Published by EH.Net (May 2014)

John F. Wilson, Anthony Webster and Rachael Vorberg-Rugh, Building Co-operation: A Business History of The Co-operative Group, 1863-2013. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. xv + 440 pp. £30/$45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-965511-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Martin Purvis, School of Geography, University of Leeds.

The recent troubles of the Co-operative Group increase the interest of a welcome history of the Group and its predecessor, the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS). As the first comprehensive study of the CWS published since 1938, this handsomely-produced volume is an important contribution to the recent revival of academic interest in co-operation. But as an account of one of Britain’s largest and most distinctive economic institutions, the book is of wider relevance to business historians, and others interested in the economic, social and political development of modern Britain.

The book begins with a review of existing literature on the British co-operative movement and a reminder of the varied paths of co-operative development from the eighteenth century onwards. The latter is useful in putting the familiar story of the Rochdale Pioneers into context, and in highlighting early attempts to reinforce co-operative retailing with wholesale distribution. The remainder of the book is strictly chronological in structure, detailing the 150-year history of the family of co-operative organizations which began with the foundation of the North of England Co-operative Wholesale Society in 1863. The first four chapters focus on the foundation and expansion of the CWS from the 1860s to 1930s. In common with the rest of the book, this narrative benefits from unrivalled access to archival material in its account of the development of a business which grew from a regional wholesaling operation for north-west England to a major national and international enterprise. On the way it developed not only depots and warehouses across England and Wales, but also factories and farms producing a growing range of consumer requirements, including foodstuffs, clothing and furniture. Aspirations to protect British consumers from exploitation and to encourage co-operative development overseas led to direct CWS involvement in international trade and production, including ownership of tea plantations in India and Sri Lanka.

The authors argue that successful expansion of the wholesale society’s operations, which also included banking and insurance interests, gives the lie to previous criticism of co-operative managerial methods as inferior to those of private business. Their account is, however, honest in acknowledging the sometimes tense relations between the CWS and the retail societies that were its customers and its collective owners. The potential frustrations created by co-operative structures of governance is a theme which has contemporary resonances and comes to dominate the second part of the book which explores the challenges that the CWS, and co-operation in general, have faced in responding to societal and commercial change since the Second World War. As the account here explores, this period has seen co-operation face a sustained increase in commercial competition and periods of particular difficulty, including the attempted hostile take-over of the CWS. In response the CWS has been at the heart of efforts to consolidate co-operative wholesaling and retailing to create individually more viable units, and to reinterpret the movement’s ethics in ways that will resonate with twenty-first-century consumers.

The book was written before the Co-operative Group hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, indeed its discussion of a recent co-operative renaissance may sound more optimistic than many now feel. But the chapters dealing with the evolution of the CWS since the 1960s and the series of mergers with retail co-operatives which created the Co-operative Group contain some valuable evidence of the flaws and fissures which have long weakened the co-operative movement. Drawing on both archival material and interviews with senior co-operative figures the book shows the difficulties faced when attempting to reconcile democratic decision-making by the membership with the radical changes in operational practice and managerial structures necessary to adapt to a changing business climate.

There is a danger, however, that in attending to co-operative managerial structures, reform plans and the personalities involved the latter chapters of this book do not pay as much attention to the actual trade of the CWS as some readers will expect. Indeed, throughout the book I would have liked to have known more about the wholesale society’s operations as a business. What exactly did it sell and to which retail societies? What were the most and least profitable elements of its business? How did it develop new products? How justified were criticisms of the quality and design of some of its products? What did post-war efforts to modernize co-operative production entail in practice? What happened to its overseas depots and tea plantations? Further questions are prompted by the book’s use of illustrations. All are well-chosen and nicely reproduced, but they stand somewhat in isolation from the text. Greater use might have been made of these illustrations to enrich discussion of, for example, the wholesale society’s activities as an advertiser, including pioneering use of promotional films; and its role during the mid-twentieth century in the design and construction of distinctively modern stores.

Arguably, too, the book’s detail can sometimes become too dense. Plentiful evidence is provided to support the book’s claim to explore the distinctive qualities of co-operative trading. The account is suitably balanced in acknowledging that the ‘co-operative difference’ is positive in its benefits for members, democracy and espousal of ethical good practice; but also problematic in the barriers sometimes placed in the path of reform by dysfunctional governance systems. A narrative account does, of course, reveal just how often co-operators have wrestled with substantially the same difficulties over recent decades. But the detail can sometimes get in the way of the reader’s understanding of the underlying issues. A more reflective, analytical tone is struck by the concluding chapter on the evolution of the co-operative business model; I would have welcomed more in this vein throughout the book as a whole. But it would be unfair to conclude on a negative comment; a book that leaves you wanting more has done a good job. It also highlights the availability of a substantial body of records held by the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester which will repay the continuing attention of researchers interested not just in business history, but in social, cultural and political life in Britain and elsewhere over the past two centuries.

Martin Purvis is currently engaged in a research project exploring the fortunes of British retailing, both private and co-operative, amid the economic changes and uncertainties of the interwar decades.

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