of
competitive trade. When the Wholesale sends boots made at Leicester to
a society, and the latter hands them to a member, there is no “sale” in
the economic sense, but merely a process of distribution.
the Co-operative Wholesale Society, production has developed, one might
say, along the lines of least resistance. The capital of its members
has been put into industries where there was least likelihood of
failure . . . . Thus we ﬁnd the Wholesale engaged in the manufacture of
goods that are in great demand, as well as in minor industries where
great injustice to both consumers and producers is done outside.
THE CONTROL OF INDUSTRY BY THE COMMUNITY.
leads us to consider brieﬂy the advantages of the control of industry
by the community . . . . The advantages are two-fold; they concern the
consumer and the producer. The consumer gets the goods of the nature
and quality he wants. His ignorance of technical points in manufacture
cannot be used to defraud him. If he desires the Wholesale Society’s
pure cocoa, he gets pure cocoa; if he desires cocoa mixture, he pays a lower price consistent with the lesser cost of
manufacture . . . . The workman who makes the goods works under better
conditions than prevail outside, and gets a better return for his
labour. His work is more regular and permanent, since he works to meet
a known and certain demand . . . . In the Wholesale Society’s factory the
remuneration of labour and the conditions are the subject of a direct
and simple contract between a body of organised consumers who want
certain work done, and a body of workers who also are presumably
organised through their trade union . . . . The real reason why the
control of industry, as regards the owning and managing of factories,
should be in the hands of the “consumers” is because they are
ultimately the whole community, and they work for the interest of all.”
fundamental principle, that “the control of industry . . . should be in
the hands of the ‘consumers,’ because they are ultimately the whole
community,” is that upon which the Scottish Wholesale is also based,
with the difference before noted that here the worker is admitted to a
share in both “proﬁt” and management. In all other respects the
constitution and government of the Scottish Wholesale Society follows
closely upon the lines of the English. Such divergences as are
important can be more clearly seen in the following table of
POINTS OF DIFFERENCE
LIMITATION AND WEAKNESS.
English Co-operative Wholesale
Scottish Co-operative Wholesale
or bodies corporate registered under the Industrial and Provident
Societies Act, or Companies Act, with limited liability, or under any
law of any country giving right to trade as bodies corporate|
with limited liability.
CAPITAL.—Societies who are members must take up not less than three £5 shares for every twenty 
individual members, and increase annually as members increase. Every
society on its admission shall pay one shilling on each share, dividend
and interest not being withdrawable until the allotted number of £5
shares are fully paid up.
registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, and any
employee over 21 years of age admitted by committee. |
Exception: No society trafficking in intoxicating liquors shall be eligible for membership.
CAPITAL.—Societies who are members must take up £1 shares for every additional member, and
|Employees are not admitted as members.||Employees
admitted as members may take up from ﬁve to ﬁfty shares of £1 each.
Each employee must apply for ﬁve shares and pay not less than ls. per
share. Bonus may go to pay up shares.|
|VOTING POWER. — One vote for every 500 members, or fractional part thereof.||VOTING POWERS.
— Society members. One vote in right of membership, one for the ﬁrst
£1,000 worth of goods bought, and one other additional vote for every
£2,000 of goods bought during the half-year.|
Employee members jointly have one vote, and one additional vote for every 150 employees who become shareholders.
|DIVISION OF PROFITS.
— As dividend on purchases of members. Half dividend to non-members.
For any purpose which the general meeting may direct, whether
charitable, philanthropic, of public utility, or within the objects of the society or not.||DIVISION OF PROFITS.
— As dividend on purchases of members. Half dividend to non-members. As
bonus to employees; at same rate on wages as dividend on purchases.
One-half of each Worker’s bonus is retained and put to “Bonus Loan Fund.” |
|MANAGEMENT. — Committee elected by vote of members. Now 32 in all, in following proportion:—|
Manchester . . . . . . . 16
Newcastle Branch. . . 8
London Branch . . . . 8
|MANAGEMENT. — By committee of 12, elected by vote of members.|
|PRESIDENT. — Elected by committee.||PRESIDENT AND SECRETARY. — Elected by vote of members.|
student can hardly contemplate the organisation of this vast federal
movement weakness without some speculation regarding the possible
limitations and weaknesses which must surround it, as all other human
enterprises. Some of the limitations noted in Chapter XII., as
restricting the expansion of distributive co-operation, apply
necessarily to the Wholesale movement as well, since the latter is
dependent upon the former.
The competition offered to retail
societies by local tradesmen, is repeated in the case of the Wholesales
by traders and merchants — sometimes with practices that are
discreditable alike to all parties. The enormous wealth and commercial
position attained by the Wholesales bring them into relationship with
the competitive markets of the whole world, wherein it may possibly
occur that the ideals and principles which should govern co-operative
dealings may seem to handicap the co-operative buyer — as, for
instance, in the purchase of cheap goods having a suspected origin in
the sweater’s den, but for which there is a demand in retail societies.
power and inﬂuence acquired by the Wholesale Societies within the
movement itself lead critics, and sometimes friends, to wonder whether
there is not some danger of the free democratic constitution of the
societies being overborne by the weight of autocratic officialism. These
dangers — if they exist in any literal sense — can only be guarded
against by the exercise, on the part of the movement, of its full
responsibility and control over the policy and practice of the
societies; and by electing as directors men of high character and
1. Co-operative Wholesale Societies’ Annual, 1902, page 337.
2. See Chapter XII., page 93.
3. Mr. W. Strawn, 1882, and Mr. Isaac Mort, 1904.
4. Rev. J. Hirst Hollowell, quoted by Mr. Maxwell in Co-operative Wholesale Societies’ Annual, 1896
5. The late J. T. W. Mitchell J.P., by William Maxwell, Co-operative Wholesale Societies’ Annual, 1896.
6. Co-operative Wholesale Societies’ Annual, 1902, page 397.
— the original owner of the book that was used to make this Internet
transcription has inserted a manuscript change to effect that “three £5 shares for very twenty” should read “£1 share for every member”. I cannot say which is correct.
8. See Appendix, table (12).