Fenwick Weavers are back in business after 134 years

The first co-operative in the world was started by 16 men of Fenwick, Ayrshire, who gathered at the local church 247 years ago to sign a document.

It was the birth of the global co-operative movement, which now encompasses many millions of people throughout the world. Those men, all weavers or apprentice weavers, came together to ensure they could control their own trade within the area, and to protect each other, and their families, from the vagaries of the economic system.


Within the decade, they had expanded their co-operation to include the bulk buying of food to be sold to members and others in the village — the first co-operative store. There are also records of a savings scheme, run on the lines of what we would now call a credit union. Indeed, these Fenwick weavers were very much ahead of their time.

Do not forget the context of the time and place. Not far away, in the same half century, Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns, from a similar class and background, was, in Mauchline, giving us some of the most beautiful and thoughtful poetry the world has even seen, and just three miles away, in Stewarton, David Dale was born, who went on to own both the Catrine and New Lanark Mills.

Many now know him as the father-in-law of Robert Owen, to which the worldwide movement owes so much. Indeed we know that David Dale was working as a yarn buyer in this area, and it seems a reasonable conjecture that he had dealings with the Weavers Society.

Education was important to the working people of Scotland and the weavers went on to set up a library in 1808. We know that another great son of Fenwick, John Fulton, used this library to develop his interest in mathematics and astronomy, before going on to build his Orrery, which can still be seen in Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow today.

Despite all their great work, the recession of the mid-19th century brought really hard times to the weavers and, given that the industrial revolution was in full swing, the individual weaving trade was coming to an end.

Many sought new lives in far off lands, and in 1839, the Society set up an Emigration Society to help those who wished to try their luck outwith Scotland.

The society was so successful that the population of Fenwick collapsed from over 2000 to just 500 and the Weavers Society was no longer sustainable.

It was wound up in 1873, but not before sending sons and daughters of Fenwick throughout the world to become leading lights in their new societies.

Among them was the Fowlds family, one of whom became the first Education Minister for New Zealand, bringing his father Mathew’s loom with him to his new country. It can now be seen in Auckland Museum.

And so the story could have been left in the history books were it not for the interest of two more men of Fenwick, John Smith and John Mcfadzean. Having heard stories of the Weavers throughout the years, and, to some extent tiring of the emphasis on the Covenanters, another historical event that Fenwick is famous for, they started researching the history of the Weavers.

This was helped by the fact that a descendent of the Fowlds family, the MP Andrew Fowlds, had donated the weavers’ record book to the National Library of Scotland. So, the concept of a new Weavers society was born and the two Johns met with, and phoned and emailed everyone they could think of to pester with their plans for a new Weavers Heritage facility. Their enthusiasm has been infectious, and with the help of the Scottish Co-operative Group, Co-operative Development Scotland and East Ayrshire Council. Funding has been obtained for a feasibility study. To run that study a new co-operative has been formed.

The Fenwick Weavers Co-operative Society has been reconvened after a gap of 134 years.

Some south of the border seem concerned that this is an attempt to usurp the place that the Rochdale Pioneers have in our movement.

Nothing can be further from the truth. We recognise and respect the Pioneers, but it is also undeniable that, some 80 years earlier, those weavers from Fenwick had set up a fully functioning workers co-operative, to be followed within ten years by a consumer co-operative and a credit union. Indeed, the Emigration Society can be seen as an early version of Co-operative Travel!

The reconvened society is now in the early stages of developing its plans to mark that heritage within Fenwick and to re-establish the place of those weavers in the history of our great Movement. I am sure that all those interested in the creation of the worldwide co-operative movement will wish it success.

• Jim O’Neill is a director of the Fenwick Weavers Co-operative Society and a member of the Scottish Executive of the Co-operative Party.

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