Having been involved in the co-op sector for longer than I care to remember you might think that I have lived some of the history. I would have to confess to often being frustrated by the tendency to focus too much on the past and not enough on the future. You know the syndrome, someone can always tell you their Granny’s divi number to establish their co-op credentials but can they show you a current membership card.
Hypocritically, I am now going to focus on various historical projects and anniversaries (I am aging, yes). You could probably say that there is going to be a lot happening in the next few years, historically (and probably now confusingly) speaking. Bear with me and all will become clear.
On the 14th March 2011 we will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the signing of the charter which established the Fenwick Weavers as a co-operative. The Weavers claim to be the first recorded co-op. They would accept that Rochdale is the model that has been globally exported but would never want to miss a chance to remind our colleagues in the south of the historical facts. (I decided not to post a photograph of myself outside the offices of the Philadelphia Contributionship (1752) until I have had my free lunch at Fenwick on the 14th March). The reason Fenwick remained largely unacclaimed was that most of the archive went off to New Zealand, with half of the population of the village, and didn’t return to the National Library of Scotland until two centuries later.
Dr Elizabeth Macknight, a historian at Aberdeen University, has a publication out later this year explaining the importance of maintaining local archives and how this impacted on the Fenwick story. She is also exploring another Scottish co-operative milestone. It is believed that there has been a co-operative food store on Lennoxtown Main Street since 1812 (do the arithmetic and 2012 would be the 200th anniversary, which also happens to be UN Year of the co-operative). Now that’s what I call sustainability – can you think of any other high street presence which has survived that long? There are several references to Lennoxtown, alongside Fenwick and Govan as pre-dating Rochdale, so it will be interesting to see if any corroborating records can be uncovered.
So what does 2013 hold for co-operative historians? Only the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), better known today as the Co-operative Group, arguably the largest co-op in the world. The Group is rightly looking to celebrate 2013 and is working with Liverpool University and John Moores University to make as much of the historical archive as broadly available as possible. More importantly, the group is using this as part of a major effort to establish co-operation back at the core of British society (big or otherwise). The Group have set ambitious targets to ensure that all basic products that can be fair trade in their stores, will be by 2013 and that they will look to grow membership from 6 million to 20 million. The latter would represent one third of the UK population – that is big.
Finally, CETS is doing its bit to make sure you know your history. We are working with local schools in Fenwick around the celebrations and we have been working with Scotland on Screen to create new resources for schools (Primary, Secondary and Additional Learning Needs) In the spirit of Curriculum for Excellence we have tried to ensure that these resources are not just for history teachers. Remember, history is something we need to learn from, to better inform our choices and decisions in the future.