Some of the founding fathers of the Co-op movement in the Moorlands, pictured at the time of the society’s jubilee in 1909.
Nowadays the cottage on Clerk Bank, Leek shows no outward sign of the place it holds in the town’s history. Yet this modest house was the setting for the birth of an organisation has played a part in the lives of local people for 150 years.
It was here in 1859, in premises formerly occupied by a tailor named Armitt, that the founding fathers of the Leek and Moorlands Industrial Provident Society – later renamed the Leek and Moorlands Co-operative Society – opened their first grocery shop.
A history of the society’s first fifty years is recorded in a special souvenir booklet printed to mark its jubilee in 1909, telling the enterprising story of those provident pioneers and illustrated with photographs of the Co-op’s Leek empire of a century ago.
The idea of a Leek and Moorlands Co-op is thought to have been first discussed amongst workmen employed by Miles Simpson. The textile manufacturer had recently moved to Leek, bringing with him employees who had been involved with a similar co-operative venture in the Middleton district of Manchester.
Twelve men were found to become the first one-pound shareholders, some putting in a shilling a week until they reached the total. These pioneers then set about decorating and furnishing the little shop on Clerk Bank and, with the help of their wives, stocked it with goods for sale.
The Clerk Bank cottage, second from left, was site of Leek’s first Co-op shop, opened in 1859, but quickly proved too small.
This shop on Overton Bank was headquarters of the local Co-op for many years. Today it's a bar.
While its founders organised themselves into a properly-run committee, the shop went from strength to strength and by the early 1860’s proved much too small for the number of customers it attracted. The pioneers decided to move across the street to premises on Overton Bank which had been in use as a grocery and provisions shop for many years.
Managed by William Horne, the shop opened only in the evenings and on Saturday afternoons, the business being run of voluntary basis until the late 1860’s when the committee started to pay themselves 3s 3d a quarter. Members of the society were issued with metal checks which they had to produce in order to draw their dividend from the shop’s “profits”. Trade was strictly cash only, although in later years, members were allowed to buy goods on a modest amount of credit and a new bookkeeping system replaced the metal checks.
Although the Overton Bank shop did not open in the daytime until 1875, its success prompted the committee to look for even larger premises and in 1880 a second grocery store was opened in Ashbourne Road (then known as London Road).
The building included a bakehouse so that the Co-op could start selling its own fresh bread, fuelling further growth in trade and expansion across the town. A Penny Bank “for the encouragement of thrift among the children of members” was opened in the Ashbourne Road building in 1880, the following year the Overton Bank shop gained a boot and shoe department, and in 1881 a grocery branch was opened at Ball Haye Green. This rapid growth saw sales nearly double from the £5,768 in 1879 to £11,886 five years later.
Expansion during the late Victorian and Edwardian era moved on apace with new branches opening in Picton Street, St Edward Street, Buxton Road and Mill Street, and the central premises in Ashbourne Road being replaced in 1899 with an impressive Sugden-designed building which still stands today.
The Picton Street grocery store was built in 1893, now the site of its modern-day successor, a Co-op Late Shop.
The Ball Haye Green was the Co-op’s first venture outside the town centre and opened in 1882.
Bound closely to Labour principles, the Co-operative movement was always more than a budding retail empire and so the Leek pioneers’ activities went beyond mere shopkeeping. It prided itself on working conditions and rates of pay, employees were encouraged to join a trade union and the society also led the way in granting shop assistants a half-day holiday. In 1896 a Women’s Guild was formed which became very active in social reform and a decade later helped start a Women Workers’ Union in the town.
As the twentieth century commenced the Co-op was set fair for its growth into a major force in the shopping with more than 2,000 members and total sales nearing £50,000 a year. The bakehouse was busier than ever – Co-op bakers being assisted by such luxuries as electric motors and lighting, and the society’s ever-growing list of goods now included coal. Bought directly from collieries, the coal was taken out by the Co-op’s own team of horse-drawn carts based in modern stables in Field Street. By 1908 the Co-op coalmen were delivering more than 70,000 sacks of coal a year.
As the decades progressed stores were to spring up in every neighbourhood as the Co-op societies became shopkeepers to the nation. But that retail revolution may never have happened in Leek if not for the enthusiasm of those pioneering founders and their little shop on Clerk Bank.
Leek and Moorlands Co-op’s central premises in Ashbourne Road, designed by Sugdens and built at a cost of £4,000 in 1899. The building was restored in 1997 by Staffordshire Housing Association and re-named Pennybank House
The Drapery and Boot Department opened in St Edward Street in 1897. It had a room set aside for boot and shoe repairs, a service transferred ten years later to one of six cottages owned by the society in Talbot Street.
Workers in the Co-op’s busy bakehouse in Ashbourne Road pictured in 1908.
A detail of the Sugden-designed Co-op headquarters on Ashbourne Road, Leek
This blog is devoted to images and recollections of Leek and the surrounding Staffordshire Moorlands from years gone by. I hope you find it interesting. If you have anything to add, please use the comment window or you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org