Reclaiming the co-operative history and tradition in Scotland

Dumfries and Maxwelltown Co-operative Shop

Something to Build On: The Co-operative Movement in Dumfries, 1847-1914, by Ian Gasse, Scottish Labour History Society. 

At a time when many companies are keen to promote their commitment to ethical or sustainable retailing (whether genuine or otherwise), the Co-op is, to many, perhaps indistinguishable from any other supermarket. From its inception, however, the co-operative movement represented a different way of doing business. In Scotland, the movement developed from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and by the early twentieth century, co-operative societies were an established feature in towns and cities across the country. Despite the rapidly changing social and economic conditions of the twentieth century, co-operatives continued to occupy a central position in many local areas well into the post-war period, and the movement’s influence within working-class communities remained significant – as those who can recall their local store and family dividend number can attest.

With this in mind, it might seem a little surprising that the history of the co-operative movement in Scotland has, to date, received little in the way of academic interest, with both the Trade Union movement and Labour Party proving more attractive to historians of the labour movement. Something to Build On, by Ian Gasse, is the latest publication to add to the movement’s rather limited historiography. This point is acknowledged by Gasse within the book’s introduction, in which he states that, despite forming a significant part of the commercial sector and making a major contribution to the areas’ wider economic, social, and cultural sectors during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there has been virtually nothing written about the movement’s origins in Dumfries and Maxwelltown. Gasse’s aim therefore, through this work, is to make a record of this history and prevent it from becoming totally ‘lost’ (though Gasse, by his own admission, points out that some aspects of the study represent more of a ‘preliminary sketch’ of its history, rather than a definitive account).

This is familiar territory for Gasse, having published two articles previously on co-operation in Dumfries, and his expertise on the subject matter shines through in this highly readable account. Drawing on society minute books (where extant) and local press reports, Gasse illustrates the various attempts to initiate and maintain consumer co-operative societies in Dumfries and Maxwelltown between 1847-1914. Although, at first glance, the scope of the study appears to be somewhat restricted by its concentration on a relatively small geographical region, a grass roots approach to the study of the movement is completely logical, given the alignment of co-operative societies with the area that they served (being reflective of local industry and economic conditions) and their strict adherence to the principle of autonomy. Furthermore, discussion is also devoted to the wider movement in Scotland, in terms of providing context for the expansion of co-operation throughout the nineteenth century and in cases where national issues had local consequences.

As the study makes clear, early efforts to install co-operation within Dumfries were by no means straightforward. Within the book’s six chapters, Gasse documents the various endeavours undertaken by co-operators to do so, including what he terms the ‘false starts’: the short-lived attempts made by the Dumfries and Maxwelltown Equitable Co-operative Society and the Dumfries Co-operative Meat Supplying Society to become established within the community between 1861-67 and 1874-76 respectively. Other ventures were to prove more successful. The Dumfries and Maxwelltown Co-operative Provision Society began trading in 1847, with the aim of providing its working-class members with quality produce at affordable prices and undercutting the area’s existing grocers and merchants (suspected of operating cartels to artificially inflate the price of basic foodstuffs).

The author Ian Gasse (right) with the book.

In this regard, the society’s commitment to the working class was evident, and the expansion of the range of goods and services on offer to its members was testament to its development. However, the decision taken by the Dumfries and Maxwelltown Co-operative Provision Society to operate as a joint-stock company was at odds with the example set by the Rochdale Pioneers to pay a dividend on member’s purchases. As Gasse explains, the principles established by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 subsequently provided the successful blueprint for co-operative societies throughout Britain, and though the Dumfries and Maxwelltown Co-operative Provision Society conformed to some, (including the sale of unadulterated foodstuffs and implementing a system of democratic control), the decision not to pay a dividend or to provide members with educational opportunities proved notable exceptions.

Although this system proved profitable for the society’s shareholders, the benefits afforded to the town’s working-class inhabitants were limited. Unsurprisingly, the society’s secretary reported that shareholders ‘did not grumble at all about it’, and it was only when the Queen of the South Co-operative Society came into being that change was deemed necessary. Formed in 1881, the Queen of the South Co-operative Society appears to have been borne by a desire within the local community to create a society based upon genuine co-operative principles. Faced with a rival society paying its members a dividend on purchases, and suffering from adverse trading conditions as a result, the management of the Dumfries and Maxwelltown Co-operative Provision Society took the decision to register as an ‘equitable’ co-operative society (though Gasse notes that the interests of the existing shareholders remained protected during this process).

Gasse then goes on to note the financial difficulties experienced by both co-operative societies and their eventual amalgamation to form the Dumfries and Maxwelltown Co-operative Society in 1892 and narrating its ‘solid, and at times, quite spectacular growth’ until 1914, despite coordinated opposition from the Scottish Traders’ Defence Association. In his final chapter, Gasse assesses the extent to which the various co-operative societies examined within the study attempted to extend the ideology aims of co-operation amongst the working-class communities of Dumfries and Maxwelltown, and to create what Peter Gurney has termed a ‘co-operative culture’. Though some elements of discussion could have been expanded upon (with more focus given to the activities of the local branch of the Scottish Co-operative Women’s Guild, for example), the final chapter represents the culmination of a theme woven throughout the book, that of the tension between profit and principle in co-operative enterprise.

Through Something to Build On, Gasse achieves his aim of ensuring that the history of the co-operative movement in Dumfries is not lost. Indeed, by examining the expansion of co-operative societies in the area between 1847 and 1914, the author is able to highlight the strong co-operative tradition that existed in the town. Moreover, while this study represents a welcome addition to the history of the co-operative movement in Scotland, it also provides an insight into the everyday lives of the area’s inhabitants. With economic changes and local conditions reflected in the stock lists and balance books of co-operative societies in areas like Dumfries, it is possible to gauge the incremental, but significant, improvements to the lives of the working classes during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Comments (7)

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  1. Dougie Harrison says:

    Thank you for this Katharine. Scots co-op history is indeed too neglected, and I hope your work will start to change that, and ensure that we are made aware of the priceless democratic shopping tradition we have inherited from our Victorian forebears.

    I don’t imagine I’m alone in having my mother’s St Cuthberts (Edinburgh) divvie number burned in my brain yet, and I’m nearly 75. I remain a member of Scotmid; formed originally from the merger of St Cuthberts and Motherwell’s Dalzell societies, thus beginning the process of making the co-op less limited by parochial boundaries – long after it, certainly St Cuthberts, was pioneering in the Scots retail trade in founding Edinburgh’s first supermarkets in the 1950s.

    Alas, the parochialism of the movement, especially in Glasgow (which was split into several co-op areas), gave private sector supermarkets the opportunity to really grow. It’s hardly surprising that Glasgow’s first co-op superstore in Maryhill, is now owned and run by Tesco.

    So all power to your elbow Katharine; the work you’re doing is essential to the future of all Scots who care for democracy.

    1. Dougie Harrison says:

      I should perhaps add that until fairly recently, the HQ of Clydebank Co-op, at the foot of a long line of modern shops bisecting the town, perhaps exemplified some of the problems. Stepping into it, as I first did in mibbe the 1990s, was stepping back in history. It felt like it belonged to the early years of c20, not its end. It even had a Millinery Department! (Millinery was the technical term for the sale of women’s hats!)

  2. Martin Meteyard says:

    It’s good to see this book (which I reviewed for the journal of the Scottish Labour History Society) brought to the attention of a wider audience – well done Katharine. I’m not sure I agree with Dougie about ‘parochialism’ though. While the number of separate small societies was sometimes taken to extremes in earlier times (Forfar had no less than eight in 1909 according to Maxwell’s ‘History of Co-operation in Scotland’!), in general they were rooted in local communities allowing for meaningful involvement in co-operative democracy – while at the same time economies of scale were provided through purchasing from the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society. Local was and remains important in how we consider what a more flourishing democracy in Scotland might look like.

    1. Martin Meteyard says:

      Incidentally, details of how to obtain the book can be found here:

      1. Wullie says:

        Anent parochial ism, the Glasgow area ad about half of Scotland population and Shieldhall produced the bulk of the Coops products. Sadly the greater swallowed up the lesser and Scotlands Coop lost its independence to that south of the border. Our life story in a nutshell.

    2. Dougie Harrison says:

      Martin, I bow to your superior knowledge of the movement in Scotland… although I’m rather surprised that wee Forfar managed eight at one stage!

      Perhaps I’m influenced by growing up in Edinburgh, which with a wee bit short of 450000 population had but one Society till the city merged with the port o Leith in the 1920s. When I moved to much bigger Glasgow in the late 60s I was most surprised to discover that it had quite a few more. I mind Cowlairs, StGeorges, Shettleston, Kinning Park, and Clydebank (which had several branches in the northwest of the city, though its head office was in the neighbouring town) – and there may have been more.

      As a (marxist) economist, I was aware of that strange concept, ‘economies of scale’. I think Scotmid (which started life as St Cuthbert’s in Edinburgh, and now has branches over much of Scotland) and Clydebank are now the only two remaining membership societies in Scotland. Although I’d be delighted to be proved wrong!

      1. Martin Meteyard says:

        Dougie, the Co-operative Group (for whom I worked 1997-2004, having previously been on its Scottish Board) is still a membership society – although that doesn’t mean very much these days in terms of ability to participate. The latter comment incidentally could also be said of Scotmid, which not so long ago took in the former Penrith and Seaton Valley societies in the north of England – but their members require to travel to either Edinburgh or Bellshill to take part in the forthcoming AGM.

        More interestingly, though, there are an increasing number of local member-owned shops in Scotland (constituted either as co-operatives or community beneft societies) which are in many ways a reinvention of the old local societies. Some of these in the Highlands & Islands also have purchasing arrangements with the Co-operave Group, going back to the days when it was the Co-operative Wholesale Society.

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