The workers who ran their own mill — the first productive co-operative society

A transcript about co-operative pioneers of Hebden Bridge was found on the site of Prezi, a cloud-based presentation software and storytelling tool for presenting ideas on a virtual canvas. Summary with added pictures below.

Hebden Bridge corduroyHebden Bridge (below) in the West Riding of Yorkshire was famous for fustian manufacture. Fustian (heavy-duty cotton cloth including whipcord, corduroy and moleskin), was the denim of its day: agricultural labourers wore it to go to work, as did miners and factory workers.

In September 1870, the sudden death of a fellow workman, an elderly Irish man who suffered a heart attack at work from carrying heavy cloth, spurred Joseph Greenwood and a small group of friends to try to change the way they worked: to try to work as a co-operative. The Irishman who had died had no savings, and had been forced to continue labouring into his old age to earn his living. “It is a disgrace to society when the old and infirm cannot have the means to live in comfort after a life spent in toil,”Joseph Greenwood wrote.

Shortly after the tragic death of the elderly Irishman, the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative Society was formally incorporated. Joseph Greenwood was its secretary. It was to become one of the most celebrated productive co-operatives of its time. Despite the early challenges, the society made a trading profit every year it operated.

Hebden BridgeAfter three years, in 1873, the decision was taken to buy what had been a water-powered mill built at the end of the 18C. With Nutclough Mill came an estate containing two reservoirs, ideal for providing the water necessary for the steam engine which drove the equipment. The purchase and fitting out of the Nutclough Mill cost £7,000- £8,000 (equivalent to perhaps £600,000 in today’s money), much of it provided by a loan from the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS). The CWS’s loan was repaid four years later.

Hebden Bridge Nutclough MillFrom then on the co-operative had the capacity to undertake its own dyeing of cloth. In 1873, the co-operative employed 36 women machinists and 18 male cutters and dyers. Greenwood and the other members had realised they would sell more goods if they produced ready-made clothing rather than just cloth. They also realised they would have to accept capital from outsiders. The move into clothing production proved very successful. But the co-operative was no longer just made up of fustian cutters, for women sewing machinists now also made their living from the business. There were more women employed than men – a significant change.

A stream of visitors from Britain and from overseas made their way to the co-operative’s Nutclough Mill to examine at first hand this venture in what Joseph Greenwood called ‘worker self-employment’.

Private individuals had invested over a thousand pounds in the business by June 1872, and almost £5,000 by the end of 1876. Some were friends of the co-operative movement but others just wanted a high return on their money. For two years, investors received 10%-12½% returns; thereafter the rate was standardised at 7½%. Co-operative  stores also increasingly invested in the business, putting in over £4,000 by 1875. They too wanted a good return. It meant that the profits of the business were no longer exclusively for the benefit of the workers. The necessary capital had been found – but at a cost. A compromise had been necessary.

By 1902, the Fustian Society had grown to the point where it had about 340 workers and continued to make healthy profits throughout the war years. In 1918, following an approach from the Co-operative Wholesale Society, they agreed to propose to members that the business be sold.

Nutclough Mill passed to the CWS’ ownership in August 1918. The CWS expanded its operations in Hebden Bridge by buying a neighbouring mill and continued to be a major employer in the town for fifty years. When Nutclough Mill was eventually closed in 1968, co-operative production had been an important feature of the Hebden Bridge economy for almost exactly a century.

Hebden Bridge JG 4th left 2nd row

The questions wrestled with by Joseph Greenwood (2nd row, 4th from left) and his friends remain relevant today.

  • What is a fair reward for investors in a co-operative?
  • What governance arrangements work best?
  • How do you create multi-stakeholder structures in a co-operative?

And how can workers’ co-operatives survive in a commercial world whilst staying true to their co-operative principles?

Read the full transcript here:

This entry was posted in Co-operative movement, Democratic participation, Education, Employee ownership, Problems, Worker co-operatives and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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