Central Co-op honours a forefather with a re-dedication service

Central Co-op president Elaine Dean on the legacy of philanthropist and co-operator Emmanuel Merchant JP

A re-dedication service for co-operator and philanthropist Emmanuel Merchant JP drew around 70 people to Duffield Cemetery on 17 January.

The group braved frosty paths on a bitterly cold but bright morning to visit the renovated grave, with the service held 100 years to the day since Merchant died. 

Merchant had a massive impact on the former Derby Society with his expansion plans, grand schemes such as building the iconic Central Hall during World War I and founding the Senior Members’ Gathering in 1912 – still held 112 years later. It was his idea to reward long membership (then 40 years) with a “sumptuous repast followed by a concert”. 

A man of humble birth who worked in the mill at Belper and later at Midland Railway, he was involved in strike committees for better conditions and pay. He was very active on the Derby Co-op Education Committee which he set up as a separate entity. 

In 1902 the co-op’s general manager – then an elected post – retired through ill health; Merchant stood to replace him and won by a landslide, receiving more than twice as many votes as his nearest rival.

Thus began 21 years of progress, with new branches opening across Derby and many of the surrounding towns, where very small co-ops transferred their engagements to Derby. It also saw the building of the prestigious Central Hall premises with its grand ballroom and wonderful acoustics which opened in 1917. 

During his tenure, classes for members and activities such as dancing, cinematography evenings, education about co-ops and recreation groups were held.  Known throughout the UK movement for his passion for co-operation, Merchant believed in Principle 6 and only wanted to trade with other co-operatives and sell food grown on co-op farms; Derby owned a large one of its own. 

During those 21 years the Derby Co-op made enormous progress paying good dividends to members, opening the new premises at Stenson Road (known as The Cavendish) with a row of stores in a semi circular design and a large hall above. The society still owns these premises, although it no longer trades from them. 

In 1888 Merchant married Rebecca Allen of Spondon at the London Road Wesleyan Methodist Chapel and in autumn 1890 the couple had a baby, Elizabeth. Sadly, she died at three months old and they had no other children. There are no direct descendants and consequently his grave, when we found it in 2022, was overgrown. 

In 1923 Merchant’s health began to decline and he asked to be relieved of some of his duties. Typically, for a man of his principle, he asked for his remuneration to be reduced accordingly.  He died on 17 January 1924, leaving what was left of his estate of £2,195 to the Derby Society for the furtherance of co-operation, to be paid after the death of his wife.

Little is known of Rebecca, who died on 4 January 1931, except that she is buried in the same grave and was the chief mourner at his funeral, which was attended by more than 100 people. Two of the listed attendees were my own grandfather and great uncle.

Alongside Tanya Noon, Central Co-op’s member and community relations officer for the area, I decided to honour the memory of this great man who made Derby a centre of co-operation. 

The Northern Region Member and Community Council paid to renovate the grave which now looks splendid and we held a rededication service and laid yellow roses. We sang the co-op hymn These Things Shall Be and also Abide With Me, and Kate Spencer and I read poems. Methodist minister Judith Neale presided. 

This was followed by a talk on Emmanuel Merchant and a display of relevant historic artefacts, and Central CEO Debbie Robinson spoke about the relevance of celebrating our history. 

Attendees were then treated to a ‘sumptuous repast’ at the Makeney Hall Hotel – formerly the home of George Herbert Strutt who lent money to the original founders of Derby Society. Those attending were also given white poppies knitted by co-op member group ladies.