Our second blog all about regional societies is centred on Long Eaton in Derbyshire in the Erewash District: It is part of a series exploring the smaller and often merged societies which now no longer exist as independent societies in the towns and villages where they began.  

The banner image is a still from a promotional film made by the society in the 1940's to promote the drinking of milk as an alternative to drinking alcohol.

Long Eaton in the parish of Sawley had been a rural place between Nottingham and Derby before the Industrial revolution and its proximity to the north bank of the River Trent as well as the Erewash canal at Trent Lock meant that population spread out of the cities as more people moved to the area for industrial jobs. 

The society formed in 1868 and trade had been based on the coal trade as well as the opening up of possibilities by the coming of the railway to the hamlet at Long Eaton Junction and Trent Junction in 1862 and the railway wagon building business of S.J Claye employing over 300 people. It was at these carriage works and the premises of the Midland Railway Company where the workers had some understanding of organisation and the ideas which underpinned the co-operative movement stemming from the stories of successful co-operation in Rochdale. A society had been started in nearby Derby in 1850 and when the law changed to allow such societies limited liability, a new wave of regional societies began in the East Midlands.

 

Although railway carriage builders were relatively well paid compared to unskilled labourers, they were subject to the support of a single employer and at the time, the price of meat was particularly high - prompting several workers to form a ‘meat club’ which ultimately failed. A Lay Preacher and Gas Works Manager from Derby, William Burns moved to Long Eaton, and seems to have been a fervent supporter of collective action, because those who later wrote about the society said “You could not get by him without hearing of co-operation”. Burns son remembered the first society meeting, held before Christmas in the hayloft of the village 

“There were only four or five present, and my Father told me to keep the door fast while they were busy in the loft. I kept one out while I called upstairs to see if he was to come in. They all laughed, and I was asked who was the newcomer and I told them, so was asked to open the door - as they expected him”. 

This secretive behaviour does suggest that although such meetings were perfectly legal, there was obviously some level of suspicion and opposition to working class people forming societies. The notes of the first meeting were recorded in a notebook which was described by the members at the time as a ‘water stained and mouse bitten exercise book’ and the society began to admit new members in meetings held at the Church School until temporary premises for a store in the front room of one member’s house on Gibb Street was secured. 

The member who lived there - James Sutton, had to put up with this imperfect solution until the society opened a proper shop on Union Street and another in the same year on Howitt Street. The early days were not easy as they seem to have been beset by disagreements, a break in, a legal case and complaints about the staff as multiple shop workers were accused of stealing from the society! Even the year end profits of £300 in cash were liberated one night by the relative of the Treasurer, prompting the society to invest in a safe.

 

Silver commemorative plate to mark 45 years of membership in the Long Eaton Society - showing the Central Premises (1924). CHT collections.

Despite the problems and a major falling out with a local rival society the ‘Sawley Pioneers’, Long Eaton were able to expand to a new Central premises and land in the 1870’s and 1880’s for stock rooms, a bakery, slaughterhouse and branch stores as well as housing, with some of the streets named after people famous in the Co-operative Movement such as Neale Street and Mitchell Street (off Oakley's Road).

The New Central building was finished by Christmas 1900 and featured a ‘People’s Hall’ which was incorporated for dancing and music as well as use for educational purposes such as lectures and meetings.

A still from the Long Eaton Camera Club footage in our archive collections showing workmen during the building of new premises in the 1920's.

Changes in shopping habits and transportation in the later 20th century would mean the closure of branch stores and the diversification of how the society did business. Adoption of doorstep delivery, self service, supermarket and department store shopping were all tried, from the opening of ‘Co-operative House’ in 1963 to ‘out of town’ convenience stores with car parks.

Long Eaton joined the North Midlands Co-ordinated buying group (NORMID) in an attempt to improve it’s position, at a time when independent societies were finding it more difficult to compete and avoid mergers. The members of Long Eaton wrote with concern about CWS bringing in a food marketing executive called Phillip Thomas in order to compete with chain stores and being paid the ‘unheard of’ salary of £17,000 a year despite not being from the co-operative movement!

Long Eaton society became part of the Nottingham; and then the Greater Nottingham Society in 1969 before merging with the CWS (now called The Co-operative Group) in 1992. It’s own significant history has become part of the bigger co-op story, but left a significant imprint on local buildings as well as the character and identity of the town.