|A Dysfunctional Federation: The Co-operative Wholesale Society and the Internal Politics of Distribution in the 19th Century British Co-operative Movement|
|When the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was established in 1863, a major experiment in the application of co-operative principles was launched. Building on the model established by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, consumer co-operative societies sprang up across the UK, particularly in the north of England. However, many ran into problems of supply, as some private wholesalers viewed the new entry into retailing with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. The CWS was founded to provide a co-operative solution to this problem, creating a new kind of business organisation to supply societies with food and household goods. While co-operative societies were inherently local institutions owned collectively by individual members, the CWS intended to be a national organisation from its earliest days. In essence, the CWS was a ‘co-operative of co-operatives’ – a federal organisation whose members were the local co-operative societies spread across Britain.
From small beginnings the CWS grew exceptionally quickly, developing an extensive distribution network of depots and salerooms across the UK, establishing buying operations in Europe and America, and moving into the manufacture of food and household goods from the 1870s. By the turn of the 20th century, it had become one of the largest and most successful businesses in the UK. Yet from its inception, there were tensions between local societies and CWS leaders over the Wholesale’s proper role in the movement. For the leaders of CWS, its goal was to become the principal, and preferably the sole, supplier to retail societies. On the other hand, many local societies saw the CWS as one supplier among many, and one which had to be competitive in price and quality. For them, CWS was important principally because it offered an alternative to their other wholesalers should they prove too demanding in price, or choose to fall in with anti-co-operative movements. This issue remained a bone of contention well into the movement’s second century, hampering its ability to make effective use of its collective purchasing power and fostering internal political divisions. This paper analyses the origins and consequences of the ‘dysfunctional federation’, and offers important historical context to other panelists’ discussions of co-operative consumption in the 20th century.|