|An Early Benevolent Ladies Group for Scotland and N. England
The work undertaken over the course of more than a century by members of the Co-operative
Women's Guild in support of the educational and personal better-ment of women generally
has been greatly under-rated. In this article Hilary Marsh, Archivist, attempts to put
A tour of factories in Northern England by Mrs Mary Acland during 1882 sowed the seeds of
the Women's Co-operative Guild. Co-operation, which emerged from the writings of Robert
Owen during the first half of the nineteenth century, had passively excluded women.
Witnessing its success Mrs Acland decided this should be changed. Persuading Samuel
Bamford, editor of the Co-operative News, to allow her some space, the edition of 6
January 1883 contained the first 'Women's Column'. It was through this medium that the
Women's League for the Spread of Co-operation was born. A series of letters during the
next few months set out the organisation of the League, its objects, funds and
subscriptions. A notice of 14 April announced its official beginning naming Mrs Acland as
Secretary and calling for potential members to come forward. There were seven.
The Co-operative Congress of June 1883, held in Edinburgh, witnessed a formal beginning to
the League. Some fifty women assembled, returning to their homes to establish branches.
The 'objects' of the League were devised and set out in the first circular as:
1. To spread a knowledge of the advantages of co-operation
2. To stimulate amongst those who know its advantages a greater interest in the principles
3. To keep alive in ourselves, our neighbours, and especially in the rising generation, a
more earnest appreciation of the value of Co-operation to ourselves, to our children, and
to the nation
4. To improve the conditions of women all over the country.
By September the first branch had been established in Hebden Bridge followed by others in
Rochdale and Woolwich before the close of 1883.
The Women's League for the Spread of Co-operation became the Women's Co-operative Guild in
August 1884. During the following month Mrs Acland resigned her post as Secretary taking
the role of President in the newly created Central Committee. This comprised seven
Guildswomen - a President, Vice-President, Treasurer, General Secretary and three other
committee members. In 1886 service on the Central Committee was limited to three years.
The first conferences of the Guild's branches took place in 1886 with the suggestion that
the branches be organised into districts. During this year the Guild received its first
grant from the United Board, of £10.
1889 witnessed a change in the direction of the Guild. Margaret Llewelyn Davies became
General Secretary. She issued the first 'Winter Circular' outlining her views on the
progression of the Guild. Davies pushed domestic issues to the background highlighting
instead education and development for
women. Her unique blend of socialism and feminism stayed with the Guild beyond her
retirement in 1921. Davies' 'Winter Circular' called for the avoidance of meetings
descending into mere Mother's
Meetings weighed down by discussions of sewing and bakery. She reminded the Guild that
their purpose was the spread of co-operation and that this could be achieved by educating
themselves and then others. She advised branch committees to draw up a definite programme
for their meetings and encouraged them to organise lectures. The Annual Meeting, held in
Glasgow, invited men for the first time.
The early 1890s was a time for consolidation. The existing administrative machinery was
extended and new branches were initiated. The first Sections and Districts were created in
1889 with the appointment of Secretaries. Initially there were two Sections but by the
following year this had doubled. Progressive suggestions were prevalent at this time aimed
at improving working women's conditions. Clothing clubs, visiting funds and Christmas
Clubs are some examples of such activities. The first decade of the Women's Co-operative
Guild was celebrated with a Festival held in Manchester. There were now one hundred
branches and over six thousand members. The first Guild Organiser was appointed in this
year and there were five Sections. The Annual Report for 1892 outlined the 'duty' of the
1. To secure satisfactory conditions for employees
2. To see that trades union regulations were carried out as regards wages and hours
3. To definitely organise co-operative propaganda
4. To train members in the business side of store life, with a view to taking a more
direct share in
the management of societies
5. To study municipal questions
6. To arrange for sick benefit clubs for members
7. To promote institutions for young people.
Once the organisation of the Guild seemed complete the women turned their attention to the
issues which most concerned them. From their earliest activities they saw that the
successful achievement of
reforms would be through action rather than private charity and benevolence. Their
campaigns were well researched, drawing upon the experiences of their many members.
The Minimum Wage Campaign of the 1890s called for a 'living wage', in particular
concerning the conditions of co-operative em-ployment. The Guild felt that although the
employers were considerate in the treatment of their workers the hours involved and
low levels of pay were unacceptable. A specific area of concern was female remuneration.
The Co-operative Congress drew up scales of wages for women co-operative workers in 1908.
These were not enforced by the Co-operative Wholesale Society until 1912.
Old Age Pensions for co-operative workers were first set up in 1901. Despite witnessing
success with the passing of the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908 the Guild continued to
campaign on this issue. This time they called for a decrease in the pensionable age, from
seventy to sixty-five, and an increase in the amount paid. Other social issues of concern
included a campaign against credit in 1898 and against the introduction of Sugar Duty in
1902. The Royal Commission on Divorce Law Reform opened in 1909 taking some evidence from
Guildswomen. As a result of the Guild's calls for reform in this area the Central Board
withheld their annual grant to the Guild from 1914 to 1918 as some Catholic members
opposed the Guild's stance.
The health of school children became an area of concern during the early twentieth
century. Discussion surrounded the school leaving age and the abolition of half time
working. A vote taken at the 1909 Congress, held in Oldham, favoured the latter but
refused to see an increase in the school leaving age to fifteen. This was not the end of
the matter. Much discussion ensued and in her history of the Guild written in 1927
Catherine Webb stated that 'the present attitude of the Guild is that opportunities should
be open to all children to continue their education up to the age of 18, either in free
places (with maintenance if necessary) in secondary schools, or in education carried on
during working hours.' A belief in pacifism was expressed in campaigns against military
training in schools.
The importance of education was first acknowledged during 1886. The Women's Co-operative
Guild actively promoted education for all from the outset. They realised that the spread
of co-operation could only be achieved on a large scale if the nation was educated in the
mechanics and benefits of the system. Initially this focused on practical everyday tasks
through a series of workshops but developed into a wider education programme for women's
enlightenment as the Guild grew. By 1893 courses on 'Free education' and 'Socialism' were
being held. Domestic issues were pushed to the background in favour of topics such as
practical social reform, housing and health. By the turn of the century text books were
being produced to accompany the Guild's education programmes. Classes for women speakers
began in 1911, followed two years later by two day and four day schools which aimed to get
away from the evening class style of education favouring this concentrated approach.
Special subjects were first considered at the Annual Schools for the Central Committee and
Sectional Council members, who then acted as lecturers at one day and two day schools held
within each District.
Motherhood and the family proved to be an area in which the Guild could make real
to the lives of working women. Many of their publications focused on this topic. Small
parties visited Paris and Belgium during 1905 and 1906 to witness the medical care
provision available to women and children. The positive impression of these methods made
such an impact upon delegates that they began making inquiries to the branches concerning
possible provisions on their return. By 1907 twenty three guilds had established maternity
schemes which loaned sick room appliances to members. With the introduction of the
National Insurance Bill the Women's Co-operative Guild turned it's attention to those
married women who were not working, and therefore not insured. With such a large case load
in this area of their work the Guild set up a Citizen Sub Committee of the Central
Committee complete with a special fund. It was their task to gather the information
required to undertake such campaigns from the members at large. Municipal Maternity
Centres throughout the country, assisted by state grants, were advocated as a way of
aiding the system of insurance based on employment, which was unlikely ever to meet the
needs of married women. By 1924 the Guild's Congress was calling for an adequate service
of fully trained midwives, a service of Home Helps and adequately equipped Welfare
Centres, Maternity Homes and Hospitals.
Politically the Women's Co-operative Guild advocated closer links with Trade Unionists
throughout the 1890s as well as campaigning for women's enfranchisement. Resolutions in
support of the Labour movement and trade unionism were made at conferences. During 1912
calls for a close alliance with the Labour Party were voiced. By 1919 one hundred branches
had become affiliated to their local
The Women's Co-operative Guild looked beyond the shores of the British Isles in pursuit of
the spread of co-operation. The Annual Congress of 1885 contained a delegation from French
Co-operative Societies and in 1921 the International Women's Co-operative Guild was
formed. This comprised a representative of each of the existing Guilds with the addition
of a President and Secretary to be elected by Conference. The first President was Emmy
Freundlich with Honora Enfield, of the English Guild, serving as Honorary Secretary. The
Guild's white poppy peace campaigns of the 1930s were perhaps enhanced by their
colleagues' first hand accounts of events unfolding on mainland Europe.
It may be suggested that the inter-war period witnessed the heyday of the Women's
Co-operative Guild. The 1939-45 war inevitably led to a decrease in members as women,
often the youngest, faced more pressing matters of daily survival. The economic climate
and the Labour Government of post war Britain played an important role in shaping the
future of the Guild. Beveridge's Welfare State encompassed many of the features which the
Guild had long campaigned for. Consequently with improved housing, health care, schooling
and leisure time married women appeared more interested in pursuing activities such as
sewing and cookery.
The Annual Report of 1943-1944 showed 51,827 members in 1,670 branches. Immediately after
the end of the war this figure rose, peaking at 62,524 members in 1,774 branches by 1948.
Margaret Llewelyn Davies' combination of socialism and feminism can still be witnessed in
the issues which occupied the minds of Guildswomen at the time. Calls were made for reform
of the Married Women's Property Act, for an increase in the number of women magistrates
and for nationalisation of the coal industry. The following years became dogged by fears
of a falling membership, but more importantly of an elderly membership. As another Annual
Report from this period pointed out: 'It is quite obvious that the younger woman of today
is attracted by an organisation which offers recreation and facilities for culture and
handicrafts rather than one that concentrates on education for citizenship.'
Consecutive Annual Reports called for the branches to modernise their activities or risk
being forced to close. Consequently whilst national campaigns focused on issues of women's
health and education branch meetings were including talks on handicrafts, dressmaking and
even beekeeping. The methods
employed by branches to convey information were also challenged. The Annual Report for
1951 suggested branches needed more than a traditional speaker suggesting film shows,
com-petitions, demonstrations, debates and visits to places of interest. A closer look at
the operation of Head Office took place in 1950 calling for the streamlining of activities
to enhance efficiency. As a result branches were given a number and improvements in
recording branch activities were made.
By 1962 membership was below 50,000. The time for a closer scrutinisation of the Guild
appeared to have arrived with the establishment of a Modernisation Commission. It
investigated the Constitution, Rules and Methods of the Guild producing it's report,
Movement for Modern's, in March 1963. The report advocated a closer working alliance
between the branches, districts and sections. However, the importance of the branch could
not be overemphasised. First impressions were vital. A clear, planned sequence of meetings
and visits striving for a goal was viewed of paramount importance in acquiring and keeping
new members. During this year the Guild changed it's name to the Co-operative Women's
Guild and made moves to identify itself more closely with other co-operative societies. A
Song Contest and a Recipe Book Contest are just some of the newer activities documented in
the Annual Report for 1963. In 1967 first prize in the textiles category of the Houseproud
Handicraft Contest was given for an embroided cloth. By 1970 membership was down to 30,000
with only 87 branches and that year's Congress was held in Scarborough 'by kind invitation
of the Scarborough Co-operative Society'. Realisation dawned that the problems embedded
within the Co-operative Women's Guild were also those witnessed throughout the wider
Focusing on married women the Co-operative Women's Guild strived to improve everyday life
through discussions on general household tasks and a promotion of co-operative trade
practices. Its very success undermined its future potential. Introduction of the Welfare
State and a post-Second World War drive to return women to the home resulted in
significant improvements to the life of a housewife. Many women found their circumstances
greatly improved in comparison with their mothers and grandmothers. Such a standard of
living had long been sought by Guildswomen. Yet providing women with more leisure time
left them seeking cultural and handicraft activities and not a thirst for personal
advancement and betterment through education. A growth in capitalism and significant
enhancements in technology left the Co-operative Movement, encompassing the Co-operative
Women's Guild, standing. It would now seem that the opportunity to convert the nation to
the principles of co-operation has perhaps passed.