A Year Ago - The last 12 months with the Co-operative Heritage Trust (by Archivist Jane Donaldson)

'Co-operation in a Nutshell'. A piece of co-op propaganda material produced by The Co-operative Union's Education Department in the 1950s. 

It has been a year since I started working as the archivist for the Co-operative Heritage Trust Archives at Holyoake House in Manchester (a charity). In this short time I have met new people, dealt with various enquiries, discovered many items in the stacks and learnt a great deal about cooperation, discovering more and more each day. The constant learning and discovery is what attracted me to working in archives originally and I enjoy the research. 

I've worked in archives for over 20 years, the last 10 being freelance, and have worked at a variety of repositories including large University Special Collections and Local Studies and Archives. My roles have been in a variety of areas such as digital preservation, supporting teaching and learning and obtaining accreditation for collections. My role now, as a lone archivist, means I have to undertake all facets of the job, but I have support from an experienced team and also from colleagues and peers working in organisations which have similar collections.

The best thing is the enquiries. They are all different and sometimes unique and can be quite niche, but they always help me learn more about what we have in the collections and introduce me to new topics and subjects

Ilford Co-op Society Women's Guild outing for members in 1926 

Do It Once, Do It Properly 

I have taken this time to focus on the various collections to get them ready for robust planning for bigger projects to make the material more accessible to users. As in all archives, there is plenty to do on a day to day basis and plenty of planning going on to prepare for new projects and partnerships. A lot of material came in during the Covid Pandemic and with little capacity do any work on the material, a lot of trawling through and working out still needs to be doneSome days I feel I have got a handle on things. Other days I can look around and see how much that there is to do and it can feel somewhat overwhelming but the time offered by regular volunteers is enormously helpful. 

A 1930's photograph of the female workforce at Crumpsall 'Crackers' biscuit factory in North Manchester (the factory no longer exists) from the Co-operative Union Photograph Collection ref. CUP/1/78/74

I Am Not An Academic  

I find that I am using a few phrases regularly when talking to the public. One is ‘I am not an academic but I can hopefully guide you to material that will help’. I will not know everything about every research enquiry, as many of these seem quite specialised at first glance and other areas have been researched by numerous people and in depth. I have big shoes to fill as some of our staff and former staff have worked with the materials here for many years and have a wide knowledge of co-operative history, whereas I feel I am just beginning to get to know the collections 

Front Cover of Defiant Radio catalogue, 1930s

We have many enquiries about different consumer co-op stores (these are the ones most people in the UK are most familiar with) and we have had other readers looking at architecture or co-operation in other countries from Japan to co-op housing in New York. Some of the ones which stand out are interests in the Co-op Movement's involvement in the Spanish Civil War, agriculture in Ireland, the Women’s Guilds, Co-operative College and Education, the CWS Travel Service holidays in the former Soviet Union, Chartism, dialect poetry and writing, co-operative songs, and politics at home and overseas. 

The laying of a plaque to complete the new CIS (Insurance) tower or skyscraper on Miller Street in Manchester in 1963 - at the time, the city's tallest structure.  Co-operative Union Photograph Collection ref. CUP/1/21/4. 

I have received much help from colleagues and readers as they share their knowledge freely with me, which I am so grateful for, but my aim is to guide researchers to relevant material and once researchers start talking, then this can provide pointers to further archives that may be useful. 

Brochure from the Co-op group Collection featuring an image of New Century House and Hall

‘I can guide you to research...  

...but I cannot do your research for you’. There is an expectation that you can come into an archive and find the material in one place ready on the shelf waiting for you (this partly comes from TV documentaries where you see a celebrity arriving to conveniently ready records of their families exploits). Unlike the museum at Rochdale where you can drop in and see objects on display, archives are stored away and must be requested prior to a visit. When people do start their research, they might find that what they need is scattered over many collections, and there is no guarantee you will find your answer.  


Party Political Poster for the Co-operative Party


Part of my role is to manage those expectations to help researchers get the most of visiting and using archives, not just here but at other places too, as some research can take a few minutes and others can take yearsHaving repeat visits from researchers since I have been here has also been very rewarding.  

And no, not everything is digitised. (Look out for a future blog post on this topic). 

Navigating any archives for the first time can be hard and we now have a link on our website for guidance to getting the best from your archive visit. We offer first visit support onsite for researchers and can do introduction sessions for groups so that you can get the most out of visits not just to this archive, but other places too. We welcome all sorts of users, from seasoned academics and researchers to new students, family historians and people looking for inspiration from the past. 

Nothing beats being able to access original documents and see how they link to other aspects of our history and experiences.

Front Cover of Centenary Magazine published by CWS offering everything members need for a 'modern' and futuristic home.

My Favourite Thing?  

Every day I find something new. I do like a lot of the designs that were used on pamphlets especially from the 50s and 60s. I like a lot of the photographs from the Co-op News such as the different stores where you can see the customers and goods that were sold. Using the Co-op News for a specific enquiry can often mean getting sidetracked by all the articles and calls for social reform, especially in the early years, and sometime this can bring back personal memories too.  It was my job as a child to stick the dividend stamps in the family book and like many people, we had members of our family who worked for co-operatives. 

I do like it when researchers help to can bring items to life, either through their experience or knowledge. Recently, I have been enjoying supporting research about the CWS Travel Service and have come across a few brochures for various garden suburbs that were being planned by councils in the early twentieth century which links many of my past roles and archive collections I have been responsible for.


Images from 'The Practicality of Garden Cities' by Rose Simpson from the LRP pamphlet collection.  

Future Plans  

I am continuing to ensure the archive collections are listed, able to be located and accessed by researchers. There is constant applying for funding to enable cataloguing of bigger collections and we are working collaboratively with other small repositories which also hold similar collections to pool our resources for teaching an learning and more outreach and to fund and support work on the archives.

A paper seed wheel by the CWS to encourage planting of wildflowers / native plants to promote seed sales and and leisure activity in gardens (1940's) 

All images used with permission from the Co-operative Heritage Trust Archive Collections. For further information about each image, please contact [email protected]