East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food

Don’t forget the number – get your divi…

One of the comments on my previous blog set me thinking about the Co-op – and yes, I can still recite my mother’s ‘divi’ number (97790)…

Co-operative societies were an important source of food for working class families from the 1840s, when the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society first established a successful retail co-operative. They have their own museum (see http://museum.co-op.ac.uk/) - but the local Co-op also features in a new exhibition at Long Buckby Museum (see www.longbuckbymuseum.co.uk/). I’m sure there must be others in the East Midlands – let me know.

Long Buckby was the first co-operative society to be established in Northamptonshire, perhaps not surprisingly as the local shoemakers had a tradition of radical politics. Still earlier, the Derby Co-operative Provident Society was founded in 1850 by twelve working men with capital of just £2, and others followed in the 1860s: Leicester, Northampton, Ripley and Ruddington (1860), Lincoln and Hinckley & District (1861), Nottingham and Desborough (1863), and Mansfield and Hucknall (1864), Kettering (1866) and Long Eaton (1868). There is a Jubilee Souvenir of the Desborough Society (published in 1913) online at http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924092618549.

By buying in bulk, the Co-ops were able to provide food at lower prices than commercial traders, though they often met with local opposition. In its early years wholesalers refused to supply the Leicester Co-operative Society after other customers threatened to take their business elsewhere. The formation of a national co-operative wholesale society in 1863 helped to solve this sort of problem, and by 1866 the Leicester society had opened its first branch store. This was followed soon after by two bakehouses, making it more independent and still more economical. Other Co-ops set up piggeries and poultry farms, butchery departments, dairies and fishmongers to supply food to their customers – in truly vast quantities!

The Diamond Jubilee history of the Kettering Industrial Co-operative Society in 1926 gave details of the quantities it sold in an average week, including 924 pounds of biscuits, 6,480 pounds of butter, 4,480 pounds of cheese, 11,080 pounds of bacon and ham, 5,600 pounds of lard, 44,800 pounds of sugar and 2,851 pounds of tea. In 1925 the Society had also baked 1,634,268 loaves of bread (31,428 a week) and used 11,299 sacks of flour weighing 280 pounds each. These were the staple items of a working class diet at the time, but the quality of the food – pure and unadulterated, as Co-op adverts often said – was also important. 

It wasn’t unusual in the 19th century for food to be adulterated, or poisonous chemicals added to ‘improve’ its appearance: for bakers to add chalk to their flour to make whiter bread, for instance, or potatoes to give it more bulk; for milk to be diluted with water; or for a copper solution to be added to soaked peas to make them look greener. As well as protecting their customers against such practices, the Co-operative Societies also paid any profits back to them in the form of a ‘dividend’ on purchases – which was why remembering your Co-op number was so important. This had to be given every time you bought something from the Co-op, so as a child ‘they used to drill it into you. “Don’t forget the number”, get your divi…’ (C. Brown, Leicester Voices, Tempus Publishing, 2002, p113).

By 1935 sales by the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) to local co-ops amounted to £90 million, and it was operating 120 factories to produce a great range of food and other goods. However, as the CWS noted in a souvenir guide for children for the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary in 1935, co-operation was not just about cheap and pure food: ‘your society cares for other things besides trading. You have an education committee… Very likely your society has men’s and women’s guilds, and you belong to a junior class… It is very delightful for us to know that in buying such delicious things as C.W.S. sweets, jellies, biscuits, jams, chocolates etc., we are not only getting the best of value for our money and adding to our dividend, but are at the same time… building happiness for homes like our own through increasing co-operative employment’.   


Leave a Reply

The name field is required. Please ensure you fill in this section

The email field is required but will not be shown on the website. Please ensure you fill in this section

The email field is required but will not be shown on the website. Please ensure you fill in this section

The email field is required but will not be shown on the website. Please ensure you fill in this section

Post Comment

About this Sponsor

A research project that looked at various aspects of food in the East Midlands, linking them with museum displays and objects in the region, and making the results available to as many people as possible in different formats.