Chester Co-operative Society

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The 1906 Co-op building in Walker Street, Hoole which included a grocer, a butcher, and a shoe and clothing store on the upper floor.

The Co-op Group traces its origins in the co-operative consumer societies started by the "Rochdale Pioneers". On 21 December 1844 the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened a store selling "pure food at fair prices and honest weights and measures". Historically, members' sales would be recorded in ledgers in society's stores and at the end of the collection period a proportional payment would be made to the member. As the societies grew, and the number of members increased, the method of using ledgers became cumbersome. As a solution, some societies, including Co-operative Retail Services, issued stamps to members for qualifying transactions. Members collected stamps on a savings card and, when the card was complete, would use it as payment for goods or deposit into their share account. Thomas Hughes, best known for his novel Tom Brown’s School Days, and later resident of Chester, was actively involved in the early movement but resigned in 1882 when he became a County Court judge at Chester.

Early Chester Co-op's

There appears to have been co-operative association activity in Chester as early as 1830, when the "the Chester society commenced a shoemaking business", spending £20 on stock and providing "constant work for six members". At this time the footwear trade was becomming more concentrated in specialist towns like Stafford, Northampton, and Leicester, and mechanized factory production progressively eliminated hand-work, so shoemaking as domestic outwork had declined in Chester from a significant industry. A "Chester Cooperative Chronicle and Magazine for the Working Classes" was in existence in the same year. As recorded in the "Co-operative Miscellany" (January 1830):

  • "We have seen a little work entitled The Chester Co operative Chronicle and Magazine for the Working Classes price one penny. We are glad to see our Chester friends assisting in diffusing a knowledge of those principles they seem so well to understand and at the same time have given us a fair sample of their capability of putting into practice. We wish them every success and urge them to persevere."

Interestingly, Chester was also the publishing place of "The Anti-Socialist Gazette and Christian Advocate" (October 1841-May 1842). Also in 1830 "a cooperative society existed then in Chester, consisting of seventeen members, who were making arrangements to supply all the co-operative societies in the kingdom with prime cheese at low prices" and we are informed that "some of the leading men of the city of Chester attended a lecture delivered by Mr. William Pare on the 17th of March 1830 .. The Chester men seemed desirous of getting at the bottom of the subject, for they put questions to Mr. Pare which caused his lecture to extend over four hours.".

If fact, many other co-operative ventures in the United Kingdom had been tried prior to the Rochdale Pioneers. Some were successful, but most were not and people began to look the Rochdale Pioneers for inspiration about how to run a successful co-operative society. Many adopted the Pioneers’ values and principles and started adapting their Rules for their own societies.

Chartist Riots

These were interesting political times in Chester and elsewhere (see Charters). As noted by Friedrich Engels, in the first half of the 19th century, the real wage stagnated while output per worker expanded. The profit rate doubled and the share of profits in national income expanded at the expense of labour and land. The surge in inequality was intrinsic to the growth process: technical change increased the demand for capital and raised the profit rate and capital's share. The rise in profits, in turn, sustained the industrial revolution by financing the necessary capital accumulation.

After the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property, the political leaders of the working class made speeches claiming that there had been a great act of betrayal. This sense that the working class had been betrayed by the middle class was strengthened by the actions of the Whig governments of the 1830s. Notably, the hated new Poor Law Amendment was passed in 1834, depriving working people of outdoor relief and driving the poor into the Workhouse. It was the massive wave of opposition to this measure in the north of England in the late 1830s that gave Chartism the numbers that made it a mass movement. In 1839 the state of the country was unsettled and there was much talk of possible riots by the Chartists - and possibly even an attack on Chester Castle. The Castle was next to Chester Gaol, where Chartists were held (as in the Chartist song "Chester Gaol"). General Sir Charles Napier wrote to Chester as follows:

  • Major Bayly, August 10th.—I attach little credit to the threatened attack on Chester Castle, yet be prepared. You must urge the town magistrates to swear in special constables and arm the pensioners; the gentlemen of the city may arm themselves also. Be most careful of the castle and cautious how you weaken your garrison in case of danger. Colonel Wemyss has orders if armed insurgents move from Hyde towards Chester to have them pursued by as strong a body of cavalry as he can spare.

By April 1840 General Sir Charles James Napier was moved to Chester from Nottingham with a force of cavalty and troops to quell potential riots. By 1840 Chester's older and wider trade connexions had withered and it had been forced into a diminished role servicing the local region. During this period a possibly deeply corrupt City administation continued to benefit from the Owen Jones charity. Modest new industries had appeared in the leadworks, steam milling, and ironfounding (see Industrial Revolution), but the heavy reliance on providing services for the hinterland implied a dependence on its fortunes and the need for improved transport connexions. From 1840 the railways provided the means by which that could be achieved and the prosperity brought by the railways may have done much to avert any Chartist threat.

The Co-op building in Black Diamond Street (part of the "Coal Exchange").

The Chester Co-operative Society was founded in 1884 and opened a grocery in Black Diamond Street (in an area of "Railway Housing") in 1884. The premises were located towards the north end of the "Coal Exchange" building (built in the 1850's) and can just be seen on old photographs from as recently as the 1970's. It also moved into the city centre in the 1890s, and by 1905 the Foregate Street premises had developed into a large department store. It's success depended in part on the Co-operative Wholesale Society (formed 1863) ownership of factories producing goods for member societies, and it managed to prosper despite the generally depressed economy period between 1873 and the 1890s.

The Chester MP with an interest in boots and corsets

H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925) is best known as the successful writer of adventure stories with exotic backgrounds such as King Solomon's Mines and She. However, he also served on a number of royal commissions, and in managing his wife's Norfolk estate became a recognised expert on agricultural matters. "Rural England", published in 1902 and reissued in 1906, was the product of his travels around England and Wales writing articles for the Daily Express. They show a picture of agriculture in poor condition, and suggest reforms which would improve matters. He favoured co-operative societies such as were found in Denmark, an increase in the number of smallholdings, and a national forestry commission. Haggard explains at some length how Chester MP Robert Yerbergh (17 January 1853 – 18 December 1916) elected to the House of Commons for Chester in 1886, a seat he held until 1906 and again from 1910 to 1916 - was active (around 1895) in promoting a Co-operative Bank for agricultural loans. The modern day Co-op Bank was formed in 1872 as the Loan and Deposit Department of the Co-operative Wholesale Society, becoming the CWS Bank four years later. As reported in the Chester Courant (26th January 1907), Yerbergh's views (having visited various boot and corset factories in Leicester) seem pro Co-Op:

  • "Workingmen who are interested in the friendly society movement and in thrift problems generally will read with deep interest Mr. Yerburgh's pregnant speech on the subjeot of "Friendly Societies and Co-operative Credit", to the members of the Hearts of Oak Benefit Society, on Wednesday evening. In his speech at the Music Hall also, Mr. Yerburgh touched on the question of co-operative produotion. His views with regard to tho workers themselves being the owners of industries in which they are engaged may be seen in practical application in various industries in Leicester, such as boot factories and corset factories, and, we believe, in some cotton mills of Lancashire."

But he is clearly no Socialist:

  • "Mr. Yerburgh uttered a warning against another grave national peril, the peril of the spread of Socialism, and shewed how the industrial classes of this country will be affected by that undesirable development. If it is true, as many thinking observers helieve, that the next great struggle in this country will be between the forces of Capital and Labour, let not the working men fancy that they have no stake in the contest. As Mr Yerburgh pointed out, the capital held by the working-classes in industrial and provident societies represents the enormous figure of more than four hundred millions of money. This sum represents the thrift of the wage-earning classes, and, be it noted, it is capital, against which the Socialists have declared war. When the property of the wealthy man is attacked by the cupidity of the Socialists, this tempting sum of four hundred millions, the property of the working-classes, will not escape. Workingmen, therefore, who have a stake in any of the friendly and provident societies had better bo forewarned against the pitfall into which their Socialist friends would lead them. When war against capital is declared, the artisan who has an interest in a provident society to which in his prudence and wisdom he has contributed, will find that little nest-egg as directly endangered as the millionaire's hoard."
The Chester Cooperative Society department store, now a range of shops, has a distinctive coupola and domed "lantern" on the corner of Love Street.


  • The premises in the "Coal Exchange", Black Diamond Street was a grocery.
  • 73-75 Brook Street.
  • 78-94 Foregate Street was originally the Chester Co-operative Society department store, and built 1904-5, by Douglas and Minshull. As this was not in any of John Douglas's normal Vernacular Revival styles with many flourishes, the design "shocked" the City Council Improvement Committee ("CCIC"); the addition of the partial leaded glazing on the upper floor windows was the price paid for CCIC approval.
  • In 1927, a dairy was designed for a location in Brook Lane for Chester Co-operative Society Ltd by Douglas, Minshull & Muspratt (Douglas had died in 1911). The milk for the dairy was in part supplied by Ben Roberts. The dairy was "on the left just before the road started to climb on the approach the bridge".
  • New offices for Chester Co-operative Society were approved in Brook Lane in 1939.

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