Sunnyside - A story of Industrial History and Co-operation (1919)

By Fred Hall, M.A.

As part of our Archive holdings, we have a number of out of print books about co-operation which were once part of the Co-operative Union reference library at Holyoake House.

The library (on the left hand side of the image below) was an essential resource for staff to research and understand what the co-op movement in the UK and overseas looked like and how it was changing. Today most of this work and support is done digitally and our archive reading room is currently based in the old library space.

Most of the books from the library were academic works on a range of topics from economics to social science and were concerned with the professionalisation of retail co-operatives and training for people entering what became an expanding sector in the 19th Century.

Some of those books however, were more concerned with the teaching of the principles of co-operation itself and would have been classified under education or even ‘propaganda’ because they were designed to change and mould the viewpoint of the reader who might then adapt their lifestyle as a result, influencing others.

Most people understand the word ‘propaganda’ to have a sinister association with totalitarian regimes in the 20th Century...but we realise that this type of marketing has always been with us and some examples of this type of media are more subtle than others.

The 1909 UK Conservative Party Poster seen here (reproduced from Wikimedia Commons and originally sourced from The Daily Mail), is an intentionally unsubtle piece of propaganda designed to create a sense of fear over the perceived ‘threat’ of socialism. The people it appealed to were those who had done well as individuals in a capitalist society. Co-operation was often portrayed at the time as underpinning a future socialist revolution and was viewed by some to be in itself dangerous.

The Co-operative Movement and its organisations also used this type of blunt messaging in printed media to promote the idea of co-op membership and commitment to a social economy but there were also more subtle attempts to convince. One example of this is a novel written to appeal to Young People, called ‘Sunnyside’.

The book was written in 1919 as historical fiction about a group of young children (including the Author himself) growing up in a town in the North of England which is clean, safe and crime free compared to the memories of  a character called ‘Old John Jason’ about the early years of the industrial revolution when it had been very different.

'Jason' tells the children over several chapters in a series of ‘tales’ all about the technological changes which led to the developments of large towns, child labour and the hardships of being out of work which forced him to travel to the Mill in New Lanark and to meet with Robert Owen before learning to read and write and going to work in America. Jason goes on to explain that he met followers of Owen who wanted to open a co-operative in Sunnyside, just as one was being started in nearby Rochdale.

Where exactly is Sunnyside set? It is described as being very close to both Rochdale and Bury, as well as Manchester as the closest city. It suggests that this fictional town could possibly be based on Oldham but it had something in common with all textile towns in the Industrial North in its development and population.

The fictional town is described in the book as becoming a utopia almost overnight once co-operation is accepted and seen to work; with everyone contributing their skills and ideas, schools and allotments opened and workhouses abandoned. Eventually there are paid holidays, parks and leisure facilities, health care and insurance and even mill owners giving up their properties to the community. The presentation barely recognises the difficulties and opposition that co-operators faced both in the early days or at the time of writing when arguably the movement was at the height of it's influence in the domestic market.

The writer, Fred Hall, was the official advisor on education to the Co-operative Union and a well known figure in 1919 when the book was written. He as memorialised by the Co-operative College for his part in establishing it as a direct reaction to the devastation of the First World War, followed by a global pandemic. The move was part of a recognition that the way people lived and worked was changing and that more people were seeking to improve their own opportunities.

Sunnyside is a simplistic and hopeful view of what an alternative 1919 could look like, bearing in mind the still high levels of deprivation which Hall was witness to in his lifetime. At the root of the whole book is the idea of opportunity, not through capitalist competition, but through collective effort as a result of co-operative education. 

Reading the book made us ask... if we were writing a similar book for a younger audience now, what would we say about how we got here and what would our modern ‘Sunnyside’ look like?