‘The birth of the Tamworth Co-operative Society was a moral stance arising from a sense of fair play’
The Tamworth Co-op has been at the heart of the town since 1886. Prior to that it had been much discussed and the subject of various meetings.
‘Co-operation’ in Tamworth was something which threatened to spark into life on several occasions, only to quickly fizzle out. Members of a miners’ association only failed to establish a co-operative because they could not get suitable premises. Another group simply suffered a puzzling loss of confidence.
In 1865 a Co-operative Society began trading in Fazeley and instantly gained an excellent reputation for the quality of its meat. Sadly it lasted just two years. In 1872 a society was set up in Wilnecote but only lasted three years despite showing ‘early promise’ and an ‘encouraging’ rise in takings.
But when ‘co-operation’ finally caught on in the heart of Tamworth, it spread like wildfire and started a blaze of trading which has never been in danger of being extinguished in 125 years.The Tamworth Co-op’s history is now inextricably entwined with the annals of the town itself. No chronicle of Tamworth could ever be complete without detailed reference to the roots of the Tamworth Co-op. In many people’s eyes, the Co-op is as much a symbol of Tamworth as is its ancient castle. And like the castle, the Co-op is here to stay.
The Tamworth Co-op’s empire now stretches way beyond the town itself. The Society employs more than 300 people and its empire consists of Bolehall Convenience Store, Coseley Funeral Services, Dordon Convenience Store, Dosthill Convenience Store, Glascote Convenience Store, Funeral Advice Centre Tamworth, Great Wyrley Funeral Services, Heath Hayes Funeral Services, Kingsbury Convenience Store, Lichfield Convenience Store, Polesworth Convenience Store, Pelsall Funeral Services, Rosliston Convenience Store/Post Office, Stretton Convenience Store, Tamworth Department Store, Tamworth Funeral Services, Tamworth town centre supermarket/post office, Uttoxeter Funeral Service, Whittington Convenience Store, Wood End Convenience Store/post office and Woodville Funeral Services.Today’s Tamworth Co-op turns over more than £20m a year and is a far cry from its modest foundations in 1886, when the society operated from a simple terraced cottage in Church Street, taking just £15 in its first week of trading.
The setting up of the first Co-operative in Tamworth was a principled stance against poverty and greed. It sprung from a backdrop of working class exploitation when wealthy shopkeepers were making exorbitant profits on basic products such as meat.
At that time the Co-operative movement was gathering momentum in other parts of the country, but took four decades to take off in Tamworth. The origins of the movement nationally can be traced back to the Rochdale Pioneers who set up the first co-operative in 1844.
An article in the Tamworth Herald dated March 11, 1876 reports on a meeting in the town hall at which the organisation was discussed in depth. A burst of applause from around 80 people present greeted news that in Manchester the Society was doing business of above £2,000,000 a year.In 1886, angry letter writers in the Tamworth Herald highlighted the scandalous price of beef in town. One writer succinctly summed up the general feeling of outrage: “They buy cheap and sell dear.”
Thus the birth of the Tamworth Co-operative Society was a moral stance arising from a sense of fair play which is still intact today. Its birth was a reaction to the monopoly on trade and to unscrupulous traders whose greed was causing serious harm to the working classes. The Society’s dividend membership scheme instantly fostered a sense of belonging, and this was coupled with a genuine stake in the company’s fortunes. The size of the dividend was directly related to customer loyalty and 125 years later the ‘divi’ is still treasured by thousands of Society members.
A flurry of letters in another Tamworth institution – the Herald – finally paved the way for the town’s first co-operative. The advantages of co-operation were discussed in detail and an appeal was sent out to organise a meeting to take the next steps.
On November 13, 1886 a meeting was held at the Victoria Road Schoolroom in Tamworth and this time it was destined to achieve its objectives. It was proposed that ‘a co-operative society be formed in Tamworth’ and the motion was unanimously carried.At the next meeting the Rev W MacGregor was elected treasurer of the new business. He was to go down in history as one of the most important players, not only in the history of the local Co-op, but of the very town itself.
A modest rented cottage was the Society’s first headquarters and on November 29 £40 worth of goods were selected to go on sale.
Elizabeth Bradford became the first employee on a wage of 9 shillings for a 70-hour week.
The Tamworth Co-operative Society officially opened its doors on December 10, 1886. But one opportunist somehow managed to make a purchase the day before enabling him to become member number one.
A grand total of £3 was taken on the first day – but it was just the start of a business that was to become a household name to every single Tamworth resident over the following decades.
The business rapidly outgrew its tiny cottage premises and William MacGregor, Tamworth’s most generous benefactor, allowed the fledgling outfit to rent a building he owned in Church Street. A manager, Samuel Hardy, was appointed on a wage of 30 shillings a week.The story then became one of constant expansion. A small bakehouse in The Leys was bought for £330 and sales for the week ending December 17, 1887 surpassed the £100 mark for the first time. The Society even bought and slaughtered its own pigs, providing high quality meat at basement prices.
Barely a year after its formation, the Tamworth Co-op began to inject money into the local community, starting a tradition which remains firmly in place today. In 1889 money was handed to the cottage hospital, free library, fire brigade… and even to a member who had suffered the misfortune of losing a horse!
Through its Community Dividend Fund, the Society hands out a five-figure sum every year to voluntary groups which make a difference to the communities they serve. Tamworth Co-op has received many accolades for supporting causes on its doorstep, including a coveted national caring award.
1897 was a landmark year in the Society’s history as it saw the official opening of its Colehill HQ which remains the company’s flagship building and head office. The opening of the magnificent emporium coincided with Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. It sold everything from boots to hats and has an impressive boardroom.
The building was destined to undergo extensive improvements and enlargements over the years, most notably in the 1960s.
The Society continued to invest in all directions, significantly increasing its delivery fleet of horses and vehicles, which inevitably led to a rise in accidents.
It was reported that horses ‘whose tempers were not known’ would run away and ‘knock corners off walls.’ Once a horse outside the Colehill premises was taken ill and refused to budge. And in 1892 the Society found itself at the centre of a lively row with a local veterinary surgeon who was involved in a collision with a Co-op vehicle. The committee replied that it could not be held responsible for his ‘furious’ driving.
Electric lights illuminated the array of goods on offer in the department store for the first time in 1899. These lights were considered to be more expensive than gas, but also offered less of a fire risk and led to a ‘purer atmosphere.’
During the 1960s, turnover topped £1.5m and the Society boasted 18,000 members. The Colehill HQ was once again enlarged and improved and Coronation street star Len Fairclough (Peter Adamson) took the membership to over 18,000 members when he opened the new supermarket in Church Street. He also stopped the traffic as crowds surged to the department store to welcome him.
The Tamworth Co-op celebrated its centenary in 1986 when membership rocketed past the 35,000 mark and a new dividend scheme was introduced, returning 10p for every pound spent.
Today’s Tamworth Co-operative Society has a turnover exceeding £23m. It’s a highly modern business, but has refused to part company with its traditional values so prized by shoppers over the decades. A commitment to good service, coupled with a fair price policy, means it is still one of the most successful and respected businesses in town.
The emphasis on service and fair prices permeates all areas of the Society’s business too, from its convenience stores to its funeral services. It has harnessed huge customer loyalty – and loyalty is a quality which has spread to the staff too. Many employees have worked for the Society all their lives. The current chief executive, Julian Coles, is only the Tamworth Co-op’s eighth chief executive.
That is another truly remarkable fact about a business with a proud history stretching back 125 years.
See also the Co-operative movement.