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History of the Barrhead Co-operative Society Ltd.
Chapter I. 1860-61 . Establishment of the Society

Introductory—Preliminary Steps—Formation of Society—The Pioneers— First Shop—First Salesman—Registration of Rules—Shop Opened— First Directors—Opposition to the Society—Close of Chapter.

“Of old things, all are over old.
Of good things, none are good enough ;
We’ll show that we can help to frame
A world of other stuff ”
— Wordsworth.


LOOKING back over the history of mankind, it is very wonderful to notice that, with scarcely an exception, the movements that have proved of service to humanity have had beginnings of the smallest and most humble character. This was true—to name two modern instances—of the great Friendly Society movement and of Trade Unionism, and it may be added, without irreverence, was true of Christianity itself. How true it was of the Co-operative movement, which has since covered the country with its innumerable branches, every student of the Rochdale effort knows. In that English town, in the year 1844, a few simple weavers, laying firm hold of the root principle that “ union is strength,” began putting together their humble coppers and their modest shillings until, in time, they were enabled to purchase the small store of goods which formed the nucleus of the huge distributive Co-operative system of to-day. And what had been done in the cradle of Co-operation was repeated and re-repeated in hundreds of towns and villages all over the country, until the new idea ceased to be new and became, as it is to-day, a commonplace of our modern arrangements.

Here, in our own town of Barrhead, the initial effort was no more ambitious and no more promising than it had been in Rochdale and elsewhere. That fourteen ordinary working-men should gather together from the workshop, and putting down between them fourteen single shillings of entry-money and ten shillings in shares, should ever expect out of that meagre beginning to build up an undertaking that would prove of value to themselves or to others, must have seemed to many of their contemporaries a matter only for laughter and ridicule. And these fourteen men of 1861 and their twenty-four shillings were laughed at by many ; but they had firm faith in their principles, belief in themselves, and they had that invincible courage which is the essential characteristic of all true pioneers. And now, in 1911, that little band of fourteen is represented by 3,051 members, and that first handful of silver has grown to a capital sum of 73,218, 5s. 3d. To tell the story of these fourteen pioneers, and of the success of their courageous experiment, is the task of this little book. It is a story which cannot fail to prove of interest, and which ought to hold for us, who are their sons and successors, many lessons of encouragement and hope.


It was on nth December i860 that a number of Barrhead artisans, fired by an account of the Rochdale effort which appeared in Chambers's Miscellany, met in the small room of Arthurlie Street E.U. Church to talk the subject over. Mr John Purdie, blacksmith, presided ; and, after a few introductory words, he read to the meeting this article, which had been written by the able and eloquent Mr Robert Chambers. An earnest and practical discussion followed; and the meeting, deciding to strike the iron while it was hot, formed itself into a committee to make inquiries whether a society on the Rochdale system could be started in Barrhead. This committee lost no time in getting to work, and so hopeful were they of succeeding that the second meeting was called for and duly held on 22nd December. Mr John Purdie again presided; and Mr Robert Stark having read the rules of the Rochdale Pioneer Society, it was thereafter agreed that a society be formed in Barrhead, and that each individual should pay one shilling of entry -money before having his name enrolled. “ Fourteen then came forward,” adds the minute of the meeting, “and paid their entry-money. Entry-money received, fourteen shillings ; and ten shillings on shares.” In this simple fashion, unostentatiously, and probably without any realisation of the deep value of the action, was the first stone for the foundation of Barrhead Co-operative Society laid.


Who and what manner of men, it may be asked, were these fourteen who thus took upon themselves the task of planting the seed of Co-operation in Barrhead ? At this point it may be sufficient if we reply to the first part of the question by setting down their names in the order followed in the roll of members. Some particulars of their individual fives and characters will be given in the proper place and in a later chapter.

No. 1.

Matthew Foulds, brass founder.


James Baillie, patternmaker.


Robert Stark, millwright.


James Scott, furnaceman.


Charles Bums, iron moulder.


John Ivory, engineer.


Alexander Wardrop, bleacher.


John Lindsay, ironmoulder.


David Caldwell, iron moulder.


Thomas Birtwell, calico printer.


Thomas M'Cowatt, iron turner.


Alexander Lindsay, iron dresser.


Robert Kerr, mechanic.


Robert Law, cotton carder.

The search at this distant day for photographs of the above-named group presented many difficulties. Many of them had long since passed away, and some had spent the later years of life far from Barrhead. Three of the fourteen were still living when the search began at the end of 1909, but already that number has been reduced to two. By persistent inquiry and some luck the “ physical presentments ” of all were eventually secured, and we are therefore in the happy position of having gathered together on one page the fourteen original members as once, fifty years ago, they assembled together in that little room in Arthurlie Street.


Practically the whole of - this membership formed a provisional committee, which charged itself with the duty of completing all preliminary arrangements for the Society. Of this committee the secretary was, at first, Matthew Foulds, and the treasurer Thomas Birtwell. Somewhat curiously, John Purdie, blacksmith, who presided at the first two meetings, is named as president, but there is no evidence that he became a member until a considerably later period ; and at the sixth meeting one of the newer members—Adam Crawford, joiner—is named as chairman. At this same meeting Mattht ,v Foulds resigns his position, and Robert Stark is chosen for the secretariate—a position he was destined to fill for the long period of forty years.

Following upon the meeting of 22nd December, the New Year intervened, and the next meeting takes place on nth January 1861. At this meeting, to quote from the minutes, “ the rules of the Rochdale Society were discussed, and it was considered that, seeing that the Rochdale Society had flourished and made such progress under them, that we adopt them; but before finally settling, that the secretary write to Manchester for a copy of Vansittart Neale’s model rules.” During the next six weeks only two further meetings are noted in the minute-book, but there is evidence that frequent informal gatherings had been held, and that much discussion had taken place in the interval. Additional members, too, are intimated ; and by the 9th of March the small group has grown so convinced of the wisdom of an immediate and decisive step that two of the members— David Caldwell and Peter Drummond—are appointed to look out for premises. Within a week they are back at the committee with two places, both considered suitable—a shop in Cross Arthurlie, from Mr Bodys, and one in Main Street, from Mr Martin.

The Society's First Shoi1—95 Main Street.


Up to this point our little band of adventurers have been dealing entirely with abstract ideas; and although they have paid certain small sums of money into a common purse, and have debated earnestly and long with regard to rules, dividends, share capital, etc., as yet they have done nothing to give practical shape to their theories. Now, however, they are about to take the first momentous step that will land them face to face with the practical working out of their dreams, and it -will doubtless reveal to them difficulties and dangers that were entirely unforeseen. In what spirit will the}- face these dangers, and how shall they set themselves to the task of overcoming those difficulties? It is a vital question, for upon the answer to that hangs the success or failure of our brave experiment. And in actual fact this first step does confront us with a very real danger. So far,, the members have been in complete and whole-hearted agreement ; but the duty of choosing a shop finds them in such a state of disagreement as threatens to wreck the effort altogether. The committee, as we shall see presently, deal with this first difficulty in admirable fashion, and at once prove their capacity as men of affairs. . On 16th March the committee, after discussing the report of Messrs Caldwell and Drummond, decide, by a majority, in favour of Mr Bodys’s shop in Cross Arthurlie. But this decision immediately roused a storm of dissension amongst the members, and at the following committee meeting it is recorded in the minute that " conversation took place upon the unhealthy feeling among the members regarding a place of business for the Society, and the committee came to the almost unanimous conclusion that, with the present feeling among the members, they could not with confidence take such an important step. It was accordingly agreed that a meeting of the members be called for the purpose of bringing about a more harmonious feeling, and thus give greater security fo the committee for carrying on the business of the Society.”


That feeling ran high is evident from the fact that, when the special meeting did take place, the votes of certain members were objected to, and the opinion of the meeting was taken before the individuals referred to were allowed to vote. The whole position is laid before the meeting, and, on a vote being taken, it is found that the members, by 23 votes to 21, favour the Main Street shop, as against the Cross Arthurlie one chosen by the committee. Whilst expressing its preference for the Main Street shop, the meeting at the same time agrees almost unanimously to leave it unreservedly to the committee to choose which shop it deems best for the Society; and the committee, with sound democratic sense, and with excellent wisdom as well, at its subsequent meeting agrees to cast aside its own decision and adopt that of the members. Thus is the first real difficulty met and overcome. It seems at this distance a very small affair, but it was a very great matter to the men who had to face it. Handled with less consideration and tact, it might very readily have become

“The little rift within the lute,
That by and by will make the music mute,
And, ever widening, slowly silence all.”


The shop referred to—it is now No. 95 Main Street— is accordingly taken, and the committee proceed to the next step, the appointment of a salesman. An advertisement in a Glasgow paper brings them’a large number of applicants. A short leet is formed and the task of interviewing the .candidates is delegated to the president, Adam Crawford, and the secretary, Robert Stark, upon whose recommendation the appointment is finally given to John Blackwood, from Glasgow. It is interesting to note the conditions attaching to the situation and to contrast them with those existing to-day. The wage was fixed at 25s. per week, “to increase,” says the minute, " if the business increases.” He was required to put down 50 of security, “ the same to be increased if the salary increases,” and at a subsequent meeting it was agreed to let him have the room and kitchen house attached to the shop rent free, “ on condition that his wife attends the shop in his absence, and keeps it clean without incurring extra expense.” .


With such vigour had the members of committee applied themselves to the work that by the middle of May they are ready to proceed with the registration of rules. Most of the early co-operative societies experienced great difficulty in getting their rules registered, the Registrar for Scotland—at that time Mr Camegy Ritchie —evidently having his own ideas as to the payments which should be made for his services. St Cuthbert’s Society, for instance, was asked in 1859 to pay three guineas for registration, with 7s. 6d. for the clerk and 2s. 6d-for correspondence, and it was not until 1863, and then only on the vigorous agitation of the editor of the Scottish Co-operator, that the aid of Parliament was invoked, and the Registrar was compelled to perform the duties for which he was being paid by the State. Either Mr Camegy Ritchie dealt lightly with Barrhead, or the committee complied with his demands, for, on the 27th of May 1861, he duly registers and signs the Society’s rules. The original copy, with the Registrar’s written certificate is still in existence, and is signed on behalf of the members by Adam Crawford, president; David Caldwell; Alex. Service; and Robert Stark, secretary. The rules thus adopted continued to govern the Society until 1868, when a new set was adopted; but although in that year and on other dates several changes were introduced, these were largely on matters of detail, and •the principle upon which the Society is managed to-day is in essence the same as we find embodied in the rules of 1861. It may be worth while quoting in full the title-page of this first rule book:—


Barrhead and neigbbourboob Co-operative Society

Adopted at a General Meeting of the Members, 16th March 1861.

All Purchases to be paid for on delivery.

Thomas Calder, Printer, Barrhead. 1861.


The work hitherto has been purely of a preparatory kind, but now the period approaches when we must begin the business for which we have so eagerly planned. The minute-book shows that meetings were held at this time two and three evenings a week, all the members of committee being keen and eager to do their best for the new venture. It is characteristic, however, of the men and of the spirit of the moment, that whilst the records are full of detail with regard to many matters—the purchase of goods, of scales, of butter spoons, etc., etc.— not one word is said as to the arrangements for. opening the shop or of the actual date when this took place. It is entirely a matter of surmise as to the day when, for the first time, the shutters came off the shop-windows of Barrhead and Neighbourhood Co-operative Society, and strange to say none of the survivors of the original members can recall the event or any incident connected with it. The surmise, however, can be narrowed down to a very small point. At a meeting held on Tuesday, 4th June, it is agreed that the treasurer, David Caldwell, shall go to Glasgow the following day, along with the salesman, to purchase goods and articles for the shop. The next minute is that of the following Tuesday, nth June, and it simply states that the business done was the inspection of invoices and the sanctioning of further purchases now required for the shop. It is evident, therefore, that the actual opening took place between these two dates, and it was most probably on Friday, 7th, or Saturday, 8th June 1861. It was certainly in the early days of June that the business of selling was commenced, and this is borne out by the fact that in 1862, and for a number of years thereafter, the anniversary is celebrated at a soiree held in the first week of June. Midsummer is not a season which would now be regarded as suitable for a soiree ; but these commemorative events seem to have been generally successful, for on only one occasion do we find the committee in charge coming before the directors to report a slight deficit from the gathering.


During this preliminary period several changes had been made on the original committee, but the group which carried out the final arrangements consisted of the board as appointed on the 20th of March, and is as follows :—Adam Crawford, president; Robert Stark, secretary ; David Caldwell, treasurer ; Thomas Birtwell, Alex. Service, John Andrew, John Bell, Peter Drummond, John Semple, Walter I/indsay, and John M'Dermid, directors. Thomas Birtwell was at first elected treasurer, but he resigned on the 20th of April, and his place was taken by David Caldwell. These men, as we shall see later when we come to study their work more in detail, were individually and collectively a happy combination of idealism, with shrewd, practical common sense. From the first they had realised the possibilities of this new method of uniting the members of their own class, and they had toiled with whole-hearted devotion to put their ideas into definite and workable shape. And now that their dreams had actually taken form, even in so humble a way as the opening of this little shop, they were entitled to regard this result of their labour with a measure of satisfaction and pride. It is a'pparent, however, from


the tenor of the minutes that this satisfaction was duly mingled with a stem determination not to rest until very much greater things had been accomplished.


Looking back from the point of vantage which the intervening fifty years of success gives us, all this looks very simple and insignificant. The renting' of a small shop, the purchase of a few common articles of food—all this seems very meagre work indeed. But beginnings are proverbially difficult, and it must not be forgotten that our tiny company of pioneers undertook a supremely difficult task, for they were actually proposing to build something of a new type—they were laying the foundation-stone of an entirely new order of society. And it is to be remembered that they had to risk in some cases the loss of all their small savings, and, what was still more serious, they had to face the sneers and ridicule of their fellows and the active opposition of many who felt that the new movement was inimical to their personal interests. It would be too much to expect that this effort of a few workmen to establish a system which aimed at such drastic changes in existing social arrangements could be advocated without incurring the hostility of many and the contempt of most. Ridicule and abuse were freely thrown at them, and doubtless, as usual in such cases, the hardest blows were given them by their own class, the very people whom they Sought to serve and uplift If any doubt existed on this point, it is set at rest by a sentence from the speech of the chairman, Mr John Allan, at the sixth annual soiree :—“ The Society was ushered into existence very quietly, but from the first it had to contend against the opposition of some parties and the contempt of others, and of a large section which was very fond to indulge in croaking prophecies about the short span of its existence.” This opposition and contempt has long since been lived down, and we know to-day how foolish were these prophets of evil; but all this must have entailed many anxious moments to the early enthusiasts, and it must have had much effect in retarding progress and in frightening timid but otherwise well-meaning supporters.

At this point, with business fairly started, the salesman with his sleeves rolled up, and the committee-men all in their places and ready for fresh conquests, we may for a short time take leave of the Society and devote a brief chapter to the state of life and trade in Barrhead at the period with which we are dealing.

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