Wednesday, 25 May 2011

150 years of Kropotkin's Footnote!

Lincoln Co-operative Society Celebrates its 150th Anniversary.

Sadly the Lincoln Equitable Co-operative Society only rates a footnote in the second edition of that old anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin’s seminal book, Fields, Factories and Workshops. This is the book in which Kroptkin laments the fact that; “Under the pretext of division of labour, we have sharply separated the brain worker from the manual worker”.
Originally published in 1898 alongside the Conquest of Bread and Mutual Aid it is one of Kropotkin’s most important works. In it he talks of a new “mutualist” venture – the Lincoln Equitable Co-operative Society. So here we have it, 1898 and the Lincoln Co-op is already making waves.
Founded in 1861 by a joiner from Gainsborough, Thomas Parker, it began trading from 1, Napoleon Place, Lincoln, in September 1861, wisely “goods where sold for ready money only”. After the first quarter they had 74 members and paid out a dividend of 9 old pence!
The society’s mission was the “domestic, social and intellectual advancement of its members” so in 1876, they established an Education Committee and having raised £18 from concerts and readings opened a free reading room twenty years before Lincoln’s first public library.
Lincolnshire Co-operative Society today has expanded across the county and into Newark in Nottinghamshire. This year the Society celebrates its 150th anniversary with a slightly larger membership - 198,000 - who last year received a dividend payment of £4.3million.
With sales of £278 million, a trading surplus of over £20million, two hundred outlets from food stores, pharmacies, post offices, home stores, travel agents, coffee shops, florists, a car dealership, funerals and even their own a bakery. This I suppose at least ensures the conquest of bread.
In the report to members in 1863 the Society told them to “Have faith in the lovely principle of co-operation and cast your mountain of woe into the sea”. Today faced with the retailing juggernauts of the big five supermarkets the performance of Lincoln Society is even more remarkable than it was in Kropotkin’s day.
For a regional consumer retail society to consistently deliver such staggering results for the community it serves and its members is more than remarkable. The Society is staunchly committed co-operative principles as well as fair trade and to local sourcing. They have a real commitment to local produce and it’s not just Lincolnshire sausage and Lincolnshire poacher cheese. They sell a large range of local sourced foods supporting local producers and cutting down on food miles.
The society established and continues to support the Lincolnshire Co-operative Development Agency which offers business support across the county. The 150th Anniversary gives the Society much to reflect on indeed for the 50th anniversary in 1911 a history was written by the then secretary Duncan McInnes and in 1961 a centenary history was written by Frank Buckshaw and Duncan McNab. The 150th will not be an exception and former Director Alan Middleton is writing a new history of the Society.
Lincoln has always been fiercely independent and is deeply embedded into its local community is it any wonder when last year it shared £132,000 amongst 1500 Lincolnshire groups and charities. This year to mark the anniversary their big birthday award means they will be sharing £500,000 with 150 local good causes – there you have some genuine mutual aid!
But do not think it is all looking backwards. Lincoln is one of the most innovative and dynamic societies in the country. It is engaged in using its property portfolio to drive economic development and buying a pharmaceutical distribution business. Chief Executive Ursula Lidbetter is well known within the movement as a staunch champion of co-operation and in standing up for members having a key role in society governance. Currently she is Chair of the Co-operative Group’s Food board bringing her Lincoln experience to the national stage.
Ursula has been inspired by the passion and zeal of the founders of Lincoln Co-op 150 years ago who started the society not to generate profits or seek returns on their capital, but because they wanted to make a difference. She says; “Whatever members needed, the society found a way to provide it and the same ethos applies today, we collaborate with our community because that’s what we’re all about. If we can help we do, but if you want community development, you’ve got to be in the community.”
“Co-operation?” she adds, “you know it when you see it — regardless of the structure or the name. All our co-ops were founded because of the desperate need for trust, fairness and integrity. Yet there’s a whole generation who thinks of the Co-op as just another supermarket. That demonstrates the scale of the task the Movement faces.”
Here is a clear example of Kropotkin’s brains and hands working together - the true secret of Lincoln’s success is in being true to Co-operative values instead of just trying to be another supermarket. That is a lesson for all of us.

Wortley Hall @ 60

Happy Birthday to the Workers Stately Home!

At a time when we are battling so that workers can retire at sixty I am glad to see that one Labour movement institution has reached its diamond anniversary without a hint of retiring! I have always had a soft spot for Wortley Hall, I first went there longer ago than I like to admit, as it was the venue for the weekend schools of the old Midland Section of the Co-op Party.

Wortley Hall, between Sheffield and Huddersfield, is set in 26 acres of formal gardens and woodlands, was the ancestral home of the Earls of Wharncliffe, we are unsure when the original hall was built but it is known that Sir Thomas Wortley, born in 1440, lived at the Manor Wortley until 1510.

Sir Thomas, on the wrong side during the English Civil War, was taken by Parliamentary forces to the Tower of London. The hall then fell into decay until the mid eighteenth century when Edmund Wortley commissioned its rebuilding. The family’s new wealth came from the black diamond’s of the South Yorkshire coalfield. The Hall was occupied by the Army during the war, but with the coming of peace and the nationalisation of the mines it fell into what looked like terminal decline.

This all changed at a meeting in May 1950 when former miner Vin Williams proposed to local labour movement activists that Wortley Hall should become an education and recreation home for workers who would be both the owners and the users. The Hall was lifted out of almost derelict condition by a great deal of voluntary work with supporters carrying out much needed repairs and restoration. Then on May 5th 1951 it was opened as an education and holiday centre for the trade union, labour and co-operative movement.

For sixty years, successive generations have maintained that commitment and built on the sacrifices of those workers to keep Wortley Hall as the Workers Stately Home. It has always been run on co-operative principles and is a member of the Co-operatives UK and registered as a Friendly Society.

Today, with four stars from the English Tourist Board, the Hall is looking better than ever. The effort that has gone into bringing the accommodation and grounds up to the very highest standards has really paid off. The grounds laid out in an Italinate style on an eastward facing slope enjoying magnificent views over the Vale of Worsborough are absolutely glorious.

The Hall can host conferences for up to 175 delegates, with seven conference rooms and 49 en-suite bedrooms, all equipped with direct telephone lines and internet connections. Recently upgraded is the Unite ballroom, paid for mainly by Unite branches.

Another recent development has been the creation of two holiday cottages set in the old stable yard. The area has some excellent cycling and walking as the Hall is not far from the Peak District, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and for those wishing to travel further afield there is the ‘last of the summer wine country’ of Holmfirth.

Starting in May there are some exciting events to mark the anniversary especially intriguing are a series of folk song workshops with some very talented musicians and wordsmiths both to enjoy folk song but also to have ago at creating some new ones. Developed by Steel Valley Beacon Arts, participants include Pete Coe, Gavin Davenport, Ian Enters, Robin Garside, Bryony Griffith and Chris Mcshane.

The grounds are also the home of the South Yorkshire Festival, celebrating workers worldwide, which takes place on Saturday 2nd July this year, an excellent day out, in a delightful setting.

In August Jo Stanley will be giving the Sylvia Pankhurst memorial lecture which is sponsored by the National Assembly of Women, the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee and Wortley Hall.

And don’t forget organisations and individuals can apply for shares which are in £5 units. For a small sum you too can have a share in the Workers Stately Home! If you are a member of a Trade Union, Labour or Co-operative organisation you are eligible to become an individual shareholder. This entitles you to participate in the running of Wortley Hall so for more information go to: