Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

History of the Barrhead Co-operative Society Ltd.
Chapter III. 1861-71 : Early Days of the Society

Strength of the Society in 1861—Primitive Arrangements—Supply of Bread—Fleshmeat—Boots and Coal—First Quarterly Report—First Dividend—Successes and Trials—Bad Butter and Dear Sugar— Apathetic Members—Bonus to Workers—Trouble with First Salesman —Appointment of Second Salesman—Second Shop—Increase of Capital—Credit and Menage System—Purchase of First Horse— Successive Shopmen.

“Some of the objects of Co-operation are, to economise the necessary expenditure of the working class by dispensing with the unprofitable labour and capital that stand between the producer and the consumer, to gain access to the purest and cheapest markets, to afford commercial instruction to the people, to give opportunity for developing the intellectual and moral faculties, to inculcate the practice of prudential virtues, and thereby create higher aspirations and fit men for nobler aims in life.” —(From nth quarterly report of Barrhead Co-operative Society.)


AT the end of our first chapter we left the little shop at 95 Main Street with its shutters newly taken down, the shopman behind the counter with his sleeves up, and the committeemen all hopefully yet anxiously waiting the first results of their bold experiment. On the day the shop opened, the Society was in the position of having fifty members and capital amounting to 70—all of which was sunk in shop fittings and a small stock of groceries. It was a very humble beginning ; and a very small matter—the neglect of the members or a little carelessness on the part of the managers—might have meant its ruin. But once it had got fairly launched, the new Society went steadily on without a single setback worth speaking of. Doubtless there were moments of anxiety, but of these we find no mention in the chronicles of the period. On the contrary there were many things to hearten the pioneers, and we can readily understand with what joy the report would be received at the end of six weeks that the membership was increasing and that the weekly drawings for this period averaged 36,14s. From the first moment of the Society’s existence the directors face the difficulties that arise in a practical spirit which commands success.


Many of its arrangements are, of course, of the most primitive character, and they are often such as we cannot look back upon without a smile. Reference has already been made to the conditions attaching to the appointment of the salesman, and we find such matters as the purchase of a “ gamel ” for potatoes and the putting in of a stock of soft goods—to the extent of one piece of moleskin and one piece of flannel—forming the subject of a very anxious debate. That item “ one piece of moleskin ” seems to indicate that the moulders of Messrs Smart & Cunningham, who had so much to do with its formation, were still pushing it forward. The bread supply gives trouble at an early stage, and at the third meeting following the opening of the shop the committee encounters a serious difficulty in regard to the delivery of the “ staff of life ” to the West Arthurlie members. Much discussion finally results in these members' being asked to appoint one of their own number to receive the bread from the van in a slump lot, “ take note of each member’s consumpt, and hand the list to the salesmen to be charged against each individual on the Saturday.” One can perceive all the elements of trouble here, and, as might have been expected, the proposed arrangement proved unsatisfactory; and a week later it was amended so “ that each member arrange with the salesman what quantity he wants left, and pay at the end of the week.”


It will naturally be asked how it comes that the Society has so early managed to arrange a van service of bread for its members. The explanation is that the committee made terms with a local baker to supply bread to the members and send in his account to the Society. In the years immediately following, this method gave rise to a great deal of worry and annoyance, first one baker being tried and then another; but finally “ tokens ” were introduced, and the custom arose of permitting the members to purchase bread by means of these tokens from whom they pleased, the bakers being afterwards paid by the Society. In a somewhat similar way the committee early tackled the question of supplying members with butcher-meat. Competitive offers were taken from local fleshers, and the late Mr John Clark was the first to secure the Society’s trade, his offer of 2S. per discount being accepted against one of is. per from Mr William Craig. This Mr Craig, it may be interesting to point out, at that time a flesher in Main Street, was afterwards the owner of the Cogan Street Weaving Factory, and as such was well known throughout our district. It was part of the arrangement that no dividend was allowed to members on their butchermeat purchases. As can be understood, this proved anything but satisfactory; and after several spasmodic attempts to put it on a better basis, the arrangement was finally abandoned.


In like manner, and within twelve months of its birth, the Society had arranged for the supply of boots from Mr John Paton, and of coals, first from Mr Alex. Kilpatrick but latterly from Mr Duncan Ferguson. All this is indicative of a spirit of enterprise on the part of the first managers, which, we believe, will scarcely be paralleled, and certainly not surpassed, in the annals of Scottish co-operation. And the sound sense and business capacity of the men who were at the head of its affairs is proven by the fact that these courageous experiments were made with at least partial if not always complete success, and that they were so safeguarded as to entail no loss or injury to the young organisation.


The end of the first quarter was naturally awaited with great anxiety, and the committee, on 6th August 1861, is very pleased to report a slight profit. It is too small, however, to permit the declaration of a dividend, and is accordingly carried forward as a small nest-egg for the second quarter. By the second of August we have climbed so far into a settled condition that it becomes advisable to insure the stock for 200. Two months later (on 8th October) the directors declare that “ sensible of the growing business of the Society, the time has now arrived for the appointment of a boy to assist the salesman,” and Alexander Stark, son of the secretary, is selected for the situation.


On the 5th November 1861 the second quarterly meeting is held, and the directors are in the proud and happy position of declaring their first dividend of is. id. per , and of reporting at the same time that the fifty members of the opening have now increased to 100, and the 70 of capital has grown to 130. Doubtless there have been many proud moments in the history of the Society, and it must often have happened that the president for the time being felt a rich glow of pleasure when called upon to intimate some increase in trade or profit; but we can well believe that in the whole records of the Society there could be no prouder moment and no happier president than Mr Adam Crawford when it fell to his lot to announce that modest dividend of 1/1 and that increase of 100 per cent, on the capital of the members. The practical and far-sighted wisdom of these pioneers is exemplified also in a motion, brought forward at the same meeting by two members of committee, to put aside 2J per cent, of the profits as the nucleus of a reserve fund. It is true that the motion was defeated by a small majority, but it shows unmistakably that present success had not blinded the eyes of the leaders to the necessity for making sure of that success being built upon solid and secure foundations.


Continuing their career of prosperity, the committee, by the middle of December, decide to take the empty house on the ground flat adjoining the shop. This is to be used chiefly for directors’ meetings, but also as a land of auxiliary store for the increasing quantity of goods which they find it necessary to purchase. Already they are beginning to feel the pinch of small premises, and it is agreed to take down the partition which divides the shop in two in the hope that this will permit of more accommodation. So far we have spoken only of the triumphs and successes which came in that first six months, but no one who knows human nature—and shall we say particularly co-operative human nature—will run away with the idea that the lot of the committee was one of unbroken happiness, or that they slept upon a bed of roses. They had already been subjected to a good deal of criticism, they had been troubled in spirit by those whom Mr Stark in one of his early reports calls “ dividend co-operators,” and a number of dissatisfied ones had already confessed themselves disillusioned and had departed with their share of the capital. Indeed, the managers are feeling the want of capital very much, and on the declaration of the next dividend they urge members to leave the money in the treasurer’s hands, and beg those who cannot do so “ to take it in goods and not in cash.” As an instance of the want of sympathy which had occasionally to be faced, we may point to an incident in the winter of 1862 when there was great and exceptional want of work and much distress in the district. The Cotton Famine Fund was being formed to assist cases of necessity, and the directors of the Society were prepared to bear their part of the burden lying upon the community. They accordingly recommended to a special meeting a vote of 5 to the fund. This the members reduced to x, and at the following quarterly meeting a resolution was carried censuring the committee for its resolution, and declaring that “ the same was contrary to the spirit of co-operation ! ” All this would, doubtless, be gall and wormwood to those early apostles of the new movement, burning as they were with an enthusiasm which only those who have taken part in some great movement in its early days can fully realise.


Practical difficulties also they are bothered with, and it will not seem strange to those who have had experience of committee work when we say that one of the first to put in an appearance was our hoary-headed, old friend " bad butter.” " Bad butter ” is the cry of the members at more than one of the early general meetings, and the committeemen are kept on the run trying to satisfy diverse tastes in that commodity. Another difficulty which worries the directors of that time is, unlike the butter one, unfamiliar to his successor of to-day. This is the high price of sugar, coupled with the fact that there is a general habit amongst grocers of retailing it at or even below cost price. What is to be done with sugar ? If we sell at a price which will permit of a profit, our members will almost certainly purchase the article elsewhere. If we sell at cost, how are we to pay a dividend ? And so, after much anxiety, it is recommended to the members, and accepted by them, that sugar purchases shall be entered separately in the books, and no dividend paid thereon. Even then the managers feel they are working the sugar trade at a loss; and at one meeting it is solemnly recorded in the minutes that an applicant for membership is refused admission “ as the applicant is a large consumer of sugar ”—surely as strange a reason as could well be imagined for keeping any person outwith the co-operative movement! One wonders who this large consumer was, what were the reasons for his—or it may have been her—heavy consumption of sugar, and whether he, or she, afterwards reduced it to such manageable proportions as to permit of a new application being accepted. It was only in November 1864, and that after a long discussion at a quarterly meeting, that the regulation as to paying no dividend on sugar was withdrawn.


Another, difficulty which arises is, to our thoughts, somewhat unexpected. One naturally assigns to the men of an earlier generation the possession of virtues, the absence of which we deplore in our contemporaries. We are grieved, for instance, at the want of interest too often shown by members to-day, and, by contrast, we think of their predecessors as being full of enthusiasm and constantly animated by a spirit of devotion to duty. It is surprising, therefore, to find that, not once, but many times, in these early years the monthly and quarterly meetings had to be abandoned for want of the necessary quorum. Even when the’ membership has grown to three or four hundred, we still find in the minutes notices of abandoned meetings. To overcome this, many plans were suggested. Warders were appointed for the different districts, with a view to beating up laggard members, and, for a long time, absentees from quarterly meetings were fined one penny. It is interesting to note in this connection that the recently established regulation for the production of the share book on entering the meeting is but the revival of an old custom of the Society. Each member had to produce his book on entering the hall, and it was the duty of the two most recently appointed members of committee to keep the door, see that the rule was obeyed, and make a note of the number of each book shown, so that the absentees who did not figure on the list might be fined.


With the completion of its third quarter and tne repetition of the dividend of i/i, the Society may be said to have got fairly settled down. The success of the second quarter, it might have been argued, had been due to some fluke or to an error in bookkeeping, but a repetition on the same lines and at the same figure plainly indicated that Barrhead Co-operative Society had come to stay. From this time onward we find record of continual additions to stock, and there is a constantly increasing stream of new members. The second balance-sheet—the first one showing a dividend—was printed; but, on the preparation of the third, it is considered too expensive to have this done each time, and it is decided that only every alternate quarter’s report be printed. Whilst we are touching upon dividends, it may be worth while noting that in the earlier years lower dividends ruled than would be acceptable to-day. In the fourth quarter the profit showed 1/2 per , but it was not until fully ten years after the formation of the Society that a dividend of 2/ was earned and paid. When, in 1867, after a succession of profits ranging from 1/2 to 1/6, there was a sudden spring forward to one of 1/10, the committee could not repress the desire to let its vanity find expression in the report. “This dividend (i/io),” it says, “ is large, and should satisfy the expectations even of the most sanguine of the merely dividend co-operators, and especially gratifying will it be to those who are co-operators on principle.”


It is to be remembered that from the beginning and, indeed, right on until May 1875, the payment of dividend on purchases was accompanied by an equivalent bonus on all emplpyees’ wages. At a meeting in May 1875, a majority of the members decided against the continuance of the bonus to servants, and the position then taken up has never been altered, although it has sometimes been called in question. The decision on that point is an instance of a very complete change of policy, for at a meeting in June 1867 it was unanimously affirmed that “ the payment of a bonus on wages was a fundamental principle of co-operation.”


Its speedy and continued success would seem to have indicated that the Society was fortunate in its first salesman, but this is hardly borne out by the minutes. John Blackwood would appear to have been a very capable person, but he seems to have made the mistake of thinking that the board would be a mere figurehead, content to look vacantly on at his management, provided he succeeded in producing profits. Before the first year is out there are evidences of conflict between the salesman and the committee. He is twice reprimanded for want of respect towards the directors, and there are repeated complaints that he pushes certain goods and holds back others which are more sought after by members. It is therefore decided, in September 1862—sixteen months after his appointment—to dispense with his services, principally on the ground of his overbearing manner and disobedience to the directors. The following week Mr Martin Whyte is appointed to the vacancy, but the first man will not go without creating a certain amount of trouble. He carries his case before the following meeting of members, to whom he appeals for justice. He blames chiefly the boy, Alexander Stark, whom he alleges had been appointed against his wishes, and personally accuses the secretary of being the direct cause of his dismissal. The meeting, however, with unanimity, support the committee, and approve of what has been done. Even then John Blackwood remains a trouble. He desires, naturally, to withdraw his security at once, but 50 is more than the Society can afford to pay on short notice. Half of the amount is paid over in a week or two. There is a good deal of correspondence, and even threats of legal proceedings from both sides, but it is not till January of the following year that he finally obtains the balance due him. And, after all, the last word remains with the salesman, for he puts the Society to some inconvenience by refusing to grant his signature to a request that the “ certificate of license ” (probably a tobacco licence) be transferred from his name to that of the president.


Within a short time of Mr Martin Whyte’s appointment additional assistance is required to meet the growing demands of members. Miss Maggie Whyte is appointed to help in the shop, at first for three days a week, and latterly on full time. The little shop is no longer able to satisfy requirements, and after many negotiations with the proprietor—Mr Gillies, of Cross Arthurlie Hotel—it is finally agreed to lease a shop then occupied as a public-house at the comer of Bank Street. The lease is for ten years, with a break at seven; and in May 1864 the Society moves into these larger and specially fitted premises. In the negotiations which preceded the taking of the new shop the late Mr John Allan acted as the agent between the Society and the landlord ; whilst the practical arrangements and fitting up of the shops were left to men whose names are so familiar to us as those of James Baillie and Thomas M'Cowatt.


At a slightly later period the Society was beginning to find capital accumulating in its hands, and there were many anxious discussions as to how this could be remuneratively employed. A favourite proposal was the establishment of a com mill, and over and over again/' both in committee and at general meetings, motions are made as to the desirability of the Society taking up the grinding of grain for their own use and for sale to others. A few shares had already been taken in the Paisley Manufacturing Society, and an English company, the Calliard Flannel Manufacturing Company, had apparently appealed to the directors as a likely opening, and there were many talks about its prospects, but in the end no money was invested in the business. Another project which seems to have had an attraction for them, and

with which they coquetted a good deal, was that of ham-curing. They frequently bought pigs from members and others in the district, which they killed and cured for sale, and a committee was appointed to investigate the subject with a view to commencing hamcuring on a larger scale; but in the end nothing came of it, and instead of starting some small productive work of its own the Society was ultimately content to invest its surplus wealth in the larger undertakings of the general co-operative movement.


In the rules drawn up for the Society, the promoters were careful to insist upon all its trade being done on the cash system, and on the outside cover of the original rule book stood the clear-cut statement—“ All Purchases to be paid for on delivery.” Then, as now, there were members to whom this acted as an impediment to their desire to be consistent to the Society. The first effort to overcome this difficulty took the form of a clothing club, which was formed, not through the Society, but within it, and with its approval. This seems to have been unsatisfactory; for as early as 1864 we find a discussion on the first suggestion for the now familiar menage system for the supply of boots and clothing. It was deferred at that time, the directors plainly indicating their dislike to anything in the nature of the dreaded credit trading, and it is some time later that the menage method is adopted. This is not the place to discuss the much debated question of a strictly cash or of a cash and strictly safeguarded credit trading, but it will, no doubt, interest many if we quote the remarks of the old Scottish Co-operator when reviewing Barrhead Society’s thirty-seventh balance-sheet. The report was a favourable one, and announced a dividend of i/ii per . The editor speaks of it, therefore, in approving terms, but adds—“ We notice, however, an ugly item of 494 as value for goods owing to the Society. We are aware that this is incurred in that new mode of credit termed a 'menage,’ but as we hear of several societies that have met losses from these menages, it will be well that the directors pay special attention to this matter as the sum gradually gets to be very large.” The menage system with various modifications has ever since remained in operation. Either the fears of its opponents have proved groundless, or the successive committees have heeded the warning to keep a watchful eye upon the accounts, for we have not heard of any great loss inflicted by its workings, and, on the other hand, it has probably been one of the causes of the Society’s steady and increasing trade.


From a very early date the committee aspired to own a horse of its own, and more than once instructions were asked from the members on the subject. No doubt the members were also flattered at the thought of possessing their own horse, but they were at the same time always careful not to commit themselves, and, time after time, they sent the proposal back to the board for further consideration. It was only after long thought that the directors could make up their minds to take the plunge. Finally, in the opening months of 1867, it is definitely decided to purchase a horse for the Society’s use, and Mr James Williamson, the treasurer, and “another member ” are appointed to carry out the important commission. The real story of that first horse transaction is still recited with gusto by Mr John Lindsay—now one of the two surviving representatives of the original members of the Society. Mr Williamson and Mr Robert Law, at that time president of the Society, journeyed to Glasgow, and in the market there they spotted “ the very article" for their purpose. The bargain was quickly concluded, and in high spirits they brought their new four-footed servant home. Committee members and other friends were hastily summoned to admire the new acquisition, and amongst those who attended was a carter, an uncle of Mr Lindsay. ' The company was examining the animal in solemn silence and at a respectful distance, but the carter immediately began a real' professional inspection. After a few preliminaries, he proceeded to the important part of examining its mouth. No sooner had he pulled open the horse’s jaws than “ Man,” he exclaimed, with the characteristic vigour of the carter, “ the b-has nae tongue.” It was too true ! Whether by disease, accident, or ill-usage, the fact was undeniable that the horse had no tongue. What could be done with it ? was the anxious question of an excited committee. The carter being appealed to, offered to go with the subcommittee to Glasgow on the next market-day, where he helieved he might sell it. “But mind ye,” he added, “ ye’ll need to leave the market d-smert whenever the beast’s sel’t.” The horse was got rid of in this way at some loss, and for years afterwards the buying of the horse which had no tongue was a standing joke, relished by the buyers no less keenly because it was against themselves. Such is Mr Lindsay’s story of the buying of the first horse, and, reading between the lines, one can find ample verification in the minutes. On nth February 1867 the purchase is decided upon, and on 18th February Mr WilHamson reports buying the animal, but the minute immediately adds “ resolved, unanimous, that we sell the horse as soon as possible, as it is not fit for our business.”


Our record of the events which may properly be grouped under the general heading, “ Early Days,” which is given to this chapter will, we think, be brought to a fitting close if we return for a short time to the shop itself and the successive shopmen who presided there. Mr Martin Whyte, appointed in 1862, whilst the Society was still in its first shop, continued in its service until 1866 when he resigned. At this time the second shop had been occupied for two years, and trade had shown a very considerable increase. Robert Adam, from Paisley, was Mr Whyte’s successor, but he resigned in April 1868, and in doing so left the Society in a somewhat awkward fix. He could not remain longer than the 19th, and his successor, Robert Sturrock, from Greenock, could not come till the 26th. To make matters worse, the second-hand also intimated his intention of leaving on the 19th. This man had been making repeated but unsuccessful applications for an increase of wages, and he apparently thought this an excellent opportunity to force the hands of the directors. How to manage for the week pending the arrival of the new man was the question. Determined not to be beat, the committee accepted the second man’s resignation, hurriedly appointed a lad in his place, and put in the treasurer, James Irvine, to assist until Mr Sturrock would arrive. It was only a few weeks before this that the directors had removed the steadily increasing stock, of drapery from the grocery shop, and had appointed a Miss Au.chencloss to take charge of the first drapery department. She also was pressed into service in the grocery, and by these means the difficulty was overcome. The new salesman, Mr Sturrock, remained with the Society only a year, when he was appointed first manager of the newly-formed United Baking Society. He was succeeded by a Mr Joseph Tait, but this proved an unsatisfactory choice, and he was dismissed in 1871. His successor was Mr John Tyndall, the very mention of whose name is sufficient to indicate that we are approaching much more modem times, for Mr Tyndall will be recalled by a hundred for one who can remember any of his predecessors. For many years thereafter he continued in the Society’s service, and was closely associated with the period of progress and development which followed.

Return to the Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus