Society Stories 3 - 

This blog is about the rich and varied history of the Independent Society of Central England.*

Although many people outside the Co-operative Movement think all co-ops are part of the same business (the Co-operative Group), there are several large local co-op’s with a regional focus, and this is one of the biggest. The fact that Co-operatives communicate, support each other and often work together can make it harder for people to understand the difference but ultimately, all our co-ops share the history and inspiration of the Rochdale Pioneers, who knew that working together would make societies stronger. We are delighted to have the support of Central England Co-op in the work we do preserving and sharing it’s past.

Central England was so named in 2014 after a series of regional mergers in the central belt of the country from Derbyshire and Leicestershire but extending in all directions into neighbouring counties to form a complex geographical area.

The reason the society’s history is complex is because there was a strong tradition of independence and many societies were continuing to trade after others merged together in the face of competition in a capitalist market in the 20th Century.

As a result, some of the very local co-ops have ‘disappeared’, although often there is still a society store in the areas they served, and sometime the original premises.

We can’t tell the stories of all the co-ops which formed Central England here, but we can share some snippets which we think illustrate the way co-op culture affected the regions.

Let’s start with Coalville.

The society first formed as the ‘Coalville Working Men’s Co-operative Society’ in 1882. The name doesn’t sound very co-operative given the movement’s tradition of opportunity and equal membership for women, but this says more about the culture and environment of Coalville itself.

The town which became Coalville started life as a settlement called Long Lane, and although the name Coalville seems to have been used locally from the late 1820’ s after new deep mines were sunk, it doesn’t appear in the records of the Leicester and Swannington Railway Company as ‘Coalville’ until 1841. The fact that the area had a railway at all given it’s small population was due to the vast amount of coal present as well as the lime and brickworks which would ensure the population exploded after 1832. Effectively created by the demands of industrial production, the vast majority of the new residents were wage- dependent on the mines and couldn’t fall back on agriculture.

The Coalville society wasn’t set up until 1882, much later than some others in the area, and it would take people who had previously been involved in the nearby Long Eaton  Society. Local societies offered advice and share capital of £45 to begin trading in a miner’s cottage at the end of Melbourne Street that summer. Although for ‘Working Men’, the first Manager was a Woman named Miss Radford.

Membership grew quickly , enabling branch stores, a bakery, stables, drapery, butchery and warehouse. A notable moment in the history of this society was the amount of men and horses given to the war effort in 1914. By the end of the war, food shortages and prices of meat had become such a problem , that owning three farms had become necessary in order to maintain independence from CWS (Co-operative Wholesale Society).the heyday was in the early 20th century, with increased competition from elsewhere and reducing membership in the latter half of the 20th Century as a result of massive change to employment, education and local opportunities. By the 1980’s, Coalville was no longer an industrial centre and after merging with Ashby De-La Zouch,  it became part of Leicester Co-op in 1969, with lots of others as part of Leicestershire and then Midlands Co-op in 1995, finally merging into Central England.

Typical to the story of most of the other small co-ops, the immediate local identity became a regional one, but independence was still very important to the members in these places.

The Co-operative Heritage Trust holds the archival records for the Central England Society and the smaller societies which make it up – we have some footage made by Coalville in 1942 called ‘Progress’  – You can see part one here. 

Can you recognise any of these buildings or the people in them?

Are you part of Central England ? A member or worker?– what do you do and how could we tell your story in the future? (We are particularly interested in underrepresented stories from people who identify as Non-White, LGBTQ+ and disabled people. 

Contact [email protected]

*The image featured is of the Leicester Society Pharmacy department in the 1960's before a series of regional mergers into Central England.