Check your attics: project launches to chart history of worker co-operatives

An initiative to ensure the preservation of records from the wave of British worker co-operatives and co-operative development in the 1970s-1990s has been set in motion. The Workers’...

An initiative to ensure the preservation of records from the wave of British worker co-operatives and co-operative development in the 1970s-1990s has been set in motion.

The Workers’ Cooperative National Archive project aims to identify surviving records and encourage those who hold them to deposit them in recognised public archives where they will be available to co-operative historians and researchers. The project’s organisers are also planning to develop an online directory of the archives, identifying where archives can be consulted.

Those behind the project are Andrew Bibby and John Goodman, both of whom worked in worker co-operatives in the 1970s and 1980s, and are also former co-operative development agency advisers. The project is being operated through a website,

“We are in great danger of losing key material from the great upsurge in workers’ co-operatives in the later 20th century,” said Andrew Bibby. “Many records which could be invaluable for historians have already been lost, but we suspect that many co-operatives and former co-op workers still have boxes tucked away. We’re appealing to everyone to check their attics and cellars to see what they can find.”

The current project follows a workshop given by the organisers at the Robert Owen commemoration event at New Lanark in 2008, organised by the Society for Co-operative Studies, at which the need to ensure the survival of archive material was first discussed.

“A great deal of energy and creativity in the British co-operative movement in the past 50 years has been centred around workers’ co-operatives, and this history needs to be remembered,”  added Mr Goodman.

The project is currently a voluntary one, designed to operate as an informal peer-to-peer venture, using existing networks to cascade information about the project out to as many people with a background in worker co-ops and CDAs as possible. Those who have potential archive material are asked to contact the project through the website.

The website also includes a link to recommendations from the Society for the Study of Labour History on the types of records and documentation particularly worth preserving.

“To start with, we need to undertake a scoping exercise, to see just how much or how little material comes to light. It may be possible at a later stage to seek grant-funding for the project,” said Mr Bibby. The project has been taking advice from the Co-operative Heritage Trust, which administers the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester and Rochdale’s Toad Lane museum.

Mr Bibby said he has become particularly aware in recent months of the importance of primary co-operative material being preserved, as a result of undertaking research for a forthcoming book on 19th century manufacturing co-operatives. “Much to my delight, a great deal of material has come to light, in some cases in archive boxes stuffed with minute books, account books and letters left untouched for more than a century. We owe it to a later generation to make sure more recent documents are also kept safe and sound.”

John Goodman added that with the generation who were responsible for this upsurge in co-operation ageing, and in some sad cases dying, “there is an increasing urgency to the project”.

In this article

Join the Conversation