Click here to return to book index Click here to search the website Click here to search the website

Industrial Co-operation:





Problems of Co-operation.


ONE of the chief problems which co-operators are still attempting to solve is that of bringing the benefits of Co-operation within the reach of the very poor.

The necessity for some more effectual method of reaching this class of the community than any which has hitherto been adopted has long been recognised, but the problem presents many difficulties.  The nature of the surroundings in which the lives of the poorest are passed, the lack of training and of education — in the real sense of the word — from which they suffer, makes it diflicult for them to realise the benefits of Co-operation.

To those whose lives are a continual struggle to obtain the barest necessaries of existence, and who have the fear of hunger, and even of starvation constantly before them, the present advantage of obtaining an article offered at an apparently lower price, even if of inferior quality, outweighs that of the prospect of a comparatively certain dividend which is not due for a few weeks.  The system of obtaining goods on credit is one which has unfortunately become very common among these people, owing largely to the uncertain nature of their earnings, and the burden of debt often brings with it an obligation to continue dealing with a particular tradesman, even although the ultimate advantages of co-operation may be seen and understood.

It must be admitted, too, that co-operative societies nave in many instances ceased to recognise their obligations towards the very poor, or have failed to realise that the special needs of poverty call for special methods of trading and propaganda.  The Lincoln Congress (1891) discussed the matter, and a circular letter was in consequence issued by the Co-operative Union.  In this, the attention of societies was drawn to various suggestions made by different writers as to methods which should be adopted to reach the poor.

The Cardiff Conference (1900) again considered the question, and passed a resolution [1] urging upon societies “the desirability of having branch stores in districts in which the very poor reside, to supply goods suitable and in such quantities as will meet their requirements.”

Later on in the same year, at the Woolwich Congress of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, Miss Llewelyn Davies read a paper in which various suggestions were made as to the methods that should be adopted in poor neighbourhoods. [2]

The chief of these are :--

(1) That membership should be made easy by the abolition of entrance fees, facilities given for small deposits towards share capital, and easy methods of withdrawal.

(2) That dividends should be low and should vary as little as possible, low prices should be charged for goods, and every facility given for the purchase of small quantities.

(3) That the shops should be made attractive in appearance, and the goods well marked in plain figures.

(4) That suitable propaganda work should be carried on, simple explanations of the advantages and methods of Co-operation being given.

In the latter part of 1901, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, with the sanction and assistance of the United Board of the Co-operative Union, commenced a series of inquiries into the general conditions as to membership, prices, &c., existing in co-operative societies. [3]  Special work was also undertaken in five towns, such as personal inspection of poor areas, visits to people in their homes, and interviews with various officials whose work brought them opportunities of knowing the conditions and needs of the poor.  The result of this investigation was that many suggestions, including some previously made concerning the special features of stores in poor neighbourhoods, were again brought forward.

The Women’s Co-operative Guild had for some time advocated the establishment of a co-operative Settlement in connection with societies having branches in poor neighbourhoods, and in October, 1902, such a settlement was started at Coronation Street, Sunderland, in connection with a branch of the Sunderland Society.

The work carried on here has been of a varied nature.  A noticeable feature of the store is the facility offered for the purchase of goods in small quantities, and a cooked-meat shop has proved a valuable adjunct to the store.  Attempts have been made to diminish the need for a return to the system of credit trading by the establishment of a penny bank, and of a general club, in which deposits of any sum can be made, and goods to the value of the deposits taken out at any time.

In addition to this, the social life of the members is encouraged by the formation of a girls’ sewing class, a co-operative club for young men, a co-operative league for young-women, and a branch of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, while lantern lectures, entertainments, and meetings for discussion are held in the hall attached to the store and settlement.

In the report issued. at the end of the first three months (December, 1902), it is claimed that the result of the experiment has proved— [4]

1. That it is possible to win the trade of the poorest.

2. That such trade is a financial benefit to the whole Society.

3. That the Store is a sure means for gaining the confidence and friendship of the people, establishing a relationship unspoilt by the demoralising effects of charity and relief.

4. That the Store makes a solid foundation and convenient centre for constructive social work in a poor neighbourhood.

The success which has so far attended the experiment at Sunderland proves that much can be done to alleviate the condition of the poor by thus bringing the benefits of Co-operation within their reach.  There is still need for more work of this kind, but above all there is need to find some means of permanently improving the condition of the very poor.  In the Co-operative Wholesale Societies’ Annual for 1902, appeared an article on Co-operation and the Poor, written by Mr. J. C. Gray (secretary, Co-operative Union).  In this the writer lays stress upon the necessity for “regular permanent employment under healthy conditions,” and, as a means of achieving this, suggests the starting of Home Colonies such as were the ultimate goal of the Rochdale Pioneers.

This portion of the Rochdale plan has not been tried by any co-operative society during the last fifty years, and it is difficult to gauge the probable result if the scheme were adopted under present conditions.  The Rochdale Pioneers, however, also proposed as one means of attaining their ends —

The manufacture of such articles as the society may determine upon, to provide employment of such members as may be without employment . . . . The purchasing or renting of an estate or estates of land which shall be cultivated by members who may be out of employment, or whose labour may be badly remunerated. . . .

Thus they appear to have recognised the need for providing the unemployed with some means of earning a livelihood, even although their plans for self-supporting colonies might not be carried out in their entirety.  It is now generally acknowledged that this question of the unemployed is most pressing, and calls for prompt action.  The uncertainty of employment, and the variable nature of their earnings are the chief causes of poverty among a section of the poor; while the existence of the unemployed tends to keep wages low in many trades.  If the co-operative movement can put into practice some method of solving the problem of the unemployed — either that suggested in the Rochdale scheme or some other — one of the greatest hindrances to bringing the benefits of Co-operation within the reach of a large and necessitous section of the community will disappear.


At one of the early Congresses (1832) the following resolution was passed:— [5] “Whereas the co-operative world contains persons of . . . . all political parties, it is unanimously resolved, that co-operators as such are not identified with . . . . any political tenets whatever . . . .”

Party politics have proved a frequent cause of dissension even in movements which are professedly of a non-political character, and the early co-operators were probably wise in thus insisting that political creed should not qualify or disqualify for membership of a co-operative society.

On the whole, the co-operative movement has adhered to this principle, and although within recent years there has grown up a desire on the part of some members to devise a scheme for the direct representation of co-operators in Parliament, the feeling of the movement has hitherto been against the adoption of such a course.

This must not, however, be taken to imply that co-operators take no interest in political matters; on the contrary, they are keenly alive to the possibilities for good or ill arising from legislative action, and in matters which concern the industrial welfare of the people as a whole they are usually prompt to act.

One of the most important committees of the Co-operative Union is the Joint Parliamentary Committee. [6]

The report [7] of the Central Board of the Co-operative Union (1903) shows that during that congress year the Joint Parliamentary Committee dealt with the following matters:— The Corn Tax, the Sugar Bounties and Convention, the Importation of Canadian Cattle, the Education Act, Prevention of Corruption in Trade, the Municipal Corporations Amendment Bill, the Truck Acts, Land Registration, Old-Age Pensions, &c. At the Doncaster Congress, 1903, resolutions dealing with Preferential Tariffs and the London Education Bill were passed, and during the last few months of that year the Fiscal Question occupied the attention of co-operators.

The Educational Programme issued by the Educational Committee of the Co-operative Union includes citizenship subjects.  During the last three years the following have been included among the special topics of study:— The Land Question, the Housing Question, National Education, Municipalisation, Public Health Laws, Poor Law, and Old-Age Pensions.  The Women’s Co-operative Guild also gives a prominent place in its programme to the education of women as citizens, and during 1903 took action concerning the Corn Tax, the Education Bill, and certain regulations concerning Factories and Workshops; and more recently still has arranged in each section conferences for the discussion of the Fiscal Question. [8]

Probably one of the most important pieces of work accomplished as a result of direct co-operative effort has been the creation in Ireland of a new Government Department of Agriculture for that country.  In 1895 the idea of a “Round Table” conference of Irish politicians was advocated by the Hon. Horace Plunkett and his Irish co-operative colleagues, as a means of advancing the cause of national prosperity and self-reliance.  A committee was accordingly appointed — since called the “Recess Committee” — upon which sat Irish Members of Parliament of all shades of political opinion, together with men representative of religion, education, the professions, commerce, agriculture, and industry.  The committee sat during the Parliamentary recess, and upon its recommendations, followed up by considerable public advocacy and interest, an Act was passed in 1895 “for establishing a Department of Agriculture and other Industries and Technical Instruction in Ireland and for other purposes connected therewith.”

The Hon. — now Sir — Horace Plunkett was appointed Vice-President of the Department, and under his direct and sympathetic administration the principles and methods of Co-operation are encouraged to full growth.  Sir Horace, in Ireland in the New Century, pays a generous tribute to the influence of co-operators in this matter as follows:—

Those who did the work of which I have written first launched upon Irish life a scheme of organised self-help which, perhaps more by good luck than design, proved to be in accordance with the inherited instincts of the people, and, therefore, moved them to action.  Next they called for, and in due season obtained, a department of government, with adequate powers and means to aid in developing the resources of the country, so far as this end could be attained without transgressing the limits of beneficial State interference with the business of the people. . . . The result is that a situation has been created which is as gratifying as it may appear to be paradoxical.  Within the scope and sphere of the movement the Irish people are now, without any sacrifice of industrial character, combining reliance upon government with reliance upon themselves. [9]

Thus it will be seen that co-operators recognise that their efforts should not alone be confined to building up a “State within the State,” but that they have specific duties towards the Municipality and the Nation.

Arnold Toynbee, in a paper read before the Oxford Congress in 1882 on The Education of Co-operators,[10] points out that if co-operators would carry out their avowed aims, the true function of co-operative education must be the education of the citizen.

The training in association and in business habits which the co-operative society gives to its members is a valuable means of fitting them to take their share in municipal government.  Many co-operative committees number borough, urban district, and county councillors among their members, several co-operators have been made justices of the peace, and some of the most useful members of boards of guardians and educational authorities are also members of co-operative societies.  Amongst these latter are included some forty women, who are members of the Women’s Co-operative Guild.  In these facts we may see some approximation towards the ideal of “brotherhood and a perfect citizenship,” called by Arnold Toynbee “the inheritance of co-operators.”  Here again, however, the need is apparent for further development, for as he so truly says:—

We have abandoned, and rightly abandoned, the attempt to realise citizenship by separating ourselves from society; we will never abandon the belief that it is yet to be won amid the press and confusion of the ordinary world in which we move.  If, however, this great task is to be accomplished, if co-operators are to arrive at a correct solution of the social problems which are every day becoming more grave, if workmen are to rightly exercise the unparalleled political power of which they have become possessed, then they must receive a social and political education such as no other institutions have offered, and which I believe co-operative societies, by their origin and their aims, are bound to provide. [11] 


The co-operative movement has during the last fifty years become firmly established in this country.  Year by year its membership and trade increases, and recent years have shown developments in the Work of co-operative production and in other fields of activity.

As was shown in earlier chapters of this book, the movement had its beginning at a time when the evils of the system of “unrestrained competition” were pressing heavily upon the workers; and its founders sought to minimise this pressure by offering an alternative system.

The methods adopted by the Rochdale Pioneers and their followers have proved themselves to be such as were, on the whole, fitted to bring about the result that the founders desired.  It is to be regretted that greater progress has not yet been made in some of the directions suggested by them; still, it must be admitted that much has been accomplished towards improving the condition of working men and women.

The early community experiments, and the workshops started by the Christian socialists, fared ill, largely because they were not adapted to the conditions of the time, and because the people were not ready for them.  The work of the Rochdale Pioneers succeeded probably because they tried to adapt their method to the prevailing conditions, and were content to build slowly and to wait for future developments.

But methods which are good under one set of conditions often become, not only useless, but at times even harmful when circumstances have changed.  In studying the industrial history of our country, we find that the manorial system, the regulation of trade and industry by the Mediaeval Guilds, and the domestic system of industry, were all useful in their day; all served a good purpose while they were adapted to the needs of the time.  Yet all in turn had to be superseded by other systems more suited to the changed economic conditions which have gradually succeeded each other throughout the centuries.

If the Co-operative Movement is not in its turn to fall behind the needs of the times, co-operators must be constantly watchful, and must study the economic tendencies of the age.  Hence the need for co-operative education; hence the desire of the ardent co-operator to become a student of social questions.

One of the most marked economic tendencies of the present age is the concentration of capital into the formation of large companies, trusts, and syndicates.  The attention of co-operators has been directed towards this tendency, and conferences have been held in several parts of the country to discuss the matter.  The Co-operative Union has issued a pamphlet — Co-operators and the Trust Movement [12] — in which attention is drawn to the growth of trusts, and suggestions are made as to the best means of consolidating co-operative forces so as to meet the danger.

The Congress at Doncaster (1903) passed a resolution [13] drawing attention to “the rapid growth of trusts and other combinations of capital controlled by, and in the interests of comparatively few people,” . . . . and urging co-operative organisations “when arranging propaganda work to endeavour to counteract the influence of such combinations and to strengthen our movement to resist any attempts which may be made to retard its free growth and development.”

In a paper read at a district conference held to consider “Future Propaganda Work in view of the Growth of Trusts,” the danger and its remedy are clearly pointed out. [14]  The writer refers to the difliculties encountered by the early co-operators, and traces the development of the co-operative movement through various stages, and then points out that “while Co-operation has been growing, conditions have been changing.”  He draws attention to the fact that the individual shopkeeper is rapidly being superseded by the trading company, and while expressing the opinion that “co-operators have nothing to fear if they are true to themselves,” adds that “the very success of Co-operation has to some extent produced its greatest dangers.”  He urges the necessity for the education of co-operators in the history and principles of the movement, the need for loyalty to principle, and for keeping the co-operative ideal clearly before the movement and the outside world; and the extension of co-operative production “until we produce all that we require.”

The solution of the problem probably lies in this direction.  When the co-operative movement is able to produce within its own circle, for the use of its own members, all that is necessary for their requirements, it will have no reason to fear the evil results of a corner in the outside market.  When it can offer employment within the movement itself — as an alternative to employment in the competitive system — to all its members who desire or need it, then co-operators will have no reason to fear a “boycott,” such as has several times been attempted.

The success which has attended past efforts in co-operative production, seems to prove that there is every prospect of further successful development in this direction.  But first, co-operators must be induced, as has already been pointed out, to study the economic tendencies of the age; they must get to understand. and to realise the probable effects of the development of the system of “monopoly for the benefit of the few;” and next they must learn to recognise the possibilities which lie in developing the principle of unrestricted Co-operation for the benefit of all.  The capital is available, and the experience of the past has proved the workers capable of managing for themselves vast business concerns.  The present need is for further development till the movement becomes thus truly self-contained.  If this is accomplished and the movement maintains its present plan of making membership open to all who desire to avail themselves of its advantages, the evil effects of the system of private monopoly will be effectually counteracted by the building up of a “people’s trust” worked in the interests of all.


The question is often discussed as to the relationship which should exist between Co-operation and other movements having for their object the improvement of the condition of the industrial classes.

Trade-unionism, socialism, friendly societies, and the various organisations formed for political action, were all factors in the lives of the workers during the early part of the 19th century.  Each form of organisation expressed certain needs of the workers felt in some phase of their lives; each attempted to embody the desire for liberty which the new conditions had awakened in their minds; each was a manifestation of the spirit of association and an endeavour to express the idea of democratic organisation.  The teaching of Robert Owen influenced alike the early trades union, socialist, and co-operative movements, and after the collapse of the union shop experiments (see Chap. VII.) the socialist and co-operative movements were for a time practically one, and Rochdale Co-operation is sometimes said to be “the joint outcome of the Trade Union, Chartist, and Socialist movements.” [15]  During the latter half of the 19th century, however, this union became somewhat weakened, and each of the movements concentrated its attention upon a specific form of work.  The socialist — pleading for equality of opportunity — has endeavoured to bring about the common ownership of land and collective control of production.  The trade-unionist has sought to secure for the workers fair wages, shorter hours, sanitary workshops, and freedom for united action.  Those who believe in political panaceas for the ills which at present trouble the worker have tried to remedy these by legislation, and latterly also by endeavouring to secure the return of Labour Members to Parliament in the hope of more effectually enforcing their desires.

The work of the Co-operator has doubtless seemed to the casual observer to be of a much more trivial nature.  His energies have probably appeared to be mainly absorbed in retailing tea, butter, and cheese, discussing the relative merits of various kinds of leather; studying how best to make bread and endeavouring to discover the safest methods of securing a good dividend at the end of each quarter.  Probably — to quote one of Mr. Holyoake’s humorous observations — it seems to many “a ridiculous thing that the social regeneration of the world should consist in opening a cheese and butter shop . . . . a great descent from the imperial altitude of world-building to stoop to selling long-sixteen candles and retailing treacle.” [16]

In reality, however, the Co-operator, perhaps almost unconsciously, has been building up a system of industry within which is already embodied much that the other movements desire to see generally adopted.  The modern disciples of the Christian Socialists — the adherents to the principle of labour co-partnership — aim at bringing about “the partnership of capital and labour as a solution of the conflict between them [17] by establishing “workshops in which the workers share in the profits and participate in the management,” and thus receive “a share in reward, responsibility, and government.”[18]

The consumers’ associations, starting from the basis of the democratically owned. and governed store, are building up an extensive organisation conducted in the interests of its members, but including among its root principles the payment of fair wages and the just treatment of employees.  Thus, while the Trade-Unionist seeks to mitigate the lot of the workers employed in the competitive system, the Co-operator is slowly developing an alternative system based upon mutual interest and service.  While the Socialist has been endeavouring to bring about the re-organisation of industry upon a basis of State ownership and State control, the Co-operator has been establishing a “State within a State,” and it may justly be claimed that “the voluntary organisation known by the name of ‘Co-operation’ has accomplished remarkable results in . . . . laying the foundation of a new system of production, distribution, and exchange.” [19]

Co-operators have also shown themselves alive to their duties as citizens, and have proved their readiness to work for legislation which concerns the welfare of the people (see page 223), and to unite with others working in the same direction.

Thus there is much in the co-operative ideal which is common also to other reform movements, and a closer connection would probably be useful to them all.  This is recognised to some extent by the trade union and co-operative movements, for they sometimes unite in organising conferences on matters affecting the workers, and also send delegates to each other’s annual congresses.  The “Joint Committee of Trade Unionists and Co-operators ” aims at reconciling any disputes that may arise between co-operative societies and such of their employees as are members of trade unions.  The two movements are not antagonistic but supplementary: each has it in its power to render help to the other; each serves as a means of training the workers for service in the other, and each helps to protect the workers from some form of oppression. [20]  “The dividend accumulated in a co-operative society has often proved valuable to the trade-unionist when out of work or during a strike, while contributions from co-operative societies to funds for the relief of the wives and children of trade-unionists have on several occasions materially helped the workers to tide over times of great hardship. [21]

On the other hand, the standard rate of wages insisted upon by the trade unions is some protection against the possible danger of “dividend” being used as an excuse for lowering wages.  Thus both movements are necessary, for “without co-operation, voluntary or municipal, there is no guarantee that any industry will be carried on for the public benefit; without trade-unionism there is no security that this public benefit will not be made a source of injury to the minority of producer.” [22]

Co-operation then is not opposed to the other great organisations of workers, but is complementary to them, and thus the Co-operator, while recognising the work that they are doing in their respective spheres, asks for their support for the co-operative movement.  He contends that all must be consumers of the necessaries of life, and that at present these must be obtained either from the ordinary competitive markets or from co-operative societies.  He claims that the latter, despite their limitations, approximate more nearly than the ordinary shop to the ideal of the other movements; and hence he urges those who are working for better conditions of labour, greater equality of opportunity, and common control of the means of production, to share with him in the benefits which the Co-operative Society offers to its members, and to assist him in building up the Co-operative Commonwealth.

Click for next chapterClick for next chapter



1. Report of Cardiff Congress, 1900.

2. A Co-operative Relief Column, by M. Llewelyn Davies Women’s Guild Ofiice, Kirkby Lonsdale

3. The Extension of Co-operation to the Poor. Women’s Guild Office, Kirkby Lonsdale.

4. Summarised Report. Coronation Street Branch. By M. Llewelyn Davies.
NOTE. — September, 1904 — The progress of the settlement experiment at Sunderland has been stayed by the decision of the Society to cease the employment of resident settlers, and to carry on the propagandist work through the ordinary channels of the Educational Committee and the Women
s Guild.

5. Report of 1832 Congress.

6. See Chapter XXII., page 199.

7. Thirty-fifth Report of Annual Co-operative Congress.

8. Women’s Co-operative Guild programmes.

9. Ireland in the New Century, pages 289-290.

10. The Industrial Revolution in England. Arnold Toynbee. Page 226.

11. The Industrial Revolution in EnglandThe Education of Co-operators, Arnold Toynbee. Page 230.

12. Co-operators and the Trust Movement, by M. O’Brien Harris, D.Sc. (Co-operative Union Pamphlet.)

13. Annual Congress Report, Doncaster, 1903.

14. Future Propaganda Work. . . . Paper by W. H. Berry, read at Conference at Rainham, December, 1903.

15. The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain, page 61.

16. History of Co-operation, Vol. I., page 68.

17. Paper by Mr. Henry Vivian, Labour Co-partnership Association.

18. Extracts from evidence given by the Labour Association before the Royal Commission on Labour.

19. Introduction, by Hodgson Pratt, to the Society of To-marrow. G. de Molinari.

20. See Co-operative Movement in Great Britain, Chapter VI.

21. “It is estimated that 40,000 was contributed by Co-operative Societies to the Engineers’ funds in the late dispute.”  Trades Unionism and Co-operation, by J. Johnston, J.P.

22. Co-operation and Trade Unionism, Paper by Beatrice Potter.