It came as a surprise to me when I first learned that because I work for the Co-op that I receive a reduction in my Orange mobile phone bill, and that if I put petrol in my car at a BP service station then I can earn points which can be spent in Sainsbury’s, but businesses that co-operate with each other are by no means a 21st century invention. During the middle of the 1800s a group of Doncaster shopkeepers pooled their resources to create a network of companies who co-operated under one banner.
Over the Pennines in nearby Rochdale, a group of 10 weavers along with 20 other individuals decided to work together in order to sell a few essential items at a more affordable price. They collected £1 per member and after 4 years of saving they managed to amass £28 of capital. They used this money to set up a small provisions store through which they sold butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal, and candles, 3 months later including tea and tobacco. The success of this co-operative is best illustrated by saying that within 10 years their example had sparked others to do the same and so by 1844 there were over a thousand co-operatives nationally.
In November 1867, a group of Doncastrian’s decided that they too wanted a piece of the action and decided to see what could be achieved by co-operation and went on to open their first store. Work soon commenced to form a society where members paid a small subscription fee and members meetings were held in various cottages throughout the town. A code of practice was drawn up and on the 28th February, 1868, at a meeting held in the schoolroom of the Great Northern Railway Company with 40 subscribers present, a resolution was passed to establish a Doncaster Society and the officers and committee were appointed.
On the 22nd May, 1868, a small shop was rented in St. James Street where the newly formed society commenced their sale of goods. The trade went on increasing day by day, all the labour being freely given by the committee until, that was, the 22nd June 1868, when it was deemed necessary to employ an assistant in the form of a servant. This was quickly followed on September 21st with the appointment of a storekeeper who was paid £60 per annum which allowed the shop to remain open all day. By December 1869, the committee purchased the society’s first property for £310, and after building a flour warehouse and making other alterations, the new building was opened up for business and the ‘little old shop’ was given up. No sooner had it settled in its new premises than the need arose to further expand and the committee decided to purchase other Doncaster properties to the value of £1025. The new properties allowed for further diversification into drapery and general outfitting with a butchers department being added a little later. The governing body opted to open a Small Savings Bank in April 1876, which saw an average weekly deposit of £35 and quickly amassed assets worth £2554.
Up to press, the premises that made up the co-operative were either on the edge of town, or out of town altogether, so that in September 1876, in desiring to penetrate further into the centre of town, they purchased a plot of land in Spring Gardens for the sum of £1575. One year later, almost to the day, a large grocery store was constructed at a cost of £2026 which opened its doors to the Doncaster public on the 1st September 1878. After putting themselves in the limelight of one of the busiest Doncaster shopping streets, their success was almost unstoppable with a new boot and shoe business opening in 1879, a new drapery shop and a bakery being opened in 1881, and in 1884 a new grocery and butchery branch was opened at Broxholme Lane.
On May 28th 1885, an agreement was entered into with the Doncaster Corporation for the purchase of a plot of land containing approximately 3½ acres for the sum of £1431. 11s. 3d., at Hexthorpe. After the completion of the new Hexthorpe branch, which opened its doors on the 16th December 1886, and with the massive amount of spare land left over, it was decided that they would expand their business into the construction of dwelling houses. In all, 54 new houses were built, each having ‘6 rooms and a good back garden’, and the properties were considered to be the best workmen’s dwellings in the district. The committee fixed the selling price making it as near to ‘cost’ as was possible. The members then paid 10% of the purchase price (approximately £18), before spreading the rest over a period of years, and 17 years later, in 1903, the society owned 12 deeds to the original 54 houses meaning 42 of them were now in the sole possession of the purchasers, who in every case were working men and members of the Doncaster Co-operative Society.
In 1888, the committee purchased a plot of ground in nearby Conisborough on which they built grocery, butchery, and drapery shops. They also erected 17 dwelling houses and sold them to the Conisborough members in the same way as they had done in Hexthorpe. In the same year a grocery and butchery shop was opened in Hyde Park, to which a drapery store was subsequently added.
As is the norm for societies, periodical and regular meeting were held to closely monitor the running of the businesses, attract new companies, and to discuss how best to invest the members money. The society, growing in numbers at a rapid rate, called for a purpose built meeting hall with attached offices. With this in mind they set about building a new central premises which were opened on September 23rd, 1893, at a final cost of £7470. In the same year, other branches were opened out of town and further afield by the Doncaster Co-operative Society at South Kirby and at Goldthorpe.
In 1896, land was purchased at the corner of Station Road (directly opposite the site of the modern day Danum Co-op, latterly T.J. Hughes), upon which was built a tailoring, grocery, drapery, and furniture shop; the whole block costing £19, 617. 6s. 3d., and in the first year the tailoring department saw gross profits of £1600 which enabled a bonus system to be paid to the most productive workers. By the following year, 1897, the Co-operative’s first fish department was opened with great success. According to the 1902 year end accounts, previous years sales amounted to £158,395. 4s. 8d., with the net profit being £17,405. 17s. 6d. In the 35 years since the society’s inception the total sales came to £2,554,098. 10s. 8d., making the members dividend (nicknamed ‘the Divi’), to be shared out equally, £224,956. 13s. 3d.
The Co-operative used a good proportion of their share of the profits in their education department, designating £3512. 6s. 10d., for the use of the Doncaster Educational Committee in providing reading-rooms, holding classes and lectures, and in various other ways for the education of its members. From that first group of Rochdale weavers who had that novel idea of taking back the monopoly from the few, rich sole-traders, came the inspiration for the Doncaster Co-operative Society, a society that still exists as a thriving and ever-growing concern today, dealing in Food stores, Pharmacy’s, Farming, Funeral Care, Banking, Travel, Insurance, the list goes on.