The cooperative movement in our university town


A little known historical gem linking up even more people and groups in the story of Lost Cambridge.

The Co-operative Movement – here’s a little intro on what they do today. I’m one of the 17.5m people with a co-op card. Follow their overhaul of all things digital at, now led by the former Head of Digital for the Government, Mike Bracken.

This is the book:

…and it turns out that 2018 will be the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society.

Given that the co-operators were some of the founding parents of the modern day Cambridge Labour Party, will we be seeing some big celebrations of this anniversary?

From its small beginnings, the Co-op rose to become one of the largest movements – and retail groups – in the town. It had magnificent premises on Burleigh Street.

Below is what the site looks like today.


Personally I think they could have at least kept and cleaned up the facade. The irony I guess is that the Co-op, which prided itself on being socially just and financially beneficial for local buyers, sellers and suppliers, has since been replaced by a financially more competitive retailer that runs on a less environmentally sustainable business model, and also of whom concerns were first raised a decade ago about the working conditions of their manufacturers.

That’s not to criticise the shoppers who shop there today. The above is an observation of two very different business models over 100 years apart. Interestingly in the decades leading up to the book’s publication, one of the big debates across the country was on free trade. Today, ‘free trade’ is something that many in progressive political circles associate with big multinationals imposing horrific working conditions on people in economically poorer countries. Over 100 years ago when there was no welfare state, the debate was on whether the UK should have high tariffs on the import of food. The concern around raising tariffs & taxes on imported food was on whether the poor would be able to afford to feed themselves. Poverty was a huge problem in Cambridge as Eglantyne Jebb described in incredible detail in 1906. Indeed, the newspaper archives show Eglantyne taking part in a debate on free trade in Cambridge in the early 1910s, sharing a platform with the older brother of her best friend Margaret, a certain John Maynard Keynes. This was long before Eglantyne became famous for founding Save The Children, and also long before John Maynard Keynes became famous for becoming the founding father of macroeconomics as an academic discipline.


Mrs Clara Rackham

One of the figures mentioned and credited in both Eglantyne’s book Cambridge – a brief study in social questionsand Co-operation in a University Town, is Cllr Clara Rackham, one of the first women councillors elected to Cambridge borough, and later also the county council. Eglantyne credits Clara, formerly of Newnham College, with writing the short section on the Cambridge Women’s Co-operative Guild which in 1906 had, according to the book some 120 members.  Not bad going given that Henry Brown’s book pictured top quotes Clara as only founding the Cambridge Co-operative Women’s Guild in May 1902.

Cambridge women and the making of the co-operative movement in town

You won’t find a list of the great and the good in this book, for the story of how women made the movement into what it would become in the inter-war period is one of lots of people working together across the city in their own ways. Whether it was running a small business, working on a shop front, working on one of the local farms where today we find housing estates, Henry Brown credits women as making the movement prosper.

Some of you will be familiar with Emily Davies and her work both founding Girton College, Cambridge and on her work campaigning for votes for women. It was her niece, Margaret Llewellyn, daughter of John Llewellyn (a student at Trinity College, Cambridge) who would go onto become general secretary of the national women’s co-operative guild. It was not long after Margaret became general secretary that Clara launched the Cambridge branch of the women’s guild.

Christian socialism in Cambridge

They’ve rebranded today as Christians on the Left. We tend not to hear much about Christianity on the left/centre-left of politics. In recent decades – whether associated with John Major’s ‘back to basics’ campaign or coverage of US politics and elections, the media prism has framed religion in the conservative and political right. It wasn’t always like that though. Certainly between the time of Ellice Hopkins’ book on the slums of Cambridge published in 1884, through to the Second World War, the local newspaper archives are full of stories of non-conformist preachers and Christians in local politics being active in the Labour Party. The most prominent of these is Dr Alex Wood.


A wooden plaque at St Columbas Church, Downing Street, Cambridge, dedicated to Dr Alex Wood of both Emmanuel College and Cambridge Labour Party – the latter renaming their headquarters after him.

It’s also worth noting that because of her work for Save the Children, the Church of England dedicates 17 December as a special holy day for Eglantyne Jebb.

Again, the newspaper archives show that in her time in Cambridge, Eglantyne would speak on public platforms to church-going audiences about issues of social justice. Her 1910 speech to the Cambridge Brotherhood of Men on religion in public life is particularly striking – linking the men’s religion, to their religious duties of campaigning for social justice for the poor, through to using politics as a means for achieving said social justice.

The Christian socialism in the context of the Cambridge co-operative movement is mainly about how former Cambridge University students went on to found the Christian Socialist movement of the 1800s – in particular F.D. Maurice. Unfortunately what we don’t get a sense of is what happened to the Christian Socialists in Cambridge in the 20th Century.

The Cambridge Co-operative Movement after the First World War

I get the sense that these were the best years for the movement. The data provided by Henry Brown’s book shows average weekly sales almost trebling between 1914-1922. One of the other notable activities of the Cambridge movement was how they reinvested profits into municipal bonds, as well as investing £16,000 into the Cambridge Housing Society by 1938, at a time of desperate housing need in the face of poverty-ridden slums. Today that £16,000 works out close to £1million, which indicates just what a difference the society members made to our city. (Note you’re also accounting for different building and living standards – difficult to make a like-for-like comparison in costs per dwelling).

My brief stint in the mid-1990s doing work experience with the co-op’s department store

In the long hot summer of 1995 I did my work experience at what was the co-op’s department store, known as ‘Living’. Next door was a huge co-op supermarket, both on the Beehive Centre. I remember the whole thing being really badly organised by my school – not least because all of their contact details were out of date. I remember going for a short interview with my Dad thinking I was going to hate it – I didn’t want to be there, they didn’t want to be there, it was cold and it was April and I hated school anyway.

When I got there it was clear they didn’t really know what to do with me, and it was only thanks to two or three members of staff throughout my two weeks there who made some of the various days there anything more than tolerable. I came away unimpressed by the whole operation, scathing of senior management and full of praise for the people who ran the warehousing operation. But these were the last of a generation as the industry began the moves towards automated stock control.

Looking back, I got the sense that it was front-of-house staff that didn’t really want to be there. Low paid, low opinions of customers, woefully managed. What sort of organisation has an area manager walk in, look around the shop and tell all its sales staff their sales targets had been increased 25%? (They were all micro-managed on sales, with weekly targets and weekly reporting on why they had failed to hit them). Not surprisingly, the whole outfit didn’t last much longer – ASDA taking over a few years later on one side, and TK Maxx on the other.

The one person who did make it fun was the woman who ran the warehouse. I remember singing her praises in my teenage diaries of the time. Her name was Julie – if I recall correctly. You got the sense quickly of who she rated and who she didn’t. You also got the sense that she was a very good judge of character and was also very quick to put people at ease while not afraid to stand up to senior management. She also had a solid sense of right from wrong. My final two days were in the warehouse where we didn’t have to be on best behaviour. She could tell I was sick of the shop floor, so said instead of white shirt and school trousers – I didn’t have a suit in those days, she said come wearing something you could get paint, oil and dust on.

I also got a sense of the class differences between the different departments too – eg how brand and status-conscious the managers of the electrics – and kitchenwares were. “Oh – that’s Denby dinnerware – it’s expensive so don’t break it!” and I was like “What’s Denby?” You felt like you were constantly being watched. At the back, it was different. Julie’s warehouse, Julie’s rules. In one sense our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. I was brought up to be almost oppressively middle class. I didn’t swear, she would swear. I wouldn’t answer back to people or stand up for myself, she would answer back. Always.

The first thing you noticed was Radio 1 being played, and the sun shining through the huge open back doors, with trains going past every so often. They were overplaying Alright by Supergrass at that time. A very different atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong – she ensured we all got the work done. The difference between her operation and the ones out front was trust. Everyone in the warehouse trusted her, all the delivery drivers trusted her, even the front-of-house customer service staff trusted her.

The Co-operative movement in Cambridge today.

Although the food retailing operation has a fairly high profile in Cambridge as far as the smaller convenience food stores go, I don’t get the sense of a co-operative movement in the way that there was in the interwar years. Much of this is due to the changing nature of our economy – with more extended supply chains and ‘just in time’ delivery bringing goods from all over the world. Compare this with very local co-op dairies supplying local stores and even local schools at a time local campaigners were campaigning for free milk for all young school children as a means of combating malnutrition. I get the sense from Henry Brown’s book that it was the trading relationships that also underpinned the social relationships.

In 1995 I never got the sense that all of the staff were part of this greater co-operative movement. Rather they were no different to the wage earners at Sainsbury’s at the other end of Coldham’s Lane as you head towards Cherry Hinton in Cambridge. One of the other things I never noticed in Cambridge growing up was the presence of the co-op as a political movement as it was in Clara Rackham’s day. Perhaps in part this is due to 90-year electoral pact the political wing of the movement, the Co-op Party has had with the Labour Party. 28 MPs describe themselves as ‘Labour and Co-op Party’ MPs.

At the moment the whole business is going through something of an overhaul following the persistent problems with its banking operation. Given the existing problems within Labour, I’ve also noticed a number of the Labour & Co-op MPs have become far more active under the Co-op brand in recent times – former Cambridge student Dr Stella Creasy MP in particular. Furthermore, the women’s guild has relaunched very recently as the Co-op Women’s Network. It’ll be interesting to see if this network can replicate the work of their predecessors in rebuilding a co-operative movement in Cambridge to the prominence it once had.


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