British Federation of Young Cooperators: A unique organisation in the 20th century

A look back at a leading co-op youth group of the past – and a glimpse of a possible successor

Co-operatives in the UK today are generally known by the public as a collection of regional retail societies. This was very different in the early to mid 20th century, when hundreds of much smaller local co-operative societies existed – both retailers and producers. In towns and villages, local membership of individual retail societies was particularly high, not only because the co-ops distributed excess profits as the ‘divi’ to their customer members, but also because members voting for the management and other committees could nominate and vote for local people that they often knew well.

The main organisation of women generally to meet together both socially and with distinctive aims at that time in the UK – and certainly the most popular – was also a co-operative one, the Women’s Cooperative Guild movement. Also in existence, were the many far lesser known men’s co-operative guilds. Guilds met regularly in meeting rooms above co-op retail shops. Many co-op retail societies also formed children’s groups through their education committees: Pathfinders aged 10-15 and Co-op Youth clubs, aged 16-18, with paid leaders (the Woodcraft Folk, another co-operative youth organisation, was and still is run by volunteers). 

In 1941, three young friends who strongly supported the ideals of co-operation, realised there was an obvious gap for young adults, so together they invented and created a brand new, unique autonomous national co-operative organisation, run by and for young adults aged 18 to 25, to become known as the British Federation of Young Cooperators (BFYC). The trio were Laurie Parvitt, Harold Campbell and Peter Shea, and their creation spread rapidly. 

The BFYC was known affectionately by its members as ‘the Bific’ and it was certainly unique in the training offered to young adults: in effect, the nitty gritty of democracy; learning how to organise themselves and meetings procedures; arranging speakers and courses; summer schools and so on. Because members were young, yet completely in charge, they enjoyed this unusual experience. Each BFYC branch met weekly in rooms rent free above small co-op shops and enthusiastically voted for its own chairperson secretary and treasurer. Minutes of meetings were recorded, delegates were sent to BFYC district and regional meetings, and the National AGM, and a national magazine (‘Comrade’ – renamed ‘Young Co-operator’ in 1950) was produced with content written by members. Funding was low – the Co-op Union supplied some for a national secretary, and later the London Co-op Society offered a small room for a national office in Ealing.

The training thus experienced, motivated many members to continue easily in life to positions of support and leadership within the co-op movement, and in many other fields, including the three founding members. Laurie Pavitt was an MP for nearly 30 years, Harold Campbell wrote policy documents for the government on housing and was a well known promoter of the housing co-op and co-ownership movement, including, among others, Stevenage Development Corporation. Peter Shea did a degree and was a primary school head teacher and an extra-mural lecturer in psychology at the University of London. The three also continued that friendship with many other fellow members in a weekend ‘walk and talk’ group – renamed the ‘shuffle and grunt’ group in later years. 

There are many examples of members looking back on the BFYC as an important part of their youth. The first BFYC national organiser was Laurie Pavitt followed by Harold, Peter,  Archie McIntosh, Ted Graham and others. Archie, with Jo, his college lecturer wife, later spent two years working in co-operative development in Africa.

Ted Graham (Beacontree BFYC) who left school at 14, progressed through BFYC and the Co-operative College and became a London Borough Councillor, then a Labour and Co-operative MP. He was elevated to the House of Lords (Lord Graham of Edmonton) and, in a rare privilege, to the Privy Council. Both Ted and Gladys Bunn, another BFYC stalwart, also served in various years as President of the Co-operative Congress, another rare honour. 

John Hammond (Nottingham BFYC) served in the Co-operative Union for 12 years, as national officer for member education. He also achieved a doctorate in literature, and was a fellow of Nottingham University, eventually writing 20 books on biographies for the Everyman Library. 

There are many examples of remembering the value of BFYC, particularly how it members had the opportunity of links with young people of their age in co-operatives in Germany and Austria, and also visits abroad at a time when these were rare. Notably also many BFYC members were motivated to apply for and obtain scholarships to the Co-op College, which was then at Stanford Hall near Loughborough. It is also interesting how BFYC branches proliferated; for instance, Jane Beatty, a Fulham BFYC member, put homemade flyers in local letterboxes to advertise a Paddington branch and 10 young adults turned up at the first meeting. Motivation and support for BFYC was clearly within that age group.

Without a doubt, ‘the Bific’ was a vital source, not only of leadership but of promoting the understanding of working together in co-operation. Times move on and change, as do lifestyles and interests, so eventually when a blip occurred in the head office in the mid 1960s, membership slowly declined and gradually the BFYC disappeared, although some societies, including Plymouth and Birmingham, continued running youth clubs for many years.

Unique then for young adults with its ethos of co-operation, the British Federation of young cooperators has passed into history, and nothing on such a national level, and with such enthusiasm has yet replaced it. All within the membership of that young age group appreciated the experience obtained, we should ensure that this is a part of the co-operative movement that should not be forgotten.

New beginnings …

The BFYC may be no more, but there are plans afoot to relaunch the Young Co-operators Network. 

Announced by Stir to action in April, the news was confirmed at Stir’s Playground for the New Economy festival in July (above). The YCN will aim to be “a space for young cooperators to come together in solidarity, friendship and learning, and transition young people from competition to collaboration”.

 The Network, supported by Solid Fund, will be open to both young people (aged under 30) and those new to co-operating (who have been a member of a co-op for under two years), and will be an independent, peer-to-peer network, free to join, with a mission to support young co-operators through outreach, collaboration and knowledge sharing.

“The vision is to grow and diversify the cooperative movement and help young people tackle the changing nature of work, housing, and food by empowering them to join, form, and champion co-operatives,” says Stir.

Members are also invited to help shape the identity of the network, through a series of meet-ups and online socials, so it appeals to a new generation of young co-operators.

Find out more and sign up here

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