The demise of the once mighty Cambridge and District Co-operative Society

Battered from pillar to post in the late 20th Century, this hugely influential civic society with 83,000 members in 1990 merged itself out of existence as it folded into the national CRS Co-op after year-on-year losses throughout the 1980s and unsustainable debts

The fate of the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society has fascinated me for years. It was one of the most prominent civic societies in modern Cambridge’s history, with something like 20% of the town having become members by the middle of the interwar period. So how did such a huge institution seemingly vanish from thin air? Mike Petty MBE scanned and digitised this article from 25 April 1990 that explains the immediate crisis that the society faced.

Above – ‘vote to merge with the national Co-op, or lose everything’

Author and librarian Mary Burgess of the Cambridgeshire Collection told me that the society invested everything in the Beehive Centre, over-extended itself, and lost everything. That, in a nutshell is what happened.

There’s a Ph.D thesis waiting to be written about the founding, growth, peak, demise, and legacy of the Cambridge and District Co-operative Society. Just not by me – I don’t have what it takes to research and produce a work of that level of scholarship!

The wider Co-operative movement faced a whole series of challenges after the war – in particular throughout the process of deindustrialisation and changes to patterns of urban design and city planning. What happened in Cambridge was a microcosm of what was happening across the country. At the same time, the society’s executives made some extremely unfortunate calls when it came to adapting to the world of the supermarket and out-of-town shopping centres. Finally, the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies – in particular the persistently high interest rates of the late 1980s – made the debts run up by the society unsustainable.

Selling off the family silver to fund the White Elephant

Again from Mike Petty, from 1980 when the society sold off its grand HQ on Burleigh Street.

It was one of the finest local examples of Victorian retail architecture – added to by an interwar era extension. One of the best colour photos of the late Victorian HQ is this one from the Cambridge 2000 website below

The Cambridge 2000 website is full of photos of Cambridge from the Millennium.

It’s easy to overlook that the the Cambridge and District Co-operative Society wasn’t just a retail discount club. It was a society in the real sense of the term, the institution giving out grants to local charities and good causes, and hosting parties, feasts, dinners and social events – along with political meetings, in its upstairs hall.

Above – 60 years of the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society – 02 May 1928 from the Cambridgeshire Collection. The caption states that each of the members had been so for at least 40 years each. An incredible collective achievement.

Chris Elliott, formerly the Chief Reporter for the Cambridge News, dug up a photo of the Co-op from the other end of Burleigh Street.

Above – from Chris Elliott CEN 2016 here. The photograph dates from 1964, when you could still drive down the long-since pedestrianised Burleigh Street.

Why the move to the Beehive Centre?

That’s why someone needs to do a big research project!

We can make some informed guesses without having seen the documents or read the newspapers from the time. Put simply, it was the rise of the motor car. The extended struggle between local councils unsure of who had powers for what, landowners, investors, and local residents meant that planning blight hit The Kite – where Burleigh Street is located, badly. Roy Hammans’ photo set pre-dating the Grafton Centre has an almost other-world feel to it, showing how badly this part of Cambridge suffered at the time.

That part of town did not have a large multi-storey car park. Bizarrely the council covered New Square with asphalt to turn it into a car park – returned to grass when The Grafton opened. There was also a patch of wasteland round the back of the Tram Depot that also served as a car park – a pattern repeated across 1960s Cambridge as old buildings were simply flattened to make way for much-wanted car parking space. Lion Yard Car Park, Park Street Car Park, Queen Anne Terrace, and The Grafton Centre’s car parks were all built to meet what turned out to be an insatiable demand.

In principle it seemed to make sense – a very large employer next door (PYE had a factory/assembly plant off Coldham’s Lane). There was enough car parking space on site as well. But PYE was in a long term decline in the face of foreign competition. The post-war era, in particular after the 1960s, was one where many large employers struggled in the face of industrial unrest, political turmoil, and economic policies that in the years after the Millennium sound like they are from another era. Price controls, wage restraint policies, and large state-owned corporations. We may find that as we emerge collectively from the Covid19 pandemic and come face-to-face with post-Brexit and the climate crisis, we will move into a new era where the post-Millennium pre-CV19 economic policies look just as out-dated.

When you look at the supermarkets that have been built subsequently – ultimately out-competing the co-operative group, they located in geographically stronger places for the convenience of the motor car.

Above – Central/East Cambridge on G-Maps – you can explore the map here

Asda took over the old Co-op Supermarket a couple of decades ago. At the bottom-right of the screen you can see Sainsbury’s, which was built on the old Atlas Cement/Stone site in the late 1960s. That store benefited from being easier to get to by much of East Cambridge – until Tesco went and built new supermarkets, first at Fulbourn, and then on the site of the old gas works on Newmarket Road. That was a time when lots of new homes were being built in the wards Coleridge, Queen Edith’s, and Cherry Hinton.

It was the opposite for the Beehive Centre where slum clearances off East Road, planning blight in The Kite, and the closure of the industrial sites along Newmarket Road along with more slum clearances, meant that the Co-op’s market population was fluctuating at best. Furthermore, the narrow bridge of Coldham’s Lane was not pleasant to walk or cycle over from East Cambridge. In the summer of 1995 I did 2 weeks work experience while at secondary school. Cycling there wasn’t fun. Hemmed in by the railway line to its eastern side, the decades-long wait for the Coral Park trading estate to open following the closure of the brickworks in the early 1970s, and with longer traffic jams to get through down Coldham’s Lane to get to the Beehive Centre, time-strapped families inevitably chose the convenience of one of the other supermarkets. You could say the long term failure of the local councils to come up with alternatives such as bridges over the railway line linking the supermarket to Romsey Town, or the Chisholm Trail cycle route – due for completion this year – was a contributing factor to the failure of the Co-op at the Beehive Centre.

The recessions of the 1980s and the prolonged high interest rates in the face of a succession of annual losses

Despite attempts to invest and re-invest in the Beehive site, seven years of annual losses meant that the society’s debts became so high that they could no longer sustain themselves. Even worse, the UK interest rates were so high that the losses were compounded.

Above – the UK Base Rate from Economics Help.

Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies hit the Cambridge & District Co-op Society.

The standard explanation we were taught at university – and for A-level economics in the mid-late 1990s was that the Conservatives raised the interest rates in the early 1980s in order to try and get inflation under control. The cost was 3million unemployed. It was one of the factors we were told that broke the industrial trade union movement as large labour-intensive employers closed down, and trade union membership declined in number as did the institutions in members subscriptions. The high interest rates – in those days set by the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (one of the first policy changes from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on day 1 of taking over in Downing Street). That economic recession hit Cambridge badly as well. You only have to browse through the newspaper cuttings Mike Petty has scanned (see his index here) to get a feel for 1980s Cambridge – which was a very different place to what it is today. That was the Cambridge of my primary school childhood.

In the latter part of the 1980s, after Thatcher signed the UK up to the Single European Act 1986, and furthermore brought the UK into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in preparation for further economic and monetary integration. This meant Sterling being pegged to the German Mark. With Sterling entering at an over-valued level (due in part to the domestic economic boom), it meant that UK interest rates had to be that little bit higher than the German interest rate. Then the Berlin Wall fell and reunification happened. The result was a *huge* cost of overhauling the old East German economy. To borrow the funds needed, Germany needed to increase its interest rates – which it did. The knock-on effect was for the UK to have to do the same. You can see the rise in the graph above in the late 1980s with the rate going from just above 8% to 15%. Today, the rate is 0.1%. The UK economy did not need such excruciatingly high interest rates. Quite the opposite. But to stay in the ERM, the Conservatives persisted. The result was a recession in the early 1990s.

Demand from shoppers not high enough to stem the losses, record high interest rates compounding the cost of the losses, no wonder after seven years of annual losses in a row the society was left with little choice

The Co-operative Supermarket remained on the Beehive Centre site until a national policy change in the late 1990s from the Co-operative Group. This resulted in them focusing on convenience stores and closing all of their supermarkets at a time of huge consolidation in the supermarket sector. Asda took over the supermarket building – which had only been built by the Co-op a few years before.

“What’s left today?”

Following the near implosion of the group due to its exposure to the Co-op Bank, it brought in a very talented digital team to overhaul its online presence in a two year programme led by Mike Bracken who moved there having previously been with the Government Digital Service where he achieved incredible things. The result was a much more professional online presence, and a much more streamlined method of members earning discounts while at the same time being able to select and donate to local charities. In Cambridge at least, the Co-op is one of the most prominent brands as far as convenience stores go. How in South Cambridge they’ve managed to avoid eating into each other’s market share is still something that puzzles me – Coleridge Ward effectively having three separate stores. But so long as Cambridge’s economy can recover from the pandemic, and people still choose to live and work here, chances are the Co-op will still be here with us as well.

Now…to fact-check my recollections of economics and national political history!


2 thoughts on “The demise of the once mighty Cambridge and District Co-operative Society

  1. When Asda opened on the Beehive site, I think it was in a new building – they had first demolished the Co-op building which I seem to remember having two floors.

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