Britain’s oldest worker co-op closes down

The last of the worker co-partnership societies – and Britain’s oldest worker-owned co-op – has merged with a private firm. Established in November 1921, Watford Printers has sold its...

The last of the worker co-partnership societies – and Britain’s oldest worker-owned co-op – has merged with a private firm.

Established in November 1921, Watford Printers has sold its order book to local print firm Hill & Garwood as part of its voluntary liquidation.

At its height in the 1960s and early 1970s, the business supported 78 employees. This year, before liquidation, there were just six workers and 39 members – mostly former apprentices and their spouses.

President John Watson and management committee member Dave Carruthers have been liaising with the liquidator. Mr Carruthers said: “There wasn’t enough work. They were losing £10,000 a month. They had paid into a reserve fund but that was running down.

“It’s a shame because it was a proper co-operative. When they were making money 37.5% of the profit went to the employees, 37.5% went into the reserve fund and 10% went into a provident fund for apprenticeships, sick pay and suchlike. The rest went to the taxman.”

He said the reserve fund, which had been in place from day one, and income from letting part of the printworks building had kept the society functioning during its final years. The print business was, however, chronically unprofitable.

A general meeting on 20 May agreed the company would wind up voluntarily. Michael Finch of Moore Stephens, Watford, was appointed liquidator.

The society has since given notice to its tenants, who have until February to vacate. The building will then be put up for sale and is expected to be demolished to make way for housing. Members will receive a payout after the building is sold. All debts have been covered.

Watford Printers, the last worker co-partnership or productive society, was set up in 1921 by a group of typographical associations. These and other unions, along with co-operative societies, provided investment and custom throughout the co-op’s formative decades. Britain’s oldest worker co-operative is now publisher New Internationalist, which was formed in March 1971.

The society’s heyday came in the 1960s and 1970s, under president Bernard Adams and general manager Bert Wicks, who Mr Carruthers describes as an extraordinary businessman and manager with strong co-operative values. “He didn’t suffer fools gladly,” he says. “He was as tough with the trade unions as he was with customers who wouldn’t pay.”

But the British printing industry transformed during the 1980s as litho and digital printing became the norm and Watford, formerly the centre of British printing, lost its crown. Watford Printers failed to modernise and struggled to compete as new technologies came online.

The unions withdrew their investment as they consolidated, although this did not affect profitability.

John Watson said: “Because we were a co-partnership society we were a bit reluctant to do what we did, but we had to look at the times. We got into digital a little bit but not enough.

“A lot of work was being sent out because we couldn’t handle it. It was inevitable that we would go into liquidation. We were just making sure we looked after everyone here.”

Five of the six workers chose redundancy and have been paid out. Mr Watson is working part time for Hill & Garwood.

“It’s a shame we couldn’t do the hundred years,” he commented, “but in my opinion we should have gone into liquidation before we did.”

He added that the society’s decision-making process, conducted mostly though monthly management committee meetings comprising two worker members, six shareholders and a president, made Watford Printers slow to change and could have had a bearing on the society’s failure to be profitable in the 21st century.

“Being a co-partnership society should be the ideal but it’s not,” he said. “It’s not enough to be democratic, you need to make a profit.”

Dave Carruthers agreed: “Being a co-partnership society was its strength and its weakness. There was a lot of community, a lot of fun and laughter, but the business was beyond saving.”

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