A Social Haunting @ The National Co-operative Archives

“The archive affirms the past, present, and future; it preserves the records of the past and it embodies the promise of the present to the future” 

MANOFF, 2004, p. 11

 Geoff, Sarah, Max and myself were hosted by Gillian and Sophie at the National Co-operative Archives at Holyoake house in central Manchester. 

The National Co-operative Archive contains around 900m of ‘stuff’ relating to the Co-operative Movement. We heard about how the archive had been collected over a period of years; once based across Loughborough and Manchester until both collections were brought together at the site in Manchester in 1999. Some materials – mainly artefacts - are held at the Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum with whom the archive has a close working relationship. Since 2007, the Co-operative Heritage Trust has looked after both interests.  

Concerned about the politics and production of archives, our enquiries elicited what was in the collection and what was not. Questions of scale were important here. Much material relating to local co-operative societies may be held at county record offices. This collection at the National Co-operative Archive is, as the title indicates, mainly national in its orientation although it contains a representative sample of local material. Sophie showed us the diversity of the material – from letters to minute books relating to annual meetings, children’s magazines and other ephemera including a scrap book of co-operative packaging.

Much of the way that the archive is interrogated and presented over the years has much to do with academic fashions – a rise in an interest in gender related issues has meant that many documents related to this have been well-used. More recently, perhaps given wider economic trends, there has been an increase in the number of people who are interested in co-operative groups as a business form. This means that the collections, and the way that they are presented, is dynamic and not static.

Other questions arose on what they collect now, and it is indicated that while in the past there was much to be found; newer more ephemeral forms of communications through email and web may make it difficult for the archives to collect the same kind of information as it has in the past. Gillian, who has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the archive, dug out  a small book for the team to peruse. This was a utopian novel written for children called ‘Sunnyside: a Story of Industrial History and Cooperation’ (1922) that was published by the Co-operative Union. Though we had not time to excavate it in depth, it is clear that this might become an important item through which an understanding of how the Co-operative Movement presented its story in the past to children - future generations. 

 We have seen ( or more precisely, I have seen) dissimilarities between the Co-operative Movement case and its Barnsley counterpart. However, our visit revealed some strands that might be remarkably similar. Gillian indicated that  banners, made by Co-operative Womens’ Guilds, are held at the Rochdale Pioneer Museum. Moreover, the education of children emerged as an important strand (linked to the novel above). Not only was there education on the Co-operative Movement itself, but wider issues were also tackled: scores of books detailed the examinations that children in various schools and colleges associated with the Co-operative Movement were set: on issues from the Enclosure Movement to the Magna Carta.

There were many ways in which the Co-operative Movement made itself present in the lives of members that used the mediums available to them – films, books and magazines for all ages. Geoff recalled how the latter, particularly a series called ‘Our Circle’ that was produced long into the 1950s, seemed to echo a pre-1939 mentality rather than that of a changing Britain inching towards the swinging Sixties. For me, the forms of presentation were very similar to the Methodist missions in Britain’s central cities (minus religion, of course).  

Finally, we looked at some of the material relating to housing. This astounded me – my background is in architecture and planning. Perhaps I am showing my ignorance but I did not expect the level of detail on what I encountered with valuable stuff relating to the Co-operative society’s engagement with the garden cities and garden suburbs movement. This particular centred around the funding of such activities: the picture below shows that (someone) the economic arrangements for funding the garden suburbs were highlighted as being particular important. In an earlier blog, we encountered how the Co-operative movement did not necessarily originate in Rochdale but it was the Rochdale Pioneers who translated ideals into practical initiatives – and so this practicality seems to emanate through the archive.

And there are also documents of urban change. Pioneer Street and Equitable Street, built through the Co-operative movement, both underwent modernisation in the 1960s in a program known as ‘PieQuit’. The design of the book documenting this reveals much in the way that I have thought about this project; layered over the original declaration signed by Isaac Hoyle*.

The archive has left us with many ghostly strands, but this is something that might be best explored creatively rather than in a traditional academic sense since:

“no memory is possible outside frameworks used by people living in society to determine and retrieve their recollections.”

MAURICE HALBWACHS (Coser, 1993: p. 43) 

**I knew that I had come across this name before. When I checked back through my thesis, a Mr Isaac Hoyle appeared as one of the protagonists in the establishment of the Manchester & Salford Central Methodist Mission.


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