Friday, March 10, 2017

The Story of the Wolverton Co-op

The first Coop store started in 1844 with the opening of a grocery store in Rochdale. Workers had banded together to form the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society to sell pure food at fair prices, using honest wights and measures. In the age we now live in, where food distribution is highly regulated, it may be difficult to conceive of a time when some unscrupulous grocers were always on the verge of poisoning their customers.
to look back nostalgically and assume, for example, that the bread which formed the staff of life was home-baked, or, if bought, was wholesome and nutritional, is romantic nonsense. By the 1840s home baked bread had died out among the rural poor; in the small tenements of the urban masses, unequipped as these were with ovens, it never existed. In 1872 Dr. Hassall, the pioneer investigator into food adulteration and the principal reformer in this vital area of health, demonstrated that half of the bread he examined had considerable quanities of alum. Alum, while not itself poisonous, by inhibiting the digestion could lower the nutritional value of other foods.

The list of poisonous additives reads like the stock list of some mad and malevolent chemist: strychnine, cocculus inculus (both are hallucinogens) and copperas in rum and beer; sulphate of copper in pickles, bottled fruit, wine, and preserves; lead chromate in mustard and snuff; sulphate of iron in tea and beer; ferric ferrocynanide, lime sulphate, and turmeric in chinese tea; copper carbonate, lead sulphate, bisulphate of mercury, and Venetian lead in sugar confectionery and chocolate; lead in wine and cider; all were extensively used and were accumulative in effect, resulting, over a long period, in chronic gastritis, and, indeed, often fatal food poisoning. Red lead gave Gloucester cheese its 'healthy' red hue, flour and arrowroot a rich thickness to cream, and tea leaves were 'dried, dyed, and recycled again.'⁠1
That was the darker side of food retailing. Grocers in provincial towns were also chemists and therefore the people one turned to for some remedy or other. John Lepper, a grocer on Bury Street in the 1840s was also a member of the Pharmaceutical Association, so it is to presumed that he knew a thing or two about chemicals. This is not to suggest that Mr Lepper was in any way corrupt, or that he adulterated the food he sold to his customers, - indeed, it was unlikely that anyone could get away with such practices in a small community - but it does show that the opportunity was there for unscrupulous retailers.
Quite apart from this, the idea of a Co-op would have been very appealing to Wolverton’s new residents, who, as we have seen in so many other areas, were very capable of organising themselves, and so, very quickly after the news of Rochdale’s experiment, Wolverton had its first Co-op. 
The north end shops on Bury Street

As far as I can piece together the story from Trade Directories the Co-op story began a decade after the establishment of Wolverton. There is a suggestion that the bakery on Bury Street, operated by George Kightley, from a Stony Stratford family of bakers, was a Co-op bakery, but this is only a brief mention in some railway committee minutes and I cannot be sure of this fact. The Kightley bakery ran from the day these shops were erected in 1839 until about 1856 when they were pulled down to make way for workshop expansion. George Kightley thereafter moved to Newport Pagnell where he ran a bakery in Silver Street. However, after 1847, when the first Co-op opened on Creed Street, it is possible that George Kightley was persuaded to turn his bakery into a Co-op. At this very time he had competition from John Walker, who hd opened his new bakery on Creed Street and Kightley may have felt that his future business lay with the Co-op.

For some obscure reason this was the last building in the Little Streets to be pulled down. It was originally  opened as a butcher's shop and served as a Co-op butcher in the early 1900s.

The Creed Street shops were among the last buildings to be erected along the Little Streets. On the rise of land facing the church. There were only five units. John Walker’s new bakery was built on the Church Street corner and next door was a butcher’s shop which became a fish and chip shop in its last days. Next to that was a cottage occupied by the church sexton and the last two units, before what was later known as the ’triangle’, was occupied by the new Co-op. This experimental enterprise was staffed by Richard West, a very young man who had probably just completed his apprenticeship. His younger sister Charlotte, and a 16 year old apprentice made up the staff.

This view from Ledsam Street shows the back of the Creed Street house that was the original Co-op in Wolverton.

Other than references in the census and trade directories there is very little information about this early Co-op. James Harrison, aged 43 in 1861, was styled as the “Manager of the Cooperative Society Stores” in 1861, when the shop was still in Creed Street, but in 1863 the society re-formed itself as the “Wolverton and Stantonbury Industrial and Provident Society.” This may have coincided with the opening of a branch in New Bradwell, and it may also be that at this date the society gave up renting the Creed Street buildings in favour of better premises along Church Street, probably at Number 15. This house was in the middle of the southern block of Church Street, between the Institute and Radcliffe Street, that has since been demolished. James Harrison was still running the grocery in 1871, although by that time he had four assistants working for him, which perhaps confirms the notion that the business had expanded.
The house had three storeys, which offered enough space for James Harrison and his family and for the display and storage of goods. They adopted the conventional grocer’s practice of buying in bulk and selling at a mark-up to the consumer. The difference in the Co-op model was that they could depend on volunteer labour to keep costs down. Each evening, dedicated volunteers would spend an hour after work sorting out the new supplies as they came in. The society was also able to expand its range. Boots and shoes and drapery were now offered at the premises.
In 1882 the society was confident enough in its future to purchase the south west corner of the new Market Square for £100. The building on that corner was to become the nerve centre of the Wolverton Co-op for the next 60 or 70 years. The new shop on the corner sold groceries in one half and on the other side had a drapery. The drapery was a staple business in any town in that age before ready-made clothes, tablecloths and curtains could be purchased. Behind the shop, the Co-op had its own bakery.

This shows the Market Square building earl in the 20th century. By this time the Co-op had acquired the adjoining houses.

The Bakery

The shop on the corner of Aylesbury Street and Bedford Street, used to sell bread and cakes.
In 1892 the organisation was large enough to employ its own full time secretary. This was Fred Vickers, who held the position until his retirement 20 years later.
As it entered the 20th century the organisation became very strong and expanded its interests to many retail and service areas. The bakery was expanded and a dairy established on the same premises. A retail bakery shop opened up o the corner of Bedford Street and Aylesbury Street. The houses next door to the Market Square Co-op were acquired for expansion. They took over the butcher’s shop on Creed Street for a period and in 1912, opened up a West End branch on the corner of Jersey Road and Church Street. In 1925 the society built a new, purpose-built store at 60-64 Church Street for furniture sales. In the same year they took over the Stony Stratford Co-op. By 1928 the Co-op occupied the following premises.
1-5 Market Square
15-19 Church Street
60-64 Church Street
159 & 161 Church Street
106 Jersey Road
30 and 47 Aylesbury Street
West end grocery store, opened in 1912
The three storey building in the middle of the photo on the right (with a shop front addition) is probably where the Co-op moved to in 1863.
This is the configuration that most people would recognise up to 30 years later when the Co-op was at its peak. Groceries, green groceries, fish, flowers, baking products and savings services could be found on the square. At various premises along Church Street there was a butcher, men’s outfitter, furniture store, drapery and a second grocery. There was a second Butcher’s shop on Jersey Road and funeral services. You could, if you were so minded,  buy everything you ever needed in life from the Co-op - bread, milk, meat, groceries, fish, green groceries, drapery, men's clothing, shoes, furniture, toys, and even in death the Co-op could accommodate you and arrange your funeral.

This large house on the corner of Aylesbury Street and Moreland Terrace (Radcliffe Street)  was converted into Co-op shops.
Co-op "department" store, opened c 1925,
The large store on Church Street was eventually taken over by Maisies, a clothing shop which started off at a Church Street shop closer to the Post Office. It is still. as you can see, in the hands of this company. The building is still functioning well after 90 years. There was a major fire in the building in 1953, but the structure was unimpaired.

After the second world war the co-op became the only supplier of dairy products. The Pasteurisation Act of 1951 made milk production too expensive for small dairies to compete and two other dairies, both on Windsor Street, closed down to leave the Co-op with a monopoly. Milk was bottled at the back of the Market Square premises and delivered by a horse drawn dray. This was another job that required an early start and each morning Mr & Mrs Odell (I think that was their name) would don their brown smocks, harness the horse known as "Dobbin”(at least, that is what I was told as a child), load the dray with crates of milk bottles and work their way quietly around the town, the only sound being the clink of milk bottles

Milk was paid for by the purchase of tokens from the Co-op on the Square. These were aluminium disks about the size of a penny, smaller for a half pint and coloured red for special items like cream. Tokens for whatever you required could then be left on the doorstep overnight. The milk carton had yet to be invented, so all milk came in bottles sealed with cardboard caps with a pull tag - they fitted into the slightly-recessed bottle top. Later on in the 50s the aluminium seal began to appear.
In those days cream was not entirely separated from the milk and each pint bottle would have an inch or so of cream rising to the top. On the occasional frosty winter morning the milk would freeze and the expansion would pop the cardboard cap and poke up a finger of frozen milk.

There were not may areas of life that the Co-op did not touch, but there was certainly one in the post-war period- that of music. Fred Anstey had a small shop in Church street, about two doors from Easy the butcher on the corner of Radcliffe Street. From this tiny shop, two steps up from the pavement, essentially the front room of the house, he sold records and sheet music and a few record players. Sheet music was very popular in those years when most households had a piano in their front room. In that era before television and the development of the gramophone, musical entertainment came from your own hands, or from another member of the family, or a friend or neighbour. 
Mass production of records started to change this. First, bakelite disks that whirled around at 78rpm and at best produced o more than five minutes on one side, and then in the 1950s, the tiny revolution and the invention of the diamond or sapphire stylus. Single hit records came out as 7 inch 45rpm discs and long playing records came out in 10 inch and 12 inch versions. Beethoven’s 5th symphony, for example, could now be purchased as a single disk rather than a set of four played on an old 78rpm player.
Oddly, it took some time for the popular music market to catch u with this technology. Pop tunes were routinely released as 45rpm singles, usually with an “A” side (the song that you wanted to buy) and a “B” side with some rubbish song to fill up the space. Later these singles were compiled as an album on an LP, but it was not until 1967, with the issue of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper that the idea of an integrated album came into being.

This revolution was a little ahead of Fred Anstey who struggled a bit to keep up with the faster moving fashions. Many of us in the 1950s went to Northampton where there was a big shop on Gold Street (I can’t immediately recall the name) which had sound booths upstairs where you could listen to a single prior to purchase. Anyway, Fred Anstey retired in the early 1960s and the Co-op took over his shop. By this time were clearing their pianos out of their front rooms and no longer buying sheet music.

In 1967, upon the announcement of Milton Keynes, the Wolverton and Bletchley Cooperative Societies merged to create the Milton Keynes Cooperative Society. This was another step towards the creation of larger and perhaps less personal businesses. The story of the Wolverton, and indeed the New Bradwell and Stony Stratford Co-ops, was that of a locally created, largely volunteer organisation, dedicated to the common good of their friends and neighbours. In this sense the story of the Wolverton Co-op belongs to an age when women shopped daily with wicker baskets on their arm.

The corner shop c. 1967.

1 Wohl, Anthony S. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.


John Clarke said...

Bryan, The record shop in Gold Street was John Lever's, there was also Abel's on Northampton Market Square. Do you also remember that Frith's of Newport Pagnell published their own "top ten" in The Wolverton Express.

Bryan Dunleavy said...

Thanks for jogging the memory, John. I remember the Frith advertisement and I suppose they put the same one in the Bucks Standard. I can't say that it ever tempted me to go to Newport Pagnell when it was just as easy to take the train to Northampton - and do other things as well. At the time when a swimming pool for Wolverton was just a talking point we used to go to the Mounts at Northampton most Saturdays.