The co-operative movement in Wales
Last updated: 20 January 2011
Article written by Alun Burge, based on an article in the Welsh History Journal
From the beginning
Co-operative societies were set up by local people so that they could guarantee receiving good quality products and services at reasonable prices. The profits made were shared amongst the members themselves. The societies were locally governed and democratically organised with meetings every three months where officers reported to members on the way that the society was being run.
The first co-operative societies were established in Wales in the early 1840s, including one started by Chartists in Pontypridd. The first co-operative that endured was set up in Cwmbach, in 1859/60, which was modelled on the pioneer co-operative, in Rochdale, which had been running since 1844. The Cwmbach co-operative has been seen as the 'beginning' of co-operation in Wales.
Co-operation was about much more than trading; it was a way of life for many ...
The names of early societies say a lot, such as The Tonyrefail Pioneer of 1864, and the Brynmawr Perseverance Society, which was set up in 1865, after the failure of an earlier venture. Considering the large numbers of societies that failed, particularly between 1860 and 1900, people continued to invest in them, risking their savings, and showing their commitment to make co-operation work. In north Wales, the Brymbo Society was operational in 1872 but, as in the rest of Wales, co-operation was slow to develop compared with England.
The strength of the movement in South Wales was in small valley villages such as Troedyrhiw, New Tredegar and Caerau, which reflected the way that the coal industry developed. In North Wales, they grew in coal and slate communities such as Leeswood and Llanberis. In mid Wales, they developed in towns such as Newtown, and Welshpool. The coastal towns of Cardiff and Newport did not initially develop strong co-operative societies because the dockers and sea farers had irregular work, which hindered co-operative organisation.
Co-operation was about much more than trading; it was a way of life for many and provided extensive social provision as well as economic activity.
Co-operative societies gave support from the 'cradle to the grave'. Individual societies provided every sort of service that a member might want, including funeral services and memorial headstones. They could provide food shopping, hairdressing, car hire, painting and decorating, as well as optical services, a travel agency, insurance and banking. Societies would often combine together to build large laundries and bakeries.
Co-operation was about much more than trading; it was a way of life for many and provided extensive social provision as well as economic activity. In Co-operative Street, Ton Pentre, members lived in 50 houses built by the local Society, and there was a co-operative cinema in Cymmer. Societies set up co-operative halls, ran libraries, organised children's choirs, eisteddfodau and athletics events as part of a vibrant social life. Societies also arranged programmes of co-operative education classes. For example, the Ynysybwl Society's Education Committee, in 1920, organised ten junior classes, six intermediate classes, four adult classes, and two classes for women studying co-operation, involving hundreds of adults and children. The movement in Wales, and individual societies, also produced many publications.
Co-operation became a central part of the culture of the local community, similar to that of the chapel. People identified with, and were loyal to, their co-operative societies, which became ingrained in their way of life. As was said of the Blaina Society in 1922, it was 'undoubtedly the biggest thing in the valley outside of the coal industry itself'.
Local co-operative societies were active participants in the social, cultural, economic, and sometimes political life of their communities. Also, as well as people providing a range of services for themselves, they saw co-operation as a way of building a new society. Co-operative societies were - and are - part of a world wide movement which seeks to share the benefits of work and trading fairly.
The role of women
At a time when women were excluded from many areas of Welsh society, the co-operative movement provided an important opportunity for ordinary women to become involved. Their role in the household, and shopping for family goods, meant they were directly involved in the day-to-day business of co-operative societies, and they were very important in the societies' education committees.
An organisation called the Women's Co-operative Guild was set up in Britain in 1883, and two of the seven women who founded it were from Aberdare. It became an important early radical campaigning organisation for women's rights. Women across Wales were actively involved in the Guild until recent times.
Co-operatives today and tomorrow
Co-operatives across the world, today, still have the same ethical values and principles of their founders nearly 200 years ago. The fair trade movement has co-operative producers of coffee, cocoa and other products at its heart. The United Nations has declared 2012 as the international year of co-operatives, in recognition of their contribution to economic and social development, and the way that they help reduce poverty and create employment. Co-operatives have come a long way since Rochdale and Cwmbach, and still provide an essential service to their members.
Missed the final episode of this BBC Cymru Wales heartwarming drama?
Explore the celebrated and lesser-known incidents in Welsh history, watch rare clips from BBC Wales' own archive, find out about history events in Wales.