On 15 April 1895, William Nuttall, an English emigrant to southern Australia wrote to Benjamin Jones of the London Branch of the Co-operative Wholesale Society, congratulating him on the publication of his book Co-operative Production. Such was Nuttall’s reputation as an active co-operator before he left the UK, that the letter was published in the Co-operative News. It revealed that Nuttall was looking to the British co-operative movement to help him promote agricultural co-operation in Victoria, both through CWS buying Australian produce, and through providing expertise and advice. Australia, of course, had experienced decades of economic development and territorial expansion. As in other colonial frontier societies, the formation of consumer and agricultural co-operatives were one response to the harsh conditions faced by workers, farmers, and others. Publication of the letter also reflected the growing interest of the UK co-operative wholesales in Australia as a potential source of agricultural produce, including butter, wheat, animal fats and fruit. At the time, industrialisation and rising living standards across northern Europe meant that demand for these commodities was rising and therefore prices were high. The upshot was a decision in 1896 to send out a deputation from both UK wholesales to Australia and New Zealand with a view to establishing a CWS depot in Australia. This was established in 1897, and three years later a tallow factory was opened as part of the Sydney depot, to supply essential fats for soap production in the UK. Australian societies also joined CWS to gain access to supplies of Ceylon tea, as well as CWS boots and shoes.

The North Coast Fresh Food and Cold Storage Co-operative

 

But problems soon arose, mainly through difficulties in managing both the depot and the tallow factory. In 1902 the depot manager, Mr Fairbairn, was dismissed for repeatedly contravening orders from Manchester and for trading illicitly on his own account. Similar suspicions resulted in the dismissal of the factory manager shortly afterwards. Thereafter the wholesales’ Sydney operation remained under a cloud, and the depot was only continued because of its growing purchases of Australian wheat. But the acquisition of a depot to purchase palm oil in West Africa replaced the need for the tallow works in 1915, and the global disruption of trade and shipping led to the effective close of the Sydney depot during World War One.

 

However, after the end of the war, the global efforts at economic construction opened new opportunities in Australia, which was rapidly expanding its wheat production capacity in western and southern Australia. The remoteness and limited infrastructure of these regions compelled farmers to form their own co-operatives to meet needs. The most prominent of these was Westralian Farmers, established in 1914, to supply its members with bags, tools, warehouses and even food and consumables. In the 1920s this was followed by the establishment of wheat pools, particularly in Western and southern Australia, which pooled resources to market wheat and ensure the best possible prices. But these new organisations were regarded as high risk by Australian banks. They were reluctant to offer the vast amount of credit the pools needed to support farmers until the receipts of wheat sales were paid to them. It was the English CWS Banking department, with its growing interest in buying Australian wheat, which came to the rescue. Between 1926 and 1932 the CWS Bank extended between £10 and £15 million of credit to the Western Australian Wheat Pool, and about £1.5 million to the South Australian wheat pool. By the early 1930s, the Australian banks had taken over the provision of credit, but the CWS’ role had been vital in the early years of the life of these wheat pools. The CWS Bank also provided credit and loans for Westralian farmers throughout the inter-war period. Co-operative leaders in the UK celebrated wholesale activities in Australia as ensuring cheaper bread for British people, as well as bolstering Britain’s trading relations with its empire. This became a major plank of state policy following the Great Depression of 1929-32 and the lapse of the world into protectionism, which followed.

Australian Produce Advertised for CWS in 1932

 

 

The Great Depression hit Australia hard, bringing unemployment and falling prices for the exports upon which the country depended. The British wholesales sought to maintain its trade with the country through developing links with the Australian consumer co-operative movement. For several years from 1930 it paid the New South Wales Co-operative Wholesale Society (NSWCWS) £1,000 a year to purchase Australian produce on its behalf. This was an arrangement it duplicated with several other societies, and these deals involved selling CWS produce as well as buying Australian flour and butter. But in 1936 it was decided that a Sydney depot buying for both CWS and SCWS would be revived, and once it was re-established, the arrangement with NSCWS was terminated. The outbreak of war again in 1939 brought further hardship, but CWS/SCWS trade continued.

 

Initially after the war business with Australia boomed as world trade recovered. In 1956 it was agreed with the Australian Canned Food Board that a specially created CWS subsidiary, the Anglo-Australasian Importing Co., would act as agents for a range of Australian canned food companies. This was an indication of how important British co-operative trade was seen by Australian government at the time. But the British consumer co-operative movement began to lose market share in the 1960s, and as with elsewhere, CWS/SCWS demand for Australian commodities began to recede. While as late as 1964, the Sydney depot employed 5 people and generated £1,790,450, supplying canned fruit, green fruit, rice and other commodities to both CWS and SCWS, and also to a range of European co-operative organisations, the writing was on the wall. In the 1970s the Sydney Depot was closed – with little or no fanfare – as the co-operative movement began, like other commercial organisations, to turn to its new partners in the European Economic Community (EEC – forerunner of the EU).

 

Cultural and political ties remain of course. The recently established Australian Business Council for Co-operatives and Mutuals maintains close links with the British movement, and there is a steady exchange of ideas and collaboration. Whether in a post Brexit world commercial ties between the British and Australian movements can be rebuilt remains to be seen, not least given the distances involved.

Leaders of BCCM celebrate new ground-breaking Federal Legislation to help the promotion of co-operatives and mutual in Australia