The First Co-operative Society: its rise and fall - The Present Co-operative Society: its rise and progress

The co-operative system of trading, which was originated by the Rochdale pioneers in 1844, as the direct result of Robert Owen's teaching, was being imitated in many parts of the country and becoming somewhat popular when public works became well established in Armadale.

The truck system of trading had been abolished, in a way, and workmen considered themselves free to purchase their goods wherever they pleased.

Monthly pays were the rule at the collieries, and each company - Buttries, Bathville, and Cappers (Shotts) - had their provision stores in which the workmen could be supplied to the extent of the wages they had earned.  But the prices were high, and the goods inferior in quality.

To improve this condition of affairs, a. number of the most industrious of the working men began to consider the co-operative system, and enrolled themselves into a society on the 7th August, 1861, for the purpose of providing themselves with goods of a superior quality at cost price, plus the working expenses.

Joseph Syson, who had come from Airdrie when the rush was on, and built a two-storey tenement of houses with two shops on the ground floor, at the foot of the Bullion Brae, now Academy Street, accommodated the society in one of his shops, and became its first secretary.  The society started in a small way, with David Irvine, from Buttries Store, as salesman.  Slowly the membership increased, until on the 27th January, 1863, the society was registered at Edinburgh by the Registrar of Friendly Societies as "The Armadale Co-operative Society," No. 3, Linlithgowshire.

From the system of monthly payment of wages at the works, few were able to pay cash for their goods as they received them, and, as all the private merchants gave credit, the co-operative society had to adopt the same lines of trading.  The consequences were that many got more credit than they were able to meet, and the salesman was discharged, and one of the members, without any experience, was elected, in the person of Neil Donald, to act as salesman.  But trade did not improve with the society.  Bad debts had a discouraging effect upon those members who were able to pay their accounts, and for a time it appeared as if the society would collapse.

Having reached the stage at which the members had under consideration whether or not they would discontinue and shut up the shop, the majority favoured continuing the struggle.  Joseph Syson resigned the secretary-ship, and Francis Barnard was elected in his stead.  John Russell, a trained grocer, was engaged as salesman, in place of Neil Donald, and the business was transferred from Syson's building to Matthew Wilson's building at the east side of the Toll.

Matthew Wilson, who had the principal licensed grocery business in the town, opposite the toll-house, at the corner of East Main Street and South Street, had no desire to accommodate the co-operative society, but the two shops he had built in his tenement were unlikely to obtain tenants, and so he reluctantly let one of them to the society.

An extra push was made to obtain members.  The co-operative society was viewed as a serious opposition to the works stores, and workmen were made to feel that their trading elsewhere was displeasing to the employers.  No marked improvement in the efforts of the society could be expected under these conditions.  As the membership rose, so did the amount of credit and the resultant debts, until 1868, when the society was forced to close its doors.

Mr Peter Miller, solicitor, Linlithgow, was engaged to wind up the business, when it was found that those who had share capital lying in the society had to suffer the loss of it to meet the liabilities.

One would have thought that the above experience would have deterred those who had suffered through the failure of the original society, but not so.

Towards the close of the year 1873, in which year the miners' wages had reached their maximum height, and private merchants were reaping a golden harvest, the public were made aware that the merchants had resolved to discontinue the practice of giving their customers presents at the New Year.  This intimation caused the subject to be discussed by the men as they met at the Toll in the evenings after their day's work was done.  The question arose: "Why should they give presents at all?"  "Either they are, or have been, giving something for which the customer has had to pay in the course of his trading, or the merchants have been giving something for nothing, and on the broad road to ruin."  From this the subject took root, and as the Thistle Lodge of Free Gardeners' Friendly Society was represented by the most industrious of the working men, the most conspicuous of its members raised an agitation to form a co-operative society.  A meeting was summoned by public announcement, and was held in the infant room of the Subscription School.  The fact that a co-operative society had been established in Bathgate some time before, and a few of the Armadale folk had joined and were in the highest praise of the goods supplied and the profits accruing from their purchases, gave a stimulus to the project.  The meeting resulted in its being agreed to institute a co-operative society, when those present promised to become members and shareholders on the understanding that the business would be conducted on strict cash lines.  The following gentlemen were then appointed to manage the affairs of the society for the first year:- Robert Love, Preses; James Henderson, vice-Preses; Walter Watson, treasurer; Alexander Mallace, secretary; directors - William Calder, John Paterson, James Hailstones, Robert Martin, jun., Newton Craig, William Strang, Alex. Leckie, and Alex. Wilson.

Rules were prepared and sent to the Registrar for his approval, and the members rented what was then known as M'DonaId's Hall in West Main Street, and commenced business in November, 1873.  On the rules being submitted to the Registrar at Edinburgh and application made to have the society registered, the Registrar objected, since the old society still remained on the roll under the same name and title as the one for which application was being made.  The secretary having satisfied him as to the demise of the former society in 1868, the new society was then registered: "Armadale Co-operative Society, Limited," No. 10, Linlithgowshire.

From the many applications received, by the Board of Directors for the position of salesman, they appointed George Tait, of Edinburgh, who, although a smart grocer, in which the members placed great faith, he early showed a weakness for strong drink.  The-first week of his engagement he was found behind the counter in such a state of intoxication as to be unfit to discharge his duties.  The knowledge of this coming to the ears of some of the Board, they visited the shop and turned him out and locked the door.  A hurried meeting of the committee was held, and the position of affairs discussed.  The flint-hearted of them took a pessimistic view of the situation, and would have shut up the shop for good and sold the stock by public auction, but the large majority took the view that difficulties came to be surmounted, and the result was that they resolved to continue, and appointed their secretary, Mr. Alex. Mallace to be also manager, and to open the shop the following morning and attend to the customers until further arrangements could be made.  Mr. Mallace took charge the next morning, and soon proved himself a very satisfactory salesman, and was requested by the committee, after a month's experience in buying and selling, to continue behind the counter, but he-stoutly refused.  The Board again advertised, and accepted Alex. Love as salesman, and in this man they were more fortunate than the first.

Mr Mallace, who was charged to keep himself always in readiness to take his place as salesman, continued to buy all goods and manage the society, and occasionally went behind the counter and assisted to serve the customers on a busy evening.

Mr Love, after a year's service, during which he gave the utmost satisfaction, left to fill a superior appointment with Skinflats Society, and a Mr. Black, from St. Rollox Co-operative Society, next became salesman for a short time, until he accepted a more lucrative position with Kilsyth Society.  The next choice of a. salesman fell upon William M'lntvre who remained with the society from 1876 till the autumn of 1885.

Business had greatly increased under Mr. Mallace's management, until in 1879 the old premises became too small.  Thomas Elder, who had a bakery business next to the store, on the east, gave up that business at that time, when the society embraced the opportunity for acquiring the bakery, and supplying their own customers.  On purchasing the property from Mr. Elder, and becoming their own proprietors, the grocery department was removed, and bakers were engaged.  Soon the society had several apprentices at the grocery trade, and as they advanced so did the membership increase.  The rule of cash sales was rigidly insisted in by Mr. Mallace, and members soon found it was to their advantage to allow their quarterly dividend to lie as share capital on which they could trade, until in the course of a decade the society was found to be in a sound and nourishing condition, with a good reserve fund and fixtures depreciated to nil.

The bakery venture was a great success, and as the members demanded the best bread, and became most critical on that point, the manager had to purchase the best material, and in order to make himself conversant with the outs and ins of the process of baking, he spent as much time as possible in the bakehouse, and assisted in the work until he was able to direct the men in that department.

The success of Armadale Co-operative Society was becoming well-known in the co-operative world, when the St. Cuthbert's Co-operative Society, Edinburgh, after vain attempts to succeed, advertised for a manager.  Mr. Mallace, the managing secretary of Armadale Society, among hundreds more, applied for the situation, when the merits of his successful management of the society of which he was one of the principal founders proved a sufficient recommendation, and he received the appointment, and severed his connection with Armadale Society, in the month of September, 1881.

In parenthesis, it may be said that Mr. Mallace, as manager of the "St. Cuthbert's Cooperative Association, Limited," has had a most distinguished career.  During the quarter of a century which he has been the guiding hand, the association has been built up from a tottering ruin to be the most gigantic co-operative concern in the country, and he has long been looked upon as an authority on co-operative management.  His semi-jubilee as manager of St. Cuthbert's was duly celebrated, when the society and employees acknowledged his services in a princely manner.

Mr James Thomson, late schoolmaster, was appointed secretary to succeed Mr. Mallace, and the foundation of the business having been well laid, continued to be conducted on the same cash lines, until again the accommodation was found to be too limited, and the society began to seriously consider the advisability of purchasing other more suitable property or building for themselves.

Mr M'lntyre, in the last quarter of 1885, was replaced by Stewart Semple as head salesman, and the following year the society purchased the property on the site of the present stores in West Main Street, from William Edwards, of the old Inn, and set to work to erect a large store and bakehouse suitable for their requirements.  Shortly after opening the new premises many of the co-operative members, believing that they were looked upon with disfavour by the private traders, agitated for the society to open a butcher-meat department with the result that a small shop was rented a short distance west from the store, and an experiment made, with James Jack as butcher.  This department proved a great success, and was soon afterwards accommodated in the main building.

Under Mr. Semple the society's business moved as it had never moved before.  The shops were kept in perfect order, and customers were waited on in a way that created the greatest pleasure to them, and soon his ability gained the confidence of the directors to such an extent that they entrusted him with the buying - a matter they had jealously held in their own hands since Mr. Mallace's departure.  Mr. Semple proved himself worthy to be at the head of a much larger concern than the Armadale Co-operative Society of that day, and the opportunity soon came.  The Musselburgh Co-operative Society, in 1890, applied for a manager, and Armadale Society's salesman was favoured for the appointment - a position he has held with conspicuous success ever since.

W.J. Clark, of Grangemouth Co-operative Store, succeeded Stewart Semple, and under Mr. Clark the society's business has made its greatest strides.  Drapery, tailoring, dressmaking, and shoemaking were added to the grocery, furniture, crockery, fleshing, and baking departments, and the buildings had to be altered and re-built several times to supply the necessary accommodation to meet the growing demand.  The whole of the feu has at last been built upon, and consists of a large store for the grocery, bread, furniture, crockery, etc., departments at the west end; a palatial drapery and boot department at the east end; with the butcher's shop and manager's office in between on either side of the large pen-close through which the back is reached.  Above are the tailors' and dressmakers' workshops, and also the shoemakers' shops, the Board-room, and the library.  Behind the main building is the baking factory, which has several times been extended, and to which a few hundred pounds' worth of up-to-date machinery was added a short time ago - this factory is again to be extended, and two more ovens added - and also the store-rooms, stables, and van-sheds.

The society was growing rich in a reserve fund, when in 1896 it was resolved to erect a tenement of dwelling-houses on the Station Road, and for that purpose they took a large feu from Mr. Wood, on Hardhill estate, immediately above the Monkland Cottage, and erected eight houses.  This tenement only occupied one-half of the feu, and the rent charged did not yield the desirable return of profit, so that a few years later a two-storey tenement was built on the upper part of the feu, comprising twenty-two houses.  The first tenement is called Gladstone Terrace, and the second Unity Terrace.

For long the society exercised a false economy by refraining to engage a manager to supervise the whole of the many separate departments that had grown in their hands, until it became evident, on the completion of the latest addition to the shop buildings in 1900, that it would be to the advantage of all concerned to have a recognised head over all, and Mr. Clark was thereupon unanimously elected manager.  In 1902, Mr. Thomson, after completing twenty-one years as secretary, resigned, and Mr. Clark was appointed managing secretary.  The society recognised Mr. Thomson's long services by entertaining him at a banquet in the Town Hall, when the building was crowded, and he received a cheque for a year's salary as a present from the members.  An opportunity was taken at the banquet by Mr. Mallace, of St Cuthbert's, Edinburgh, to review the rise and progress of the Armadale Co-operative Society, when he mentioned that Armadale Society was the richest society in Scotland in point of share capital per member.  The share capital last quarter ending 4th June, 1906, amounted to £24,630, being nearly £29 per member, and the reserve fund stood at £1385.

During the progress of the society many changes in the manner of supplying customers have taken place.  Shortly after the manufacturing of bread was introduced, they acquired a bread-van, and carried the bread to those customers residing outside of the town.  Gradually this trade grew upon them, when it was found that one van was unable to cope with the demand, and a second van had to be put on the road.  The membership soon increased beyond the limits of Armadale, until it was found necessary to put a lorry on the road to deliver general goods.  Blackridge people, on receiving such facilities, soon began to join the society, until a considerable number were on the roll, when a desire was expressed by them that the society should open a branch in Blackridge.  The subject was delayed until Benhar Co-operative Society began to make inroads in that district and proposed to open a branch.  Armadale Society was quickened on learning this, and at once set about to make inquiries about premises for a branch shop.  Between the two societies a fight took place as to who had the better right, when the case was submitted to arbitration, and Benhar won.  Armadale Society quitted the field, and devoted attention with profit to other parts.  One butcher's van soon proved inadequate, and a second one was put on the road, and the society continued to increase its sales.

At the beginning of 1904 Mr. Clark was appointed managing secretary of Bainsford and Grahamston Co-operative Society, and on his leaving Armadale was entertained by the members, and made the recipient of a silver tea set and a purse of sovereigns, as a token of the esteem by which he was held by them.

Alex. Torrance, managing secretary of Kilbirnie Co-operative Society, succeeded Mr. Clark, and under his management the business of the society still continues to increase.

Many changes in the condition of labour in the society have taken place during its history.  Wages have risen as circumstances afforded, and the hours of labour greatly reduced.  The employees in the distributive departments are allowed a half-holiday every Wednesday, and several whole days through the course of the year, in addition to a week's holiday in summer.  The employees in the productive departments, on account of their being paid by the hour, or amount of work done, are outside of the holiday arrangement.  In the bakery department the wage paid and the conditions of labour are in accordance with the rules of the Scottish Operative Bakersí Union.  An educational department is provided with funds by the society, and conducted by a special committee, who have established a library, with a large stock of choice books, and conduct classes during the winter calculated to further the success of those who embrace the educational opportunities offered.  With property valued at over £13,000, and a large and increasing reserve fund, and a membership of nearly a thousand, the society may be said to be soundly established - a circumstance entirely due to the system of cash trading, or the absence of credit beyond a member's share capital.

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