Together They Were Stronger: Leeds Industrial Co-operative Society, by Chris Nickson

Ever shopped at the Co-op? Chris Nickson tells us about the fascinating history behind this once great institution in Leeds.

leedsindustrial2Everyone knows the Co-op. Chances are you’ve shopped there at one time or another. But the Co-op in Leeds has a deep history that’s often forgotten in the wake of retail boom and bust and banking scandals. And for a long, long time it was a bulwark of the working classes.

In 1847 an advertisement appeared, inviting interested people to attend a meeting on 1 March at the Union Tavern in Holbeck. It was put out under the name Holbeck Anti Corn Mill Association and signed by seven men, all employees at Benyon’s Flax Mill. Times were hard, in the middle of an economic depression, and the price of corn (wheat), one of life’s staples, was high – four shillings for 14 lbs and that was often adulterated. They proposed a combination, with each member contributing 20 shillings in instalments to rent a mill until they could buy one, and mill their own flour at affordable prices. They aimed to have 1,000 members.

Around 100 attended the meeting. It was followed by another in the centre of Leeds a few weeks later; almost 1400 came to that one, and 433 paid a shilling, giving them a share. Within two months that figure had grown to more than a thousand. The group took over Britannia Mill and in September the first corn was ground. By the end of the year the group was also buying barley, beans, and more for its members.

It wasn’t long before the society did build its own mill, the People’s Mill, in Holbeck, across the street from Marshall’s Mill. The group had already achieved something remarkable: the price of flour had fallen all around Leeds.

By 1854 the group had outgrown its original remit and was selling provisions to members, changing its name to show the way things had altered. Now it was the Leeds Co-operative Flour & Provision Society. Not England first’s Co-op (Rochdale has that honour), but by 1860 it would be the biggest. There were hiccoughs – the first shop, opened on Briggate, proved to be a failure. But the Co-op learned quickly.

The Society was a good, enlightened employer, the first in Leeds to make Wednesday half-day working for its staff, and by the 1880s it ran a massive department store on Albion Street, where it was headquartered, as well as 70 small shops around town. Almost by accident it became a major retail force, and every Co-op member received with divi – dividend – paid in cash every six months or applied to their accounts (there is still a Co-op divi). It had control of the entire production process to keep prices down. It had a farm, warehouses, workshops and a boot factory, all serving the needs of the 33,000 members it boasted as the Society celebrated its half-century.

If you were working class in Leeds, membership was natural; it worked for you. In 1917 it even started its own political party, the Leeds Co-operative Party, although none of its candidates were ever elected to Parliament, and offered free adult education for employees.

All through the twentieth century the Leeds Industrial Co-operative Society (LICS) was a fixture. But as the big supermarkets emerged and began to dominate, perhaps the time of the Co-op, as it had been, had passed. In 2006 the group’s 21,000 members and 700 employees voted to merge with United Co-operatives (which in turn merged with the Co-operative Group a year later) and the days of LICS, one of the biggest businesses in Leeds and a bulwark for many, were over.

Lottie coverChris Nickson’s novel, Modern Crimes, is set in 1924 and features Lottie Armstrong, one of the first policewomen in Leeds. 

1924 – Six years after the Great War and Leeds still isn’t back on its feet. Work is scarce, poverty is everywhere and crime is spreading. The city has its first policewoman, though, and Lottie Armstrong is eager to prove herself in this man’s world. But with her duties confined to looking after women and children, the force doesn’t want a woman with initiative. Then Lottie has to search for a missing girl, and her life changes.

Suddenly CID needs a woman’s touch to find answers, and Lottie is a proper copper for the first time, following a trail that takes her from high society to the Royal Hotel, where men and women gather, the ones who live in the shadows because their love is a sin.

As Lottie uncovers a plot involving high level corruption, the truth is slowly laid bare. And she learns that if you show you’re as clever as a man, there’s always a price to pay.

Modern crimes, timeless tragedy.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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