The basic philosophy of the co-operative movement developed in the nineteenth century, when workers attempted to better their lot by developing networks of factories and retail outlets under the democratic control of members each of whom received part of the surplus as a dividend. The movement was at its strongest in the densely populated industrial areas of the north and midlands – Glasgow, Newcastle, Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire – and reached Bedfordshire comparatively late. The first national organisation, the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was formed in 1862 and was followed in 1869 by the Co-operative Union which in 1889 became a federation of co-operative societies.
The main collection of co-operative society records held by Bedfordshire Archives is held under reference X778. There are also some records for the Potton society under X744. However, no early records appear to have survived for Bedfordshire co-operative societies of the 1860s and 1870s. Fortunately, papers held by the Co-Operative Heritage Trust in Manchester supplement the scarcity of sources held locally. The basic details of a society’s registration dates, its membership, trading statistics and information on mergers can be found in the Co-operative Statistics, published annually since 1876 and in The Co-operator (later the Co-operative News) from 1860.
Bedford Industrial Co-operative Society had started two stores in the town by 1869 and stores existed at Arlesey, Aspley Guise, Eaton Socon (under St. Neots Co-op – records at Huntingdon Record Office), Harrold, Leighton Buzzard, Luton and Sharnbrook by 1890.
The fortunes of branches waxed and waned according to economic conditions. For example, the Eaton Socon Co-operative Society was founded in 1882 with 63 members and quarterly sales of £180, expanded to 122 members and sale of £472 by mid-1885 (ref: X67/655) and had amalgamated with the St Neots Co-op by 1890. Biggleswade Co-op was established in 1894, went into liquidation in 1915 and was refounded as a branch of Hitchin (later Letchworth, Hitchin and District) Co-operative Society in 1921. The shop in Biggleswade finally closed in 1983; unfortunately no records are known to have survived.
Rather surprisingly Luton Co-operative Society was not formed until 1883. We hold a good run of annual accounts and reports including the first one of October 1883 (X778/45/1) and a run of minute books from December 1884 to 1977 (X778/26). There is also a history of the society published in 1933 (X778/43/3/1). The English & Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society chose Dallow Road, Luton as the site for their cocoa and chocolate factory in 1902 (see Luton Year Book 1906, book 100, and the The Story of Luton, book 130 LUT, on the search room shelves) and our collections include various postcards produced to advertise the cocoa works (Z1130/75/10/20/1-13).
The records of Bedford Co-operative Society held under reference X778 are quite comprehensive in range but only date from 1911. The main committee minutes (1912-1969, ref: X778/1) and the reports and balance sheets (1921-1969, ref: X778/6) chart the development of the movement and the impact of local and national strikes, slumps and business failures, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, Ampthill and District Co-operative Society only last about a year before its business was transferred to Bedford in October 1921 and the town had to wait until c.1946 before a store opened there.
The records of Bedford Co-op also include some staff records, 1931-1971 (ref: X778/8/1) and share ledgers for 1911-1939 (ref: X778/9) as well as boundary agreements with neighbouring co-operative societies such as Silsoe, Luton and Newport Pagnell (ref: X778/11/1). The records form an interesting contrast with those of the small Potton and District Society formed in 1905, for which we hold minutes (ref: X744 catalogue ref: X778/13/1) and share ledgers, 1937-1954 (ref: X778/14). A branch of Potton Co-op started at Sandy in 1932.
The records of the Bedford and Luton societies include photographs (see X778/16-17 and 47-48). These provide a wonderful social record of shops and shopping during the period 1950 and 1990.
Judging by the available records the co-operative movement peaked in Bedfordshire in the 1960s. Potton Co-op amalgamated with Cambridgeshire Co-operative Society in 1954 and Bedford followed in 1969, having lost its Garfield Street shop in 1966 and the central bakery in 1967. In January 1991 the Co-operative Centre in Midland Road, Bedford ceased trading, but the network of retail stores still continues across the county and beyond.