Co-op News: informing and educating about co-operation

'The frequency, design and layout of the News may have changed over the years, but the valuable breadth of coverage has not'

The fifth co-operative principle – Education, Training and Information – may only have been described in those words since 1995, but it has been fundamental to co-operatives since the earliest co-ops that we know of. 

The Fenwick Weavers, a friendly society which started to sell food co-operatively in the 1760s, was very proud of its library for members. As soon as the Rochdale Pioneers got their premises at 31 Toad Lane in 1844, they started to hold Sunday night discussion sessions in the stock room – even before they had any stock for people to sit on. When building their model of co-operation, the Pioneers used their knowledge of earlier societies, gained from reading published materials, talking with other co-operators and the cold hard experience of being involved in unsuccessful co-operatives. All of that knowledge and experience went together to develop what became known as the Rochdale Method, used to create co-operatives across the world and to help the co-operative movement to develop. 

Exchanging ideas of co-operation has always been a feature of co-operatives and the Co-operative Heritage Trust’s National Co-operative Archive has pamphlets and periodicals published by co-operators. The earliest periodical there was The Co-operative Magazine from 1826, soon followed by the more famous Co-operator published from 1828 to 1830 by Dr William King. One of the bound copies of King’s Co-operator in the Archive was given to the Rochdale Pioneers’ library by James Smithies, one of the original 28 Pioneers. 

By the 1860s, many co-operative societies had been set up across Britain and co-operators recognised how much could be achieved by working together. The Co-operative Wholesale Society was formed in 1863 to supply goods with the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society following in 1868. A number of disastrous fires in society premises led to the Co-operative Insurance Society in 1867. The first of the current run of Co-operative Congresses in 1869 led to the formation of the Co-operative Union (now Co-operatives UK) to help to connect societies, promote the exchange of ideas and provide information. Fifty years later, the Co-operative College was formed to provide education and training for co-operatives. 

Periodicals, always so valuable to co-operatives, were being widely circulated in the 1860s, but a problem was being recognised – they were produced by individuals rather than the co-operative movement. 

Henry Pitman published his Co-operator from 1860, editions appearing at different intervals, as funding allowed. Henry’s brother, Isaac, inventor of Pitman shorthand – appropriately of so much assistance to journalists over the years – did much to help in plugging the financial gaps. In the late 1860s, Henry’s interests changed as he became involved in the movement against the use of live vaccines and the name was changed to Co-operator and Anti-Vaccinator. Over a couple of years, the co-operative content got squeezed into a smaller and smaller section. While co-operative periodicals were published by individuals, they would only cover the aspects that interested those individuals and would disappear when the publisher changed interests, ran out of money or died.

At the Congress of 1870, there was a debate about co-operative newspapers and the need for the co-operative movement to have its own dedicated publication. During the debate, Lloyd Jones, referring to the dividend which made so much difference to family budgets stressed “now the prime business, and one of the first duties of co-operators should be to establish some method of instruction to those who are attracted by this material success, that they may understand the principle that underlies it”. That debate led to the passing of the resolution “That this Congress is of opinion that a Newspaper devoted to Co-operative interests should be established with as little delay as possible”. 

By the following Congress, the debate had moved to practicalities, the decision of the name – should it be Co-operative News or Citizen – and the place of publication – Manchester, the heart of the co-operative movement or London, the heart of politics – and, of course, the price. The key features that were not open to question were acknowledged in the debates, that the coverage should be as broad as possible and include anything that could have an impact on the co-operative movement. The 1871 Congress passed a resolution “That this Congress earnestly calls upon all the Co-operative, Trade, and Friendly Societies in the United Kingdom to take shares in, and become subscribers to, the Co-operative newspaper proposed to be established”. 

On 2 September 1871, all the debates had been concluded and the first edition of the Co-operative News was published in Manchester. The rest, as they say is history. An advertisement published in 1872 said “the experience of every society has shown that its chief danger arises from a want of co-operative knowledge and experience on the part of its members”, as true today as it ever was.

Having spent over thirty years working in what became the National Co-operative Archive, I can vouch for the wide-ranging nature of the Co-operative News throughout its history. For generations of researchers, it has provided the starting point for their work, each edition gives an overview of the co-operative movement at its broadest. Many researchers from America and other countries can see copies of the News in their own university libraries. The frequency, design and layout of the News may have changed over the years, but the valuable breadth of coverage has not. 

While the early members of Co-operative News were mainly consumer co-operatives, they recognised the value to the co-operative movement of having an independent, wide ranging periodical. Some of the articles published over the years have not made for comfortable reading, but they have helped to encourage debate, democratic accountability and learning within the co-operative movement. All this proves, yet again, the importance of that Education, Training and Information principle. In more recent years, individual co-operators – me amongst them – have had the opportunity to become members of the Co-operative Press and can view with pride the achievements of our Co-operative News. Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the Co-operative News and I am looking forward to the chance to explore its history in more detail.

Throughout the last 150 years, co-operative societies the length and breadth of the country have given their commitment to the national secondary co-operatives – the Co-operative Wholesale Society, the Co-operative Union, the Co-operative Press, Co-operative College and, more recently, the Co-operative Heritage Trust. During my career I have had the privilege of working for each of them – apart from the Co-operative Press, which I missed out on, although I have this year been co-opted as a director – and have seen at first hand the wonderful work that they do for the co-operative movement. 

Consumer co-operative societies, from a peak of almost 1,500 at the turn of the twentieth century have come together, transferring their engagements into larger businesses. Co-operative transfers of engagements are much more than a transfer of bricks and mortar and tins of beans, they involve the transfer of members and of a society’s commitments too. The majority of those 1,500 societies now form part of the Co-operative Group, having transferred their commitment to the co-operative movement along with their members and businesses. 

It is understandable that a large business like the Co-operative Group should review its operations periodically, but I find it very sad to think that there are plans to fundamentally alter the commitment of all those co-operative societies and their members in helping to fund the national secondary societies. The co-operative movement needs its independent secondary societies as much today as it always has.

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