How the CWS went into the farming business

Marking the Co-operative College centenary, archivist Sophie McCulloch recalls the network of farms owned by UK retail co-ops

As part of a regular monthly feature throughout the Co-operative College’s centenary year, archivist Sophie McCulloch explores interesting items from the past. This month we’re looking at agriculture and how the Co-operative Wholesale Society grew to be known as Britain’s biggest farm service, with more than 80,000 acres of land in its possession.

From its beginnings, the co-operative movement prided itself in taking positive steps to improve its situation by finding practical solutions to any issues that arose. This was certainly the case for the Co-operative Wholesale Society and its journey into agriculture. 

CWS opened its jam and preserve works at Middleton, Manchester, in 1896. Jam making, of course, requires a large supply of fruit, but instead of turning to others to supply this, the CWS took its first steps into farming by purchasing land with the intention of growing its own fruit.  

The first piece of land the CWS purchased was in the village of Roden, Shropshire, which comprised several farms and associated buildings. The land also came with a small manor house that was opened as a convalescent home a few years later.  The Roden estate was purchased in June 1896 at a cost of £30,000.

In 1904, the CWS bought more fruit farms in Herefordshire to meet the increasing needs of the jam factory and other parts of the business. Four years later, a depot and further land was purchased at Wisbech, in the Cambridgeshire Fens and in 1913 a farm in Whalley, Lancashire was added to the portfolio for the purpose of cattle farming. By 1918 the CWS had more than 32,000 acres of farmland throughout the UK and Ireland.

At the Co-operative Congress of 1909, the setting up of the CWS Agricultural Department was proposed. This was to be an organising department to bring together the growing number of agricultural co-operative societies in need of a wholesaler. After extensive discussions, the department was established in 1914. Over the years it was able to help and advise agricultural societies with any issues they had.

In addition to agriculture, the CWS was involved in horticulture, with seed testing ground in Derbyshire, whose seeds were sold in co-operative society stores.

By the 1950s, the CWS was known as ‘Britain’s Biggest Farm Service’ with more than 80,000 acres of land in its possession, either directly owned or leased.

By the end of the 20th century, the CWS had become the Co-op Group and its farm service had been radically restructured, becoming part of the Food Retail Division and more focused on a sustainable approach towards farming, in line with its other ethical initiatives. 

Consumer co-operative societies were also active in agriculture. For example, the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society purchased a farm in the 1880s to facilitate the supply and delivery of milk. The society also acquired 170 acres when it bought the Bostall Farm and Suffolk Place Estate in 1887 and 1889. In the Midlands, the  Birmingham, Ten Acres & Stirchley, and Codnor Park & Ironville Societies had extensive farmland, purchased to supply products to meet the needs of the members.

To this day, the Co-operative College continues to work heavily in agriculture, training thousands of farmers in countries including Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda. More information about this is available at co-op.ac.uk/international

More information about the College and how you can get involved in its centenary year is available at: co-op.ac.uk/centenary

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