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History of the Barrhead Co-operative Society Ltd.
Chapter II. Condition of Barrhead about 1860

Earlier Co-operative Efforts in Barrhead—Life and Trade of Town— Growth of Population—The “Capital” of Barrhead—Construction of the Railway—-Barrhead Races—Intellectual and Reform Activities— The Truck System—-A Friendly Employer—Influences which Helped or Hindered Co-operation.

“I hae walked in noble cities where Life’s fullest pulses beat,
And I ken rare spots of beauty where the sea and river meet;
But abune them a’ I lo’e the vale where Levern hurries doon,
And I ken nae place sae kindly as mine ain grey toon.”


IT has already been pointed out that Robert Chambers’s article in the Miscellany formed the point round which the hitherto indefinite aspirations of the early Barrhead co-operators gathered. But it is not to be thought for a moment that this was the first intimation that such an intelligent group of men had of .the new movement. Fugitive references to the Rochdale effort and to co-operative experiments nearer home were appearing in many of the journals and newspapers of the period. In the workshops of the district, and particularly in that of Messrs Smaft & Cunningham, the subject had been much discussed, and about eighteen months earlier an unsuccessful effort had been made to interest a sufficient number of men to warrant a start being made. In the interval between that effort and the new one of 1861, some of the leading spirits had tried their hand at co-operative buying on a humble scale, and a small chest of tea, a few pounds of tobacco, some cheese, and other similar goods had been procured and divided amongst the co-operators, of whom the principals at this time were Robert Stark, James Baillie, and Robert Law. At a still earlier date, some years indeed before this, the Levern Victualling Society had been formed on the joint-stock principle and with all the profits devoted to capital. In 1861 the Victualling Society was carrying on business in a shop near the lower end of Main Street. Its manager was Mr John M'Lean, long afterwards well known throughout the district and for many years a highly-respected elder of the U.P. (now Arthurlie U.F.) Church. With the establishment and success of the new Society, the older effort declined and soon passed away.


Before we consider in more detail the growth of the Society, it will be well that we should try to gain some idea of the life and work of Barrhead at this period of its history. It was in the year 1750 that the first house called “ Bar-head ” was erected. At that time the villages of Dealstone and Dovecothall had been for a considerable time in existence, and in 1770 Mr Gavin Ralston laid out and built the new village of Newtown-Ralston, near what is now Craigheads. By this time the one house of Barrhead has had a few others added to it, and with the establishment in 1773 of the first bleachfields, followed by several printworks and by the Levern Spinning Mills in 1780, the

Notice of Removal or Dissolution.

40. In case of any alteration in the place of business or dissolution of the Society, notice shall be sent to the Registrar of Friendly. Societies seven days before or after such removal or dissolution, signed, by the Secretary or other principal Officer of the Society, and aiao by three or more of the Members of the Society.

Construction of

41. In construing these rules, -words importing the masculine gender shall be taken to apply to a female; words importing one person or tiring only shall be talcen to apply to more than one person or thing; and words importing a class shall be taken to imply the majority of that class, unless there is anything in the context to prevent such or oomstrucUun,


population began to grow rapidly. It is noteworthy that the Levern Mills, which were the second of the kind to be built in Scotland, can now claim to be the oldest with a continuous record of work—the first one, which was built at Rothesay, having long since passed out of existence. Let it be noted here also in passing that, to the curious in these matters, an evidence of the much taxed condition of our fathers will be found in the small windows still to be seen in part of the mill. This was a result of the window tax of that time, a time when there was also a heavy tax on every copy of a_ printed newspaper, and when each square yard of printed calico paid to the Government a tax of 3jd. It is recorded that in the year 1830 this calico tax raised from two out of the many Barrhead p'rintfields a sum of no less than 11,300. At this time (1830) the industries of the place were bleaching, printing, spinning, weaving, silk-weaving, net-weaving, and turkey-red dyeing. Some of these rapidly declined, but most were still in operation, with engineering added, when in 1861 the Co-operative Society was formed.


The population, which had grown to 1,000 in 1800, had risen in 1831 to fully 5,000, this including the inhabitants of Barrhead, Newtown-Ralston, Grahamston, Dealstone, and Dovecothall. The form of the village, or rather of the group of villages named, had undergone many changes, and by 1861 the line of the streets and the shape of the growing town was not unlike that of the present day, although much that is now built upon was then vacant ground, and most of the houses then in existence were very different in construction from those with which we are now familiar. The buildings were largely of one-storey, with here and there a more pretentious erection of two-storeys, and in the whole of Main Street there were only two or at most three buildings which had attained to the dignity of the third storey. Cross Arthurlie Street was still more sparsely built upon, and there were stretches of cultivated fields and country lanes between the houses, whilst most of our side streets had then no existence.


In Grahamston and Paisley Road the one-storey thatched-house still prevailed, but in the former there was a larger number of two-storey dwellings, and there were also, at its upper end, the large and, at that time, imposing two-storey tenements, built by Mr Patrick Graham of the Chappellfield, to accommodate some of the small army of 700 workers which that extensive bleach-field employed. On the strength of these larger and more important buildings, the Grahamston people of that period spoke of their village as “ the capital of Barrhead.” The fact that the Co-operative Society has chosen Graham Street for the site of its principal place of business may, perhaps, entitle the district to revive and retain this ancient boast.


Up till the year 1848 the connection of the now thriving town with Glasgow was maintained by means of the carrier’s cart, the stage coach, and the foot carrier, the latter being largely employed in conveying small urgent parcels and the newspapers which were such a necessity for an intelligent and Radical community. With the completion of the railway, life underwent many changes, and there were also a number of topographical alterations, the principal of which was the lowering of Graham Street and Paisley Road to their present levels. The amount of cutting necessary to effect this may be realised by a reference to the fact that the older houses in these two streets, which are now reached by flights of stairs, were built upon what was the original roadway level. Prior to the erection of the Graham Street and Paisley Road premises by the Society this difference was still more apparent, for the old thatched properties, which they displaced and whose foundations were a good twelve or fifteen feet above those of the present erection, had also been placed on the old roadway and at the spot where the new road had to be cut down to its lowest point.


The railway brought the town into closer touch with the outside world, but for a considerable time Barrhead retained some of its older and more primitive customs. The old “ Barrhead Races ” may be cited as an instance. Until shortly before the period with which we are concerned these annual races continued to be held, the actual “ course ” where the racing took place being Main Street, from Aurs Road to Cross Arthurlie comer—and sometimes the head of Kelbum Street and back again. On these occasions the roadway on either side was lined with sweetie stalls, apple barrows, and all the paraphernalia of a country fair. The “ change-houses ” did a roaring trade, for “ pies and porter ” were the special treats associated with this event, and the “Jock” who was not prepared to be lavish towards his “Jenny” in the matter of these delicacies was regarded as very mean and stingy indeed. For close on seventy years the races were held in Main Street, but in the fifties this was discontinued, and they were transferred to a field in Aurs Road where they survived for a few years longer.


From 1800 to 1831 the population had increased very rapidly., and it continued to grow although at a much slower rate; by 1861 it was slightly over 6,000, this including, of course, the inhabitants of Dealstone and Dovecothall. Barrhead was, indeed, as an old rhymner had called it, “ a thrifty, thriving place,” and this period was by no means the least thrifty or thriving in its Gareer. It is not to be thought, however, that its inhabitants, in spite of their energy in industrial pursuits, had permitted themselves to neglect the more intellectual duties of life. In the days of Chartism the local weavers and other Barrhead craftsmen had taken an active share in the agitation, and amongst the men who afterwards took part in the formation of the Co-operative Society were some who had carried the pike and had taken part in the secret drill of those who looked forward to civil war as being the only way to free themselves and their fellows from the tyranny of the ruling classes. From this group of Barrhead reformers there is a letter still extant to William Cobbett, asking him during his tour in Scotland to address a meeting in Barrhead Secession Church. The reformer was unable to comply at the time, but promised to do so in the future if opportunity served. The opportunity, however, never came—at any rate the visit was never made.


As a further proof of the intellectual activity of the people in the district, it may be noted that the Barrhead Mechanics’ Institute, established in 1825, was the first of the kind in Scotland, and the second in the kingdom. For eighty years thereafter this Institute had a history of almost unbroken activity, and its books and lectures contributed in no small degree to the enlightenment of the community. Thus the men of 1861, who initiated co-operation, the further step along the line of social evolution, were either themselves men who had long lived an active intellectual and reform-loving life, or were the sons and true successors of such men. It was a time of quick changes. The great industrial revolution which marked the whole course of the nineteenth century was gathering force and breaking into its full stride. It swept away many long-established habits of life and thought, and brought many changes in its train. It broke up completely the old aristocratic and peasant orders of society ; and but for the fact that the workers, as a body, were ready to take advantage of the few opportunities which the new capitalism gave them, there can be little doubt that this industrial revolution would have had a very different outcome, and would have fixed upon the toilers an even more odious form of slavery than that to which it ultimately subjected them.


One other thing which helped materially, at least in Barrhead, to prepare the ground for the seed of co-operation was the fact that the infamous truck system was still in full force. Many workers hardly knew what it was to see or handle their own wages. Most of the shopkeepers had grown so accustomed to the system and to a book trade that they looked with no favour on the customer who wanted to pay ready cash. Wages were paid fortnightly or—and this in many cases— monthly. The workers were tied to certain shops, and before pay-day arrived the shop books were sent to the works, showing the amount due by each person employed, and this sum was deducted from his wages and handed to the shopkeepers. It frequently happened, of course, that instead of there being anything left to pay over to the unfortunate worker, there was a debit balance to be carried forward against the next pay-day. The workman had no redress, and had not even any check against the quantities stated and the prices charged by the shopkeeper. If he had no money left, and wanted special articles, such as boots or clothing, he could only procure these through the grocer with whom his employers had a “ truck ” agreement. It was a cruel and tyrannical system, and in large numbers of cases the employers made greater gains from it than the shopkeepers did, since they insisted upon their pound of flesh in the form of a heavy percentage on the sums they were called upon to pay over to the dealer. This, of course, the latter provided against by increasing the cost of commodities to the worker. It was the usual story of “ wee peerie winkie ” having to pay for all. One local shopkeeper of that period, who lived to a good old age, has assured the writer that on a pay-day he, in one little shop, has drawn between 700 and 800 direct from the offices of the works, and he added significantly: “ These were the days when grand profits were made.”


Very naturally, the formation of a society which offered to the worker a means of escape from this thraldom was met with strong opposition on the part of the employers and of the shopkeepers. There can be no doubt that this attitude, especially on the part of employers, did much to restrain the more timid from joining. In some cases men were given very clearly to understand that it would not be to their interest to associate themselves with the new movement, and in some of the works the foremen were particularly active in their opposition. Fortunately, all the employers were not unfriendly, and it may be worth while, at this point, putting on record a story which has the merit of being true, and which is exceedingly creditable to the good sense and broad spirit of the late Major Henry Heys. It was freely reported that the head of the South Arthurlie Print Works was strongly opposed to the Co-operative Society, and some of the foremen in the works were at great pains to keep the rumour in circulation. This reached the ears of Mr Heys ; and to show that it was unfounded, and that he looked on the Society with no disfavour, he promptly became a member, and paid in his 5 of share capital. This sign of approval from such a quarter was of considerable assistance to the young organisation, and doubtless encouraged many of the South Arthurlie workers to join. The story has a pleasant sequel, which seems particularly worthy of mention. Many years later, at a time when the Society had long got over its first troubles, objection was raised to some members who had capital invested with the Society, but were not purchasers of its goods.

After discussion, it was agreed to intimate to these individuals that they must either withdraw their capital, and cease to be members, or begin making purchases from the Society. Amongst those in this position was Mr Heys. He was waited upon by an official of the Society, and informed that he must either withdraw his share capital or begin to buy his goods at " the store ” ; but he replied that there must be some error, as he had no capital in the Society. He was thereupon reminded of his action in paying in his 5 in the early days of the Society—an action which had seemingly slipped from his memory—and he was informed that the sum then lying to his credit was more than double what he had originally paid. The money was afterwards withdrawn, in conformity with the decision of the members, Mr Heys remarking that it was one of the best investments he had ever made.

Such were some of the local circumstances in the midst of which the Barrhead Co-operative Society was brought into existence, and such were some of the influences which went towards the shaping of its destiny. These influences were not all friendly, but neither were they all hostile. By the help of the friendly ones, and in spite of the unfriendly, the Society succeeded in getting a firm hold upon the community, and—as we shall see in our next chapter—entered very quickly upon a prosperous career unhampered by any serious errors or failures such as beset the early paths of very many of the societies then springing into existence.

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