2021: Looking back on Co-op News’ 150th year

This year we looked back at some key events from our first century and a half covering the co-op movement

The year was an eventful one for Co-op News – and also saw us celebrate our 150th anniversary – harking back to 2 September 1871, when our first edition was published, as “A Record of Industrial, Political, Humanitarian, and Educational Progress”.

Sadly we weren’t able to celebrate in person; the other memorable event of the year for us, winning Best Small Multi-stakeholder Co-op of the Year in the 2021 Co-op of the Year Awards, organised by Co-operatives UK, was also held online as the pandemic continued.

What we lost in terms of office-based working, we gained in terms of being able to expand our coverage; as co-op events went online, the News was able to attend conferences and debates all around the world, while the ease of video conferencing brought us closer to contacts we might never meet face to face.

This new online emphasis is the latest chapter in the evolution of the News, which has seen many changes since that first issue in 1871 – going from weekly newspaper with an emphasis on British retail co-ops to a monthly magazine with an added international flavour.

The News was established after a series of conferences in the 1860s, calling for a publication to represent the movement. The Co-operative Newspaper Society was founded with £400 in capital, mostly from individuals, with a quarter coming from the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS). Printing was initially carried out by the North of England Printing Society — established in 1869 at Balloon Street, Manchester, to serve the growing number of retail societies and CWS. The Co-operative Newspaper Society (CNS) bought its own printing machinery in 1887, built new premises in Manchester in 1895 and launched a series of publications – Millgate Monthly, Our Circle, Women’s Outlook, Co-operative Youth and Sunshine Stories, as well as Reynolds News/Sunday Citizen newspapers. 

The CNS became the National Co-operative Publishing Society, which in turn was renamed Co-operative Press in 1934. It became the country’s largest trade union printers, but the increasing costs and technological changed led to the decision to exit the printing sector in 1999 and sell off the society’s remaining Old Trafford print works.

Head office moved to Holyoake House, round the corner from its original base in Balloon Street, and current home to offices for a family of co-ops including Co-operatives UK, the Co-operative College, the Co-operative Heritage Trust, the Association of British Credit Unions, the Phone Co-op and Third Sector Accountancy.

We marked our anniversary in a number of ways, including our co-sponsorship – with Central England
Co-op – of the Just Film Festival (18 June – 4 July).

Held during Co-op Fortnight 2021 and organised by the Birmingham Film Co-op, the event showcased films that focused on current, relevant social justice issues, culminating in a hybrid awards ceremony on 4 July at the Warehouse Café in Birmingham, and on Zoom.  

The first edition of Co-op News

The festival screened ten feature films online to a virtual audience across various genres, including environmental films and films about co-ops. One of the most popular films was 2040, a 2019 Australian documentary with filmmaker Damon Gameau travelling the world speaking to people about the possible solutions to the climate emergency.

Also popular was Your Sunday Newspaper, an archive documentary showing the life of a co-operator reading a copy of Reynolds News in the 1950s. Reynolds News was a radical weekly newspaper published from 1850-1967 by Co-operative Press: the film was screened immediately after the celebratory 150th anniversary AGM of Co-operative Press. 

We also ran a series of articles looking back over the News’ relationship with the co-op movement – including a look at film. As films became more accessible to the public in the early 1900s, the co-operative movement became a pioneer in using the medium for industrial and propaganda purposes.

In February 1914, Co-operative News carried an article, The Cinema: Should it be used for Co-operative purposes? The anonymous author saw in the cinema a means of “attracting the masses – young and old – in a way that would enable them to obtain knowledge, and at the same time, be vastly entertained”.

The view from Co-op News readers was that the movement should get involved with cinema for three reasons: to encourage audiences to become members of co-operatives; to educate members about the business and benefits of co-operation; and to take ownership of at least part of what was a growing entertainment choice of the masses. 

Our retrospective piece looked over a number of screenings of co-op films and slides in commercial cinemas in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and the efforts of co-op societies to license their premises for cinema exhibition. At its peak, the co-op cinema movement was seen as a threatening rival by the cinema industry.

Our anniversary series also saw a number of co-op historians look at some of the icons of the movement whose stories are intertwined with the News. Gillian Lonergan looked at co-operative education, and its crucial role in fostering co-operative democracy. Co-op News played – and continues to play – a role in this; Gillian noted that  in the first half of the 20th century co-op shop staff were encouraged to read News and other publications so they could distribute information alongside the goods. 

Gillian also looked back on the life of George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), whose seminal role in the early co-op movement writing the original prospectus for Co-op News and contributing a number of articles.

Liz McIvor, manager of the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, looked back on its history; the museum celebrated a milestone of its own, marking 90 years since it was established at 31 Toad Lane, the first premises of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

And Natalie Bradbury looked at the life of Annie Bamford Tomlinson (1870-1933), a co-operator and campaigner whose journalistic career began with articles in Co-op News, which was edited at the time by her father, Samuel Bamford. She went on to edit the paper’s Women’s Corner section and Children’s Page.

Bringing things full circle, we looked at the history of the World Co-op Congress – in a year which ended with the 33rd World Co-op Congress in Seoul. Organised by the International Co-operative Alliance, the event saw the Co-op News team brought on board to deliver media and communications work.

We’ve worked with other co-op organisations to deliver similar projects this year – including the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network and the Platform Co-operative Consortium: 150 years on, the News continues to evolve and develop with the movement it serves.