Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Fellowship is heaven

Review Essay

The Story of HF Holidays by Harry Wroe
Published by HF Holidays 2007

Voices of Wortley Hall, The Story of “Labour’s Home”, 1951-2011 by John Cornwell
Published by Wortley Hall, 2011

These are amongst that substantial library of celebratory self published co-operative society histories but none the worse for that. HF Holidays can trace its lineage back over a century whilst at sixty Wortley Hall is just a youngster. They have in common the quest for working class educational holidays.

The Holiday Fellowship (now HF Holidays) was registered as an Industrial and Provident Society in 1913 when it was a fundamentalist breakaway from the Co-operative Holiday Association (CHA) formed in 1897. The origins of the CHA can be found in the teachings of Dr. J.B. Paton, principal of the Nottingham Congregational Institute, who believed that,

“The wealth of a country does not consist in the number or exchangeable value of its agricultural or manufactured or artistic products,
so much as in the strength and intelligence and virtue of the men and women whom it rears.”

Paton was born in Galston in Ayrshire in 1830, where his father had been a hand-loom weaver before becoming the manager of the town’s co-operative store. He was an advocate of the National Home Reading Union (NHRU) dedicated to spreading adult literacy and his teaching inspired Thomas Arthur Leonard, originally from Stoke Newington, who trained at the Institute for the congregational ministry. He began his ministry in Barrow before moving to Colne his preaching at Colne lead to the formation of the Co-operative Holiday Association, from amongst NHRU members, his sermon at the Dockray Congregational Church on the theme of “The philosophy of holiday making” was reported in the Colne and Nelson Times of Friday August 7th 1891.

Driven by a spirit of temperance and Christian Socialism he felt the workers of Colne deserved to escape the usual trips to Blackpool or Morecombe with their “perverse or corrupt conceptions of life and conduct”. To this end he formed a rambling club which, in June 1891, took thirty participants to Ambleside, in the Lake District. These became annual affairs attracting large numbers using properties belonging to the NHRU and their supporters. In 1894 a committee was elected with Leonard as General Secretary and in 1896 they acquired their first property in Whitby. Then in 1897 they formalised the loose organisation as the Co-operative Holiday Association although co-operative in name it does not appear to have been a formal co-operative.

By 1913 the CHA had grown to eighteen centres but despite its working class origins it had become “rather middle class in spirit and conservative in ideas”. It had gained support from rich industrialists such as Sir William Mather of the Manchester firm Mather and Platt who helped “balance the books”. Leonard wanted to return to the idea of “strenuous and simple” holidays and the Holiday Fellowship was born and a headquarters was acquired at Bryn Corach at Conwy in North Wales, purchased for £5,096, quite a sum in 1914, and in HF hands until the end of 2010.

Not the best year to form a working class holiday organisation holidays started at Easter 1914. A week at Conwy would set you back 32s 6d with an extra 4s6d for the walking excursions. It is quite remarkable that despite two world wars, a depression and huge social upheavals the Holiday Fellowship is approaching its centenary in rude health. The basic idea has remained the same throughout.

The development of HF follows a common co-operative trajectory. Firstly you need a charismatic individual or small group who see a clear market opportunity that requires more than a commercial rational i.e. it has to be driven by more than the pursuit of profit. Co-operative businesses often grow out of strong communities and this is clearly the case here. Leonard was certainly charismatic he also had a role in the formation of the Youth Hostels Association and with Canon Rawnsley in the Lake District the early years of the National Trust.

He had a Whitmanite approach to the natural world and with his advocacy of ‘rational dress’ for women when out walking on the fells was ahead of his time. All successful co-operative societies need active members and the model the Holiday Fellowship employed of having a system of leaders ensured member engagement. They are a key group of volunteers who act as walking guides but also carry the culture of HF holidays out amongst the wider membership. That culture was for a very long time rather Spartan, it is perhaps no coincidence that before the First World War Leonard became a Quaker and the Quaker value of simplicity was certainly reflected in the business.

This model also helped keep the costs down, fresh air and walking are not expensive commodities but over the decades a major change in customer expectations has taken place. This was tackled by another key co-operative issue - the employment in the enterprise of professional management. Properties have had to be modernised and assets have had to be turned over. Unlike the CHA which changed its name to Countrywide in 1964 continuing as an association of walkers but selling its holiday operations to commercial operators.

HF has in modern times after a couple of sticky patches managed both to take on professional management including using modern marketing techniques including the innovative use of the internet and to renew the business model by a strong return to co-operative values and principles. Leonard who was also a strong internationalist, represented by having a centre in Germany as early as 1914, would approve of the current brochure (2011) of 236 pages covering the 16 UK HF centres but also including holidays in every part of the world from Japan to Peru.

This has been achieved according to the current Chief Executive, Brian Smith, by strengthening the co-operative nature of the business and making membership more than just a loyalty scheme - by making member ownership a reality. This strategy has included a significant increase in member communications and in their role as investors in the business.

This takes me onto Wortley Hall and the things they could perhaps learn from the renewal of the mission of HF holidays. The story of Wortley Hall is also that of the vision of one man, Vin Williams (1893-1970). He had been a lecturer with the National Council of Labour Colleges. The NCLC had grown out of the Central Labour College which had been created following the strike at Ruskin College and the formation of the ‘Plebs’ league in 1908. What the Plebs had realised is that,

“If the education of the workers is to square with the ultimate object of the workers – social emancipation – then it is necessary that the control of any such an educational institution must be in the hands of the workers.”

This principle was very important to Williams who whilst having been imprisoned during the General Strike for sedition was an ecumenical socialist, embracing, Trade Union, Labour Party and Co-operative views. His son, who he named Lenin, known as Len, recalls that he “saw himself as member of the whole Labour movement.” Black listed after the General Strike, after many attempts to make a living including a period of bankruptcy he had become a lecturer in the NCLC.

William’s NCLC district covered Sheffield and the North Midlands and he ran schools across the region, mainly in hotels and when he saw Wortley Hall he realised its potential as a permanent home for workers educational holidays. Friends in the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), Mick Shaw and Alf Hague came to see the derelict building that Williams was raving about. Williams used every contact he had in the Labour Movement to get support for the Hall bringing together representatives of the AEU, FBU, NUM, USDAW, NUR, Co-op Party and Labour Party in 1951 to establish a committee with Harry Johnson, AEU full time official as Chair and himself as secretary. The first years rent was just £50 which just shows how derelict it was.

Williams spent a considerable amount of time fund raising around the labour movement. The story of how he assembled a huge army of volunteer skilled labour, needed for restoration, has become part of the Wortley Hall folklore. The hall was opened by Sir Frank Soskice MP KC in front of “3,000 rain drenched enthusiasts”. That year the syllabus of lectures at the Hall could be booked through your trade union branch or through Co-op Travel Services. The link with the Co-operative movement was very important, the first treasurer Bill Robinson was manager of the Co-op Bank in Sheffield, and until 1994 when they moved to Unity Trust, the Halls finances were a part of the Co-op Bank manger’s job description.

The Hall had been established as an Industrial and Provident Society in 1952 and took its part in the Co-op Union and Co-op Party. It was sadly an incident with the Co-op bank that bought Williams involvement with the Hall to an end. The purchase of some new furniture in 1958 saw Williams’s signature on the cheques. As he was an un-discharged bankrupt the Bank refused to honour the cheque. Other members of the management committee could sign cheques but he could not he was mortally offended that his integrity had been questioned and he left the Hall never to return.

This was a sad end to his engagement with the Hall as he had done all the hard work, taking the Hall through the period when visitors had to bring their ration books and a visit to Wortley was “the socialist equivalent of a week at Butlins”. Williams had gained the engagement of different parts of the Labour movement by getting them to sponsor the various “wings” of the building named after hero’s from different parts of the movement, Robert Owen, Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and George Lansbury.

Williams was succeeded by Alf Hague, a very different character; involved since 1950 and he was a long standing member of the Communist Party who the author points out saw themselves as the “sea-green in-corruptibles.” He shaped the Hall for the next thirty years. His first challenge was to purchase the Hall outright from the Wharncliffe family who where facing considerable death duties. He managed to buy the Hall outright for £10,000 by October 1959.

For years the model worked well with Trade Union and political schools and working class holiday weeks. They generated record surpluses, which thanks to the Co-op Bank connection were wisely invested. By 1970 the building had been Grade II listed and by 1976 the Historic Buildings Council valued the Hall and its 27 acres of grounds at £3.75 million.

However following its 25th anniversary celebrations the cracks began to appear in its offering. They had opened part of the building as a working-mens club which generated considerable revenue but had closed the share-register in 1962 as they felt they had enough “owners” and it was not fully opened again for twenty years. As tastes changed the Hall had become dated this came to a head when following the tough year of 1983 the FBU demanded improvements. Alf Hague was cautious, he saw improvements that some advocated as self-indulgence and had built the business generating considerable surpluses but his frugal style was out of the fashion of the times.

Eventually it was realised that if the Hall was to renew its purpose for a new era he would have to go. His successor in 1991 was Brian Clarke who saw through a complete change in the basis of operations despite a huge financial black hole opening up. For the trade union movement these were difficult times with a fundamental change in working class culture. In 1994 they renewed their links with the wider Labour movement by hosting the now annual South Yorkshire Festival in the grounds of the Hall. This has been followed by a steady up grading of the offer to the point in 2005 when they appointed their first professional hotel and catering manager.

In the last decade the gardens as well as the Hall have undergone considerable restoration, the restoration of the stained glass windows cost £35,000, the fountain was restored, the house gained four stars from the English Tourist Board, and the gardens gained the gold award from Yorkshire in bloom. Even the kitchen garden came back into use with organic status generating 4 tonnes of produce in 2010.

The first conference in the Hall in 1951 was of the British Federation of Young Co-operators many of the participants ended up having significant political careers like Ted Graham, later National secretary of the Co-op Party and MP and Betty Boothroyd who famously became the first women speaker of the House of Commons. Last year thirty four organisations had conferences in the Hall and despite the fact the Hall continues to provide a space for working class education it has also proven itself as a four star country house hotel.

Today the debate within the Co-operative movement about Co-operative education is very much alive. Can genuine co-operative education take place in mainstream institutions or do we need independent co-operative spaces for co-operative education to take place? If spaces like Wortley Hall are to survive and prosper then there is a responsibility for the Hall to engage with the whole movement and the whole movement to engage with it.

In many ways the arguments of Vin Williams and the “Plebs” are unresolved. It maybe that the transmission of culture is as important as formal education and perhaps that is what Wortley Hall could learn from the Holiday Fellowship. After all as William Morris said:

“Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake that ye do them”.

Amazon Booksellers

“Go on living while you may, striving with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, rest and happiness. If others can see as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”
William Morris, News from Nowhere, 1891.

What a buzz at Co-op Congress a real sense that now is time for a greater role for the co-operative movement in the economy. The co-operative retail sector is gaining confidence, there are new co-ops springing up every day and the movement is weathering the recession better than private business.

I thought I was in a dream when, as a bookaholic, I entered the congress exhibition but that vision turned out to be the News from Nowhere bookstall. With Sara and Sal making everyone welcome it quickly became the place to hang out, supping excellent fair-trade Revolver coffee and chewing the fat over all matters co-operative, whilst browsing the stalls splendidly eclectic stock. It also had the edge as the place to pick up your free copy of the Morning Star kindly provided by Birmingham Readers and Supporters Group.

This was NfN’s first time at Co-op Congress but they are no strangers to co-op bookselling. May Day 1974 saw them first open their doors on Liverpool’s Manchester Street. Three moves later they are at 96 Bold Street in a 5-storey building owned by the workers co-operative as a not-for-profit community business. It has been run as a women’s collective for thirty years providing women with their first experience of running a business, building up their skills and confidence in bookselling, retail and accounts.

They try to put their values into practice with all staff receiving equal pay rates and collective decision making – no boss here! You could write the recent radical history (or perhaps herstory!) of Liverpool from those who have passed through their doors. Always more than a bookshop, the children’s area has toys and a comfy chair for tired or breastfeeding mums; many lesbians and gay men have found it a welcoming place when first “coming out” and numerous campaigns have found support here; Troops Out, Reclaim The Night, Striking Miners, Greenham Women and the Liverpool Dockers have all been welcomed.

They have strong local links with initiatives such as Sahir House, Black History Month, Africa Oye, Liverpool Friends of Palestine, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, as well as refugee and women’s groups. Countless conferences have had their horizons expanded by a NfN bookstall. And where else in Liverpool can you celebrates, Chinese New Year, Martin Luther King Day, International Women’s Day, Jewish Book Week, St Patrick’s Day, Pride Week, Hiroshima Day, World Aids Day & Kwanzaa?

Anti-war from Vietnam to Iraq they have always been ahead of the curve on difficult issues even boycotting Barclays bank cheques during apartheid days. Over the years they have been called alternative, radical, feminist and now community so whilst their vocabulary has improved their values have remained stubbornly constant - to provide access to books and information on the reality of the world and how to change it and ourselves for the better.

They must be doing something right as they recently had a visit from the English Defence League. The EDL thugs more than met their match, back in the 80’s, the shop suffered a spate of arson attacks form racist groups and is more than capable of looking after itself with the support of its many friends in the City.

The EDL must have been attracted by their 30th Birthday Celebrations which ran under the banner of – “We are All Immigrants” – making the simple case that we all come from somewhere and showing solidarity with the City’s latest wave of migrants. Today they are Liverpool’s main independent bookshop, carrying a significant range of World Music and a selection of the weekly radical press. As there is only ONE left wing daily they make sure their local newsagent has a stock of the Morning Star. They take pride in helpful customer service and highly efficient ordering facilities, which have generated strong links with local universities and colleges.

In a world of the internet and multinational corporate chains, an independent, grassroots co-operative could struggle to compete, and serious difficulties with dilapidated buildings, ruthless landlords, and fierce competition have had to be overcome but News From Nowhere has shown what can be achieved by dedicated workers, with over 60 years bookselling experience between them and determined community support for a vital resource.

Now you don’t have to live in Liverpool to be part of that community they now have a super on line service which can supply pretty much any book in print so if you see a book reviewed in the Star and you wonder where you can get it simply go to: www.newsfromnowhere.org.uk and you can get your books from Amazons!