The British Co-op and the World 1: New York, New York!

History is often dismissed by superficial thinkers as irrelevant to the modern world. But a lack of knowledge of the past – your own past as well as society’s – can lead to appallingly bad decisions based on flawed understanding and prejudice. 

‘Co-op’ is often referred to in the mass media in patronising terms: A leader of what became the Co-operative Group once described to me how in the 1990’s he was greeted by an eminent journalist from the Financial Times who asked him ‘where’s your cloth cap and your whippet?’ in a lame attempt at humorous ridicule. It spoke volumes about how the co-operative movement is characterised in the mass media: parochial, out of date, marginal and irrelevant.   This is the first in a series of snippets which aims to dispel that myth; to show just how much of a global as well as national leader the movement was and is, not just in its ethical behaviour, but as a business innovator which led and leads where private capitalists follow. It is about reminding us that all that co-operators need not, and should not, bow to the condescension of others.

New York. A name which conjures up glamorous images of power and wealth. The Empire State Building; The Statue of Liberty; The home of Donald Trump; Trump Tower; Wall Street; Broadway;  a leading, if not the leading global city.

What is not so well known is that the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) of Manchester, set up in 1863, became a major player in the commercial life of the ‘Big Apple’ from the 1870s to the 1940s, and from its branch in the city, built an extensive coast-to-coast network of trading links across north America, including Canada. It all began in the early 1870s, when the fast growing CWS responded to the burgeoning demand from its member societies by purchasing hams and cheese from a private merchant in New York. So quickly did this trade grow that in 1876 CWS established a hub for its buyers and those of its Scottish counterpart, SCWS. The CWS manager in New York was John Gledhill, an experienced CWS buyer, who brought to his role the canniness and energy which were to become hallmarks of CWS people around the world. In addition to his buying duties, Gledhill built a network of commercial and political contacts across New York and eventually across the North American continent. When in the early 1880s the city opened its great new cathedral to commerce; the New York Produce Exchange, CWS were the first business to rent rooms in the building. The location was ideal - 

especially when in 1882 Gledhill was elected as a manager of the exchange, in addition to his duties leading the CWS branch. Here was the CWS at the very beating heart of American commerce. Gledhill became acquainted with every major business across the continent, and a recognised and respected pillar of New York society. Under his leadership, CWS secured trade with leading national businesses, such as the meat packing giant, Armour, based in Chicago, who provided tinned meat for CWS under the latter’s Pioneer label. Flour bought directly from American millers meant that CWS did not have to pay high prices to British agents. But perhaps the most startling evidence of  success in the USA was the CWS supply to private firms such as Kilverts, McFie’s, Goodwin Brothers and Dixons with produce in the 1880’s Such were the advantages of increasing CWS leverage in bulk buying, that the Manchester Head Office allowed New York to deviate from the general rule of only supplying co-operative societies.

The status and reach that came with this was dizzying. When the CWS director W.E. Bates toured the USA in 1892, under the guidance of the New York branch, he was entertained by both the Mayor of New York and the US President! Moreover, it was from the New York branch that the CWS extended its operations into Canada, establishing a branch in Montreal and developed its trade in Canadian wheat. In 1917 (shortly before his death) Gledhill provided procurement services for the British government for American foodstuffs as the First World War entered its crucial final stage. Such was the scale of CWS operations in Canada by the Second World War, it took charge of British government wheat supply procurement in that country.

In 1926 CWS celebrated 50 years of the New York branch in a special jubilee dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The growth of the New York branch’s commerce had been truly staggering. In its first year in 1876, the branch exported just £88,000 worth of goods. By 1926 the value of the branch’s exports was almost £57 million, with about 20 per cent of US lard exports going through the branch. The CWS delegation from Britain to the event was entertained by President Calvin Coolidge in the White House, and laid a wreath at John Gledhill’s grave in Brooklyn Cemetery.

The dinner was a lavish affair and attended by representatives from many of New York’s and indeed the US’s leading commercial firms. CWS was recognised as a major player in American commerce.

While the CWS New York branch continued to enjoy a position of importance; it went into decline after 1945, just as British consumer co-operatives began to experience difficulties. Exports from the New York branch began to shrink, and in the late 1960s it was finally closed. But the fact remains that CWS had played a hugely important part in the economic success of both the city, and of the USA. A far cry from the cloth cap and the whippet!