The RESPECT Network is a group of Co-op employees who identify as LGBTQ+ : We have asked them for their take on LGBT+ History which is often invisible in official records. 

Co-op Awards November 2023 CR - The Co-operative Group 

J. T. W. Mitchell - The beginning (by Sean Walsh)

J. T. W. Mitchell was a co-operative leader who was born on the 18th October, 1828 in Rochdale. 

Photographic portrait of JTW Mitchell by Hattersley Studios, Longsight - CR Co-operative Group

His mother was a single parent who took in lodgers and ran a beer-house – something that may have caused some issues when he signed the temperance pledge at 18! Some parts of society believed that temperance was associated with weakness or ‘unmanliness’. Regardless, Mitchell went on to be an active member and speaker for the Rochdale Temperance Society. 

Sent to work in the factories in Rochdale from the age of 11, he had schooling through the Red Cross and at the Sunday School of Providence Chapel under John T. Pagan – later the Mayor of Rochdale and a close friend. As a young man, 'Mitchell' (as he was known) became strongly involved in the Church and from the age of 26 until his death, would teach at the Sunday School as well.

A Co-operative Career

Being part of a co-operative seems to have been in the blood – as his grandfather had previously been in a short-lived co-operative. In 1853 Mitchell joined the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, eventually rising to become it's Chairman in 1870. He would also Chair the educational committee until 1870, something he was very passionate about. 

He took over the operation of The Lancashire and Yorkshire Productive Society – a small co-operative in Littleborough – in 1878 as liquidator, and for much of the rest of his life would nurse this little business back to life until it could be enfolded into the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS).

Adding to his already considerable number of roles, Mitchell was elected to the board of CWS in 1869, becoming the Chairman in 1874 until his death in 1895. Throughout his career at CWS, he was credited with CWS success as a society to profit its members rather the operating and expansion of the business. Under his leadership it became a national and international business with a turnover of £3 million per year in the 1880’s (approximately £320 million today), supported by the independent local and regional co-ops. 

Strong Beliefs

Mitchell's tombstone, Rochdale Cemetery July 2023 - CR The Co-operative Heritage Trust

He was active politics and projects that would improve the lives and livelihoods locally as well as nationally and was instrumental in the project to open the Manchester Ship Canal from 1883 to 1894 – giving evidence in the Houses of Commons and Lords advocating for the project, as well as committing funding towards the total estimated cost of £6 million (£614 million today) with the support of half a million co-op members.

Mitchell believed in the power of co-operation through and through; that it was the best way to change the world and could create a ‘new order’ - through retail co-operatives there could be a higher standard of living and this could help establish political and societal reform for the working classes.

He was a strong advocate for women, with women becoming managers of stores in Rochdale – something that was incredibly rare for the time and especially for single women. The Co-operative Women’s Guild was set up in 1883 which he supported. Education for women was a key point of the Co-operative Union since it was founded in 1870. Such was the strength of his beliefs in the power of education a passage from of his speeches at Congress is inscribed on his gravestone (see image). 

Mitchell would weather expense scandals and attacks on his name and character – both as a result of business decisions, his socialist beliefs and because of his work with The Lancashire and Yorkshire Productive Society – throughout his tenure. But he never wavered and continued on to do what was best for the business and movement he dedicated his life to.

A very frugal man, when he passed he was worth only £350 (£38,000 in Dec 2023) as well as some very old furniture and a few books. For the chairman of one of the biggest businesses in the country, it was very surprising! He took the same salary throughout his career, and when he set up or took over companies in his own right, he did not take a salary – it all went into the business. This was something that many people were very shocked by – especially those who had mocked him or slandered his character. 

Who He Was

Parliamentary records and Sir Bosdin Leach described Mitchell as “of quaint appearance, with a loud voice and bluff manners” – something which caught authority figures by surprise as he spoke to them as if they were "just regular people in the street". He was also described as a “typical Lancashire man who had little fear of dignitaries” when addressing the House of Lords. During the proceedings of the reading of the Manchester Ship Canal bill he tried to explain the co-operative movement several times and tried to give members of the House copies of a book of the history of the movement!

Contemporaries of Mitchell described him as “sexually incorruptible”, a result of the love for his mother and of hers for him. Possibly as a result of this, someone who perhaps had a grudge against him paid a ‘woman of the streets’ in London to approach him by name. His response was to be completely surprised and delighted that he was known by someone which rather defeated the object of the encounter!

He was once riding in a tramcar in Manchester with a student acquaintance of his when she opened her cigarette case. Such was his discomfort to be seen with a woman who smoked, he had to beg forgiveness that he would have to go and sit inside, as he was too well known in Manchester to be sat with a smoking woman and “had to be careful”! 

Once, whilst in Glasgow, he “chose a sprig of Milliner’s flowers (artificial) to wear as a buttonhole – his biographer included this information with the quote "you would know his character in two minutes, an old fellow-worshipper has said of him.”

Many people of a working-class background would marry to provide a financial foundation, as well as for companionship and to provide a home. Men of a higher class could remain single longer without it appearing to be suspicious as they would have university, travel, perhaps the family business to attend to. Mitchell – having none of these and coming from a single parent home, no formal education and being illegitimate especially would have been seen to have been quite unusual in not marrying young, let alone not marrying at all. This could also explain why he did not move in the wealthier circles, something that being the Chairman of CWS could certainly afforded him.

Mitchell’s relationships are few, but by all accounts, were very strong.

His mother wanted him to marry a lady named Elizabeth Wynn. Described as similar to Mitchell in appearance who also had a very odd and ‘eccentric’ character. Being ‘eccentric’ was often used as a euphemism for lesbian women and Mitchell’s friends believed the delay in a marriage was on Miss Wynns part as it dragged out into the ‘teens of years’.

On joining the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society at age 24 in 1853, Mitchell had met Abraham Howard and the two became close friends. Mitchell’s mother and Howard’s wife both died in 1855 and the two became closer. When Howard remarried, Mitchell moved in with the new couple until they moved to Liverpool in the 1860’s. When Mitchell moved to John Street in Rochdale, he set up a bedroom for Howard to be able to visit when in town “If he provided for his friend liberally, he had no thought for himself. His own bedroom was furnished with some of the old furniture his Mother had when a boy, humble in the extreme”. *

Mitchell’s neighbour on John Street was Thomas Butterworth (a caretaker at Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society) who was convicted of stealing in from them in 1872. Mitchell stood by him, and Butterworth became devoted to him, spending the rest of their lives together living in adjoining properties on John Street.

Suffering from chest complaints, Mitchell became ill in the winter of 1895 and although Butterworth expressed concern for his health, he carried on with a series of engagements and a meeting in London, taking the train back to Rochdale on the 10th March. Butterworth’s housekeeper – Kate – nursed him and he asked her to ‘look after Thomas’ before dying on the 16th of March. Thomas himself took ill in the next room and died on the 18th March. Mitchell’s will was in favour of Thomas' family. 

The above commentary and evidence points to a life that we might say in modern times, does not necessarily fit into a conventional heteronormative lifestyle. The contemporary accounts of him seem to indicate that there may have been something to Mitchell that was hidden. During the Victorian era, being a part of the LGBTQ+ community was something that was not talked about openly and people who were had to keep it hidden from their family and friends.

Many would marry as a cover for their true selves, never being able to express who they truly were. Some were able to snatch moments when they were away from their local areas – where they wouldn’t be known. Some did find a way to be themselves – they lived with the labels that were given them such as ‘confirmed bachelor’ or ‘spinster’ who happened to live with a lodger, a distant relative or friend. Some never did at all.

With Mitchell, so little is known about his personal life, it is impossible to say definitively. As with many working-class LGBTQ+ people of the time, it would have been dangerous to keep diaries even if they had the opportunity to, so we do not have primary sources to analyse. However, we can use the sources that we do have to build a picture of what could have happened. 

In the book Who Was J. T. W. Mitchell? by Stephen Yeo, the Author writes; “people have had category problems with Mitchell. Why, after all, make him married – assimilating him to familial norms which involve commitment… It is if the only way to offer themselves explanation and consolation for Mitchell’s apparently happy and fulfilled temperament in such an odd life was to invent a married state for him”. 

No matter how Mitchell identified, he seemed to all who knew him as a happy person and was remembered fondly for his years of devotion when he passed away. His funeral was incredibly well attended and there are many portraits, busts, medals and biographies in the museum collections. There was also the ‘Mitchell Memorial Hall’ in the Hanover Building, Manchester - destroyed in the Blitz of 1940. His was an inspirational legacy which must have been evident to his contemporaries.

History of CWS 1938 - CR The Co-operative Union Press


Yeo, Stephen: Who was JTW Mitchell? CWS Membership Services (1995)

Redfearn, Percy: John T. W. Mitchell Pioneer of Consumer Co-operation Co-operative Union (1923)

Leech, Sir Bosdin: History of the Manchester Ship Canal from its inception to its completion. Sharrat and Hughes, (1907)