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Industrial Co-operation:







Edward Vansittart Neale

The Co-operative Union.


THE Co-operative Union is the result of growth and accumulated experience.  Co-operative organisation in the years following 1844 seems to have been somewhat “parochial” in character.  The magnificence which characterised most of the schemes of earlier days was, for the time being, laid aside, and co-operators settled down to the practical consideration of their immediate difficulties.  This was inevitable: they had to think out, and work out in practice numberless problems the solution of which the modern co-operator takes for granted.  But the necessity of meeting together for mutual discussion is inseparable from a democratic movement like co-operation, and although local needs might for a time absorb the energies of co-operators, the larger questions which had grown up with the movement, legal difficulties, the holding and transfer of land, and methods of wholesale supply, were problems affecting all the societies, and demanded deliberations which it was impossible for any one society to give to them unaided.  Thus the growing need for some central organisation became evident.

The meetings held by “the Society for Promoting Working Men’s Associations,” aided by its weekly journal, The Christian Socialist, did much useful work as a pioneer in this direction, especially in the south of England.

At a conference of Lancashire and Yorkshire societies, held in Manchester in June, 1851, it was resolved that Messrs. Lloyd Jones of London, Wm. Bell of Heywood, J. Campbell of Manchester, and J. Smithies of Rochdale form a committee, and draw up rules for guiding the co-operative movement of England.

Later in the same year, a writer in the Christian Socialist said:—

I am of opinion that the best thing to do at present would be to form a Co-operative Union — let there be a branch in every town where there is a store or workshop, or where there are any friends to the cause, no matter whether they are members of stores or not. [1]

The writer clearly contemplated a Union which would not only help the existing societies, but also conduct organised propaganda for the extension of co-operation among the workers.

Nearly twenty years elapsed, however, before this idea took practical form.  In 1860 the societies of Lancashire and Yorkshire made the first step by forming a Conference Association, the example being shortly followed in other districts.


It is recorded [2] that six conferences were held between 1850 and 1855: five in the north and one in the south of England.  Nineteen were held between 1860 and 1868, of which four were in Scotland, twelve in the north, and three in the south of England.  These conferences were often held on Good Friday, and were regarded as meetings of great importance.

The growth of co-operation was continuous and rapid, and every year brought fresh difficulties and new problems.  The idea of a National Co-operative Association grew, but it was not until 1868 that it took definite shape.  In August of that year a meeting of friends interested in co-operation was held at the offices of the Agricultural and Horticultural Association, in Parliament Street, Westminster, under the presidency of Mr. Edward Vansittart Neale, and it was resolved to convene a Co-operative Congress in London in February, 1869.  A guarantee fund was to be raised for the purpose, and co-operative productive societies at home and abroad were to be invited to exhibit their work.  The response to the circular setting forth the proposals was disappointing, and it was not until after another meeting, in March, 1869, that the Congress became practicable.  An arrangement committee was formed, and the Lancashire and Yorkshire societies were brought into the scheme through their Conference Association.  This latter body, representing as it did the democratic element of the movement, considerably strengthened the hands of the promoters of the Congress.  A circular was issued fixing the date of Congress for May 31st, 1869.  The following extracts from this circular set forth clearly the objects for which it was proposed to meet:—

“The rapid growth of co-operation is one of the most remarkable facts in modern history.  Originating with the working classes, a system of business has been introduced, which, if rightly carried out, promises to change completely the social and industrial aspects of the country, by altering in its very essence the relationship between buyer and seller, employer and employed.

“Whether this most important movement shall be so wisely conducted as to achieve a speedy and complete success, with as little disturbance and loss as possible to those interests and persons that are likely to be affected by it, is a question of deep interest to the community — especially to those who, as co-operators, are practically engaged in working out the change.

“Co-operation is spreading everywhere; but its leading principles are not strictly defined, or its higher aims understood.  The methods of business, in distribution or production, of the different societies, are not in harmony.  Its success in individual cases is doubtful where it might be certain; whilst, where failures and losses occur, they are at once hurtful to those who enter on such experiments, and a grave discouragement to others.

“While the success of the movement is no longer doubtful, there are obstacles to be removed, dangers encountered, and higher objects sought, which render counsel necessary among those who have studied the principles of co-operation, and who have practically engaged themselves in its working.”

Then follows an appeal to trade societies and other working class bodies.

The subjects set down for discussion help us to understand what were regarded as the problems of that day.  Among these were:—

1. How best to utilise the organisation of the trades unions for co-operative purposes;

2. The best means of making co-operative societies mutually helpful; e.g.:—

(a) By bringing the productions of co-operative societies into the co-operative and general markets.

(b) By instituting a system of Guarantee, Banking, and Labour Exchange.

(c) By applying co-operation to agriculture and horticulture.

(d) By combining manufactures with agriculture and horticulture.

(e) By educational establishments which may be rendered self-supporting by industrial co-operative enterprise.

(f) By forming an organisation of all co-operative societies and co-operators at home and abroad.

(g) By seeking an amendment of the law where it is found to hamper co-operative exertions.

3. What are the chief causes of failure of co-operative stores and manufacturing establishments, and what are the fundamental conditions necessary in each case for success?

4. In partnerships of industry, what division of profits, as between capital and labour, is most likely to produce perfectly harmonious action, and therefore the largest measure of success?  What division is most equitable and what now is most practicable?

From this programme it will be seen that co-operative ideas had now outgrown the parochial stage, and both national and international problems were included in its scope.

Thomas Hughes, M.P., was appointed president, and A. J. Mundella, M.P., vice-president of the arrangements committee, with Walter Morrison and E. O. Greening as treasurers.  107 names appear on the committee, [3] and the list is worth studying, including as it does the names of many of the greatest men of the time.

The Congress was opened in the Theatre of the Society of Arts, John Street, Adelphi, on May 31st, 1869.

Thomas Hughes presided and delivered the inaugural address.  He traced the growth of co-operation, lamented that co-operators did not always live up to their principles, and mapped out the future policy of the movement.


On the fourth day Mr. G. J. Holyoake read a paper in which he advocated the formation of a Central Board, to act as a sort of “Executive Congress.”  After a long discussion, it was decided, on the motion of Mr. J. M. Ludlow, that a London Committee should be formed, to act in conjunction with the Conference Committees of the north.

This London Board consisted of the following gentlemen, with power to add to their number:— Thomas Hughes, M.P.; Walter Morrison, M.P.; A. J. Mundella, M.P.; William Allan (Amalgamated Engineers); Robert Applegarth (Amalgamated Carpenters and Joiners); E. O. Greening; Hon. Auberon Herbert; James Hole; G. J. Holyoake; Lloyd Jones; J. M. Ludlow; William Pare, F.S.S.; Hodgson Pratt; Henry Travis, M.D.; Joseph Woodin. Mr. E. V. Neale, who was abroad at the time, was added to the Board on his return.
Thus was formed the organisation out of which the Co-operative Union has grown.

At the next Congress (1870) the organisation became more definite.  The names of the London and Provincial Boards are included in the Congress Report.  The London Section was re-appointed, and the Provincial Section was appointed as follows:— Abraham Greenwood, Rochdale; Samuel Stott, Rochdale; Thomas Cheetham, Rochdale; William Nuttall, Oldham; Isaiah Lee, Oldham; James C. Fox, Manchester; David Baxter, Manchester; Thomas Slater, Bury; James Crabtree, Heckmondwike; J. Whittaker, Bacup; W. Barnett, Macclesfield; Joseph Kay, Over Darwen; William Bates, Eccles; J. T. McInnes, Glasgow (editor of the Scottish Co-operator); James Borrowman, Glasgow.

It will be seen that the Provincial Section covered a wide area and included Scotland.

In 1872 it was suggested that other sections should be formed, and in 1873, at the Newcastle Congress, Mr. E. V. Neale read a paper recommending the formation of a “Central Co-operative Board,” to consist of five sections — the Southern, Midland, North-Western, Northern, and Scottish; and the formation of a United Board, composed of representatives from each section, which, subject to Congress, should be the governing authority of the Central Board.

These proposals were adopted, and at the Congress a detailed constitution was drawn up.  On the motion of Mr. E. O. Greening, it was decided that Congress should be held in each section in rotation.


Since 1873 the organisation of the Central Board has been altered in form from time to time as the result of experience and to meet fresh needs, and in 1889 the Board was reconstituted and registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act as “The Co-operative Union Limited,” under which name it has since carried on the work of organising the co-operative movement.  As stated in its constitution:—

The Union is founded to promote the practice of truthfulness, justice, and economy in production and exchange.

(1) By the abolition of all false dealings, either (a) direct, by representing any article produced or sold to be other than what it is known to the producer or vendor to be; or (b) indirect, by concealing from the purchaser any fact known to the vendor material to be known by the purchaser, to enable him to judge of the value of the article purchased.

(2) By conciliating the conflicting interests of the capitalist, the worker, and the purchaser, through. the equitable division among them of the fund commonly known as Profit.

(3) By preventing the waste of labour now caused by unregulated competition.


Each society applying for admission to the Union is deemed by such application to accept the principles above stated as the basis of all its business transactions, and no society is admitted into the Union unless its management is of a representative character.  Thus the Union is vested with the safe keeping of what may be termed the ethical conscience and character of the movement, which finds expression in the well-known co-operative motto: “Each for All and All for Each.”

Every member of the Union must hold one transferable share, of the nominal value of five shillings, which does not carry interest or dividend.

Every society must, so long as it continues a member of the Union, contribute annually to its support as follows:—

(a) If the number of members of the society is less than 1,000, then the sum of twopence per member;

(b) If such number exceeds 1,000, then, at least, the sum of two thousand pence.

(c) This contribution entitles the society to one vote for every 500 members for whom it has subscribed, and to send delegates to Congress in the same proportion.

At the commencement of 1904 the Union consisted of 1,206 societies, with a membership of 1,936,600. There were 495 societies, with 179,527 individual members, which had not joined the Union.


For purposes of co-operative organisation the United Kingdom is divided up into seven geographical areas, called sections.  Each of these sections has its own Sectional Board, elected annually by the societies within the area covered by the respective sections, in such manner as they themselves determine.  The seven Sectional Boards together constitute the Central Board, which is the governing body of the Union.

The following table shows the number and distribution of the Central Board, and the method of election:—

          Midland11      By the whole section.
          Northern 7      . . . . . . . Districts
          North-Western20      . . . . . . . Districts, except four Sectional Representatives.
          Scottish10      . . . . . . . whole Section
          Southern 9      . . . . . . . ditto
          South-Western 5      . . . . . . . ditto
          Western 5      . . . . . . . ditto
Total Central Board67

From 1888 to 1896 Ireland was served by an Irish Sectional Board of five members, but in the latter year it was decided at the Woolwich Congress that the Irish Section should be merged into the Scottish, with one representative elected by and from the societies in Ireland members of the Union.  The rapid progress of co-operation in Ireland, both agricultural and distributive, has, however, rendered it impossible to keep pace with the work under this arrangement.  It was therefore decided by the Congress at Stratford (1904) to again separate Scotland and Ireland, and to give to Ireland, in place of a Sectional Board, an Executive Committee of seven members, which shall act under the supervision and control of the United Board.  Two members of this committee are appointed to attend Congress and the annual meetings of the Central Board as the representatives for Ireland.


A candidate for membership of one of the Sectional Boards must be a member of some society member of the Union belonging to the section for which he is nominated, but need not be a member of the society by which he is nominated.

Usually there are a large number of nominees for a seat on the Central Board, and the candidates have almost invariably served an apprenticeship in co-operative propaganda on district committees, educational associations, or local societies, and have become known to the section as active and sound co-operators, willing to devote considerable time and energy to the cause.

Women are eligible for election, and in the Southern Suction four Women have been elected, two holding office at the present time (1904), all of whom have graduated through the Women’s Co-operative Guild.  Changes on the Board seldom occur except by retirement, and a member retiring after ten years’ service may be elected an honorary member of the Board.  Such honorary members are subject to re-election annually by Congress, upon the nomination of the United Board, and are entitled to attend the meetings of their respective sections and the annual meetings of the Central Board and Congress, and to speak at such meetings, but they may not vote.

A large part of the work of the members of the Board consists in visiting societies and speaking at propagandist meetings, and the calls upon members possessing any degree of oratorical eloquence are sometimes very numerous.  Membership of the Board, though a position of honour, is by no means a sinecure.

Each of the Sectional Boards in England and Scotland, and the Executive Committee in Ireland, is responsible for the guidance of the societies in its own area, and meets monthly.


Some of the sections cover very wide areas, and it has been found necessary to provide local machinery for local work.  Each section is therefore divided up into districts, which vary in size and character.  For each district, a District Committee is elected by the societies in that area, to carry on local propaganda work, and arrange conferences on various subjects of local interest.  In some districts the Committee is augmented by representatives from societies who give special subscriptions to the work.


The Central Board meets as a whole only twice a year — once immediately after its election, to decide its general policy for the year; and once just before Congress, to consider its report to Congress.  But a large amount of executive work is carried on in the interval between the Congress meetings.  This is delegated to the United Board and to various committees.  The United Board consists of representatives from the Sectional Boards.  The North-Western sends four representatives, the Midland, Northern, Scottish, and Southern two each, and the South-Western and Western one each.  The United Board meets three times in each year, and, subject to Congress, is the executive of the Union.  The following committees are also appointed:—

(1) The Office Committee meets four times a year in the intervals between the United Board meetings, and carries on the executive work of that body.  It consists of representatives from each section, who are members of the United Board, and acts under the authority of that Board.

(2) The Finance Sub-Committee. — This is appointed by the office committee.  Its business is to check and scrutinise accounts, sign cheques, and control expenditure &c.

There are also other committees for work of a special character.

(3) The Educational Committee is composed of representatives appointed by the Sectional Boards, and by the Sectional Educational Committees’ Associations and the Women’s Guild, and meets four times in each year, or more frequently if required.  Its function is to direct and guide the educational activities of the movement, and to promote classes for teaching the history and principles of co-operation, bookkeeping, and cognate subjects.  It issues an annual programme and lecture list, provides lectures, teachers for classes, prizes, scholarships, and certificates.  (The work of this committee will be referred to in detail in Chapter XXIII.)

(4) The Productive Committee has charge of all matters relating to co-operative production, provides model rules, visits societies and gives advice free, assists in getting rules of new societies registered, and generally endeavours to keep productive or manufacturing societies on right lines.

(5) The Joint Parliamentary Committee is composed of four representatives from the United Board, with four from the English, and three from the Scottish Wholesale Societies.  Its office is to watch legislation, examine new Bills, and endeavour to protect co-operative interests in Parliament.

(6) The Joint Committee of Trade Unionists and Co-operators. — Four members each from the Co-operative Union and the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress compose this committee.  Its primary object is to deal with disputes which, happily, are not frequent in co-operative societies.  There is a separate committee for Scotland similarly constituted, and it is important to remember that these committees are a valuable factor in the maintenance of a smoothly working relationship between trade unionists and co-operators.

(7) The Exhibitions Committee. — This committee was constituted in 1902 to organise and control exhibitions of co-operative production.  There are four representatives from the Co-operative Union, four from the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and three from the productive societies.  The demands for co-operative exhibitions were very numerous, and as there was no definite agreement as to these between the Co-operative Wholesale Societies and the productive societies, some central body, representing both, became necessary.  The heavy cost of these exhibitions, too, made it necessary to limit their number, and to carefully select the localities, in order to insure some return for the large outlay.

(8) The Joint Propaganda Committee is composed of three representatives of the Co-operative Union and four from the English Co-operative Wholesale Society.  It meets monthly to organise special propaganda work in different parts of the country.  A permanent organiser is employed, who visits new districts and helps in the establishment of new societies.  Weak and struggling societies are assisted with advice and loan capital.  Other societies are assisted to open up new branches in neighbouring districts where no store exists.  The organiser frequently visits a society — usually by request — and canvasses the whole of the members. In this way weaknesses of local management are discovered and mistakes corrected.

A similar committee, with an organiser, has also been established in Scotland, in connection with the Scottish Sectional Board of the Co-operative Union, and the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society.  This committee works on lines similar to those of the English committee.  The appointment of these organisers suggests an interesting revival of Owen’s social missionaries.

(9) The International and Foreign Inquiry Committee. — This committee consists of eight members appointed by the Central Board.  It obtains information and reports as to co-operation in other countries, and works in conjunction with the “International Alliance,” of which an account will be found on page 215.  Members of the committee often attend the Co-operative Congresses in continental countries, and this exchange of visits does much to strengthen the spirit of fraternity between co-operators of different nations.

In addition to the foregoing committees others are occasionally appointed which, though responsible for important work, are not permanent bodies.  The “Owen Memorial Committee” and the “Co-operative Defence Committee” are examples.  This latter was appointed to oppose the traders’ boycott of co-operators in 1902, which it did most successfully.

We are now in a position to see what a vast and complicated organisation the Co-operative Union really is.  The map given in the Appendix will show the geographical position of the various sections and districts.


It is not generally known how large has been the Union’s share in building up the co-operative movement.  The greater part of the legal advantages enjoyed by the co-operators originated in the action of the Central Board of the Union.  They have been summarised as follows:—

(l) The right to deal with the public instead of their own members only.

(2) The incorporation of the societies, by which they have acquired the right of holding in their own name lands or buildings and property generally, and of suing and being sued in their own names, instead of being driven to employ trustees.

(3) The power to hold 200 instead of 100 by individual members of societies.

(4) The limitation of the liability of members for the debts of the society to the sum unpaid upon the shares standing to their credit.

(5) The exemption of societies from charge to income tax on the profits of their business, under the condition that the number of their shares shall not be limited.

(6) The bestowal of power on one registered society to hold shares in its own corporate name to any amount in the capital of another registered society.

(7) The extension of the power of members of societies to bequeath shares by nomination in a book, without the formality of a will or the necessity of appointing executors, first from 30 to 50, and now to 100, by the Provident Nominations and Small Intestacies Act, 1883, which also makes this power apply to loans and deposits as well as to shares.

(8) The Industrial and Provident Societies Act, 1871, which enabled societies to hold and deal with land freely.

(9) The Industrial and Provident Societies Acts, 1876 and 1893, which consolidated into one Act the laws relating to these societies, and, among many smaller advantages too numerous to be mentioned in detail, gave them the right of carrying on banking business whenever they offer to the depositors the security of transferable share capital.


It now remains to describe the great annual meeting of the Union, which is known as Congress.  The table on page 204 gives a full list of the Annual Congresses which have been held in unbroken succession since 1869, and shows the number of delegates present, and the name of the president.  Congress is a gathering composed of delegates from co-operative societies who are members of the Union, and a delegate to Congress must be a member of the society he represents.

The Congress is held in each section in rotation, at the invitation of some society therein, each Congress deciding by vote on the place of meeting for the following year.  Almost directly one Congress is over preparations begin for the next.  The first step taken is to form a Reception Committee, composed of representatives from subscribing societies in the section concerned, to which are added (1) the General Secretary of the Union; (2) Members of the Sectional Board; (3) representatives from District Committees and the Women’s Guild.  The business of the Reception Committee is to organise all the local arrangements necessary for the success of the Congress.

The societies in the section in which the Congress is held make special subscriptions to a Congress Fund, the cost varying from year to year.  One of the difficulties attending Congress is that comparatively few places possess buildings suitable for Congress and its exhibition, and it has sometimes been found necessary to erect a special building for the exhibition, which, of course, adds considerably to the cost.  Accommodation has now to be provided for from 1,200 to 1,500 delegates, not only for meetings but for luncheon and lodgings.

The proceedings at Congress are controlled by a Standing Orders Committee, which is appointed by the United Board.  The reports of the Central Board, the accounts, statistics, and other papers to be considered, are sent out three weeks before Congress, and amendments thereto and special resolutions may be handed in until 12 o’clock on the morning of the first day.  It has been decided, however, that the official agenda shall have precedence over extraneous matters.  Congress is held on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Whit Week, unless otherwise arranged by the previous Congress.  The President is appointed by the United Board and introduced to the Congress by the President of the previous year, who now becomes Vice-President.

The business of Congress usually commences with an inaugural address, delivered by the President; after which deputations are received from co-operative bodies abroad and kindred associations at home.  The result of the election of the Central Board is then declared, followed by the consideration and adoption of the Board’s report.  Specially prepared papers are sometimes read, and before the gathering concludes, the broad outlines of the policy for the following year is decided.  There is some danger that Congress may become too large to be efficient, and the question of reducing the number of delegates sent by societies has been considered, but nothing has yet been done beyond revising the Standing Orders with a view to expediting discussion.

The Congress has been called the Co-operators’ Parliament, but its propagandist value is not less important than its legislative capacity.  Here one sees something of the power and magnitude of the co-operative movement which impresses even the delegates who attend for the first time.  Co-operators from all parts meet each other, make new friendships, exchange ideas, gain information, and return home with fresh enthusiasm for their work.


From its inauguration as a Central Board up to 1891, the Union had the advantage of the honorary services of the late E. V. Neale as its General Secretary, from whose complete devotion to co-operative ideals, and clear organising faculty, it has derived a very large part of its power and influence within the movement.  On Mr. Neale’s retirement, in 1891, he was succeeded by Mr. J. C. Gray, who had acted as Assistant Secretary to the Union since 1883.  Mr. Gray’s appointment was confirmed at the Rochdale Congress in 1892, and his personality and work are now well known throughout the co-operative movement in all countries.  As General Secretary to the Co-operative Union he is responsible for the organisation of the whole of the routine work of the Union and of the Congress.  He is supported by a loyal staff of assistants and clerks, many of whom have been in the service of the Union for a considerable number of years.


The work of the Union is not confined to propaganda.  As a registered society it acts as accountant, bookseller, commercial and general adviser to societies, and as publishers of co-operative literature, and teachers of the principles and methods of co-operation.  The Central Office of the Co-operative Union is at Long Millgate, Manchester.  There are branch offices at 99, Leman Street, London; West Blandford Street, Newcastle-on-Tyne; and 71, St. James Street, Kingston, Glasgow.

List of subscribers.

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1.Christian Socialist, 1851.

2. Working-men Co-operators, page 126 (revised edition).

3. See Congress Report, 1869.