Whenever we think of the Co-operative Society movement, invariably the Rochdale Pioneers will be mentioned. They were established in 1844 and it is sometimes claimed that they were the first to pay a dividend on purchases… however, that isn’t true! That award goes to the rather less well-known society formed at Meltham Mills 1827.
Sadly, little, if anything, has been written about the early years of what became the Meltham Mills Provident Co-operative Trading Society Limited, but we can report on the known facts and speculate a little to fill in the gaps.
Opposite the former store once stood rows of housing known as Shady Row, likely built in the early 1800s for the workers at the Brook mills. We know that some of the early Methodists met regularly in one of the houses and, in 1827, with the financial support of Jonas Brook, a co-operative grocery store was opened.
Whilst we don’t know the exact details as to how this came about, it is worth noting that the Ordnance Survey map of this area that was compiled in the late 1840s appears to show a series of maybe 30 small allotments (highlighted in green) on the southeastern side of Shady Row. Given that Meltham Mills was so far from Meltham, perhaps the Brook family encouraged the residents of Shady Row to grow vegetables and fruit to eat? If we assume the residents got so good at growing food that they had a plentiful surplus, perhaps led to the setting up of the grocery store?
Former Mayor of Huddersfield and noted socialist Owen Balmforth wrote a history of the early of the co-operative movement in the district in 1910 and stated the one at Meltham Mills was the sixth to be established in country, and was most probably the very first in the West Riding.
From the Census returns, it seems very likely that grocer Charlotte Wadsworth was running the store by the mid-1840s and quite possibly remained in the role until her death in 1881. If so, she would have been involved with the move from Shady Row to this purpose-built store in 1862.
The Brook family remained involved with the Society and around 260 members sat down to “an excellent tea” at the dining room of the mills opposite in January 1859. Charles Brook Jnr presided and stated that in the previous 29 years of existence, the Society had paid £10,000 in profits to its members – a quite substantial amount that is perhaps the equivalent of a few million in today’s money. At the same meeting, James William Carlile (who endowed the Carlile Institute) stated that the profits in the previous year had been £400.
The 50th anniversary was celebrated in February 1877 with a “knife and fork tea” for 300 people, again held in the dining halls, but with Edward Brook presiding. The Huddersfield Chronicle reported that the society members were entertained by the Stead Family. George Stead lived on Shady Row and had raised seven of his children as musicians – his sons Edwin, Richard and Wright were prominent members of the Meltham Mills Brass Band whilst his daughter Mary was an excellent vocalist.
By the 1930s, the Meltham Mills branch had merged with the Co-operative Society in Meltham. It is believed the Society ceased trading at the store in 1969, after which it continued as a general convenience store.
One curious story about the Meltham Mills Co-operative Society is that for many years their earliest records were missing. The tale goes that one day a couple of gentlemen arrived from Lancashire asking if they could borrow the books in order to write a general history of the co-operative movement. The pair were never seen again! When one of the former store managers died in 1943, his obituary article in the Co-operative News noted the sad loss of the society’s first books. By chance, the Secretary of the Rochdale Pioneers’ Society read the obituary and it jogged his memory of a box of books which had been sent to him from Plymouth and he had placed uncatalogued in the archives. Upon checking, he realised they were the long-missing books and arranged for their return to Meltham Mills.
The area has a link to the local Suffragette movement and there is strong evidence that Dora Thewlis — the so-called “Baby Suffragette” — was born on Shady Row in May 1890. Historians have stated Dora was born in Honley, but we know both her parents and her maternal grandparents were living on Shady Row at the time. Until 1896, this area of land was just inside the southern boundary of Honley. However, in February 1895, every single household signed a petition to have the boundary redrawn so that Shady Row would be part of Meltham. Although we can’t be completely sure, it’s very likely Dora’s parents organised the petition as her father had previously attempted to get himself voted onto the Honley Local Board in order to agitate for a boundary change. Dora’s mother Eliza was a leading figure in the setting up the Huddersfield branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union.
Shady Row (highlighted in green) can be seen in this aerial photograph from 1926, by which time the rows of housing were hemmed in by the mill buildings: