Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society - Times Past

Posted on 17 August 2022
Black and white photo of people in white uniforms working on a production line with large machinery overhead.

In partnership with the Glasgow Times, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Michael Gallagher writes about the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society.

Few institutions have had as much influence on the lives of ordinary Glaswegians as the Co-op. Generations have been raised on its groceries or worked in its stores and factories. Many can still recite the hallowed dividend number, or “divi”, by heart.

The idea behind the co-operative movement was both simple and revolutionary: that enterprise should run for the benefit of its customers (or members) and that those members should have a say in its running.

As the movement grew in the 19th century, Glasgow was at the forefront. Many individual co-operative societies existed across the country but, there was little co-operation between them. Scottish societies sought to address this and held a meeting at Bell’s Hotel, Trongate, in 1864 at which discussed a wholesaling venture. “The Glasgow Society was the prime mover in the scheme”, noted the Chairman.

The Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society (SCWS) was founded in 1868 and based at 15 Madeira Court, Argyle Street, a site on which Central Station now stands. Its original aim was to buy or make goods for wholesale supply to the many local co-operative societies, thus acting as both manufacturer and retailer. The members would control the whole process and benefit from cheaper costs and greater efficiency.

In the 1880s, the SCWS began to set up manufacturing enterprises with clothing, domestic cleaning products and pharmaceuticals. It built a vast factory complex at Shieldhall which produced a range of items, from food to furniture. Shieldhall even made a decisive contribution to the Second World War, producing the “Flying Dustbin” mortar shells that were used to devastating effect by the Allies during the Normandy landings.

The SCWS fast outgrew its original headquarters and in 1897 opened an elaborate new flagship office at 95 Morrison Street which still stands today, next to the Kingston Bridge. It expanded its operations and moved into service industries such as hotels, banking and funeral services. The Funeral Undertaking Department was at one time responsible for almost three-quarters of all funerals in Scotland and underlined the Co-op’s role in all aspects of life, from the cradle to the grave.

The organisation played an important role in the lives of many ordinary women, not only in running a household (a task which fell overwhelmingly to women) but also for educational opportunities and the platform to campaign for political and social issues, via Co-operative Women’s Guilds. Glasgow’s first branch was formed in Kinning Park in 1890 and by 1923 there were 283 Guilds across the country, involving women in the organisation’s decision making. Members played prominent roles in the women’s suffrage movement and the rent strikes in 1915.

Glasgow was a bastion of the co-operative movement which, according to the International Co-operative Alliance, today boasts an estimated 1 billion members worldwide. The City Archives holds a rich collection of SCWS records which tells the story of this fascinating and important organisation.