The History of The Ripley Co-operative Society

In March 1860, a group of men employed at Butterley ironworks met in the front room of Patrick Parkin’s house on Butterley Hill. It’s not clear how many of them there were: as few as 6, as many as 30, depending on which account you believe, but the original idea seems to have come from one George Atkin, a 34-year engine driver who lived on Bridle Lane.

Their aim was to set up a shop on the lines of that started by the Rochdale Pioneers 16 years earlier, where men and women paid to join a Society, which bought quality goods wholesale and sold them, and any profits went to the members in the form of a dividend. This meant cheaper, better groceries for their families, and avoided the higher prices charged by local shops and by the Butterley Company itself, although there is little evidence of the company paying men in tokens which had to be spent in the Company’s shop, as in other places.

There are 30 founding members of the Butterley Co-operative Society listed in “The Jubilee History of the Ripley Co-operative Society”, published in 1910. They were all men, all worked at Butterley and lived in the surrounding streets: Butterley Hill, Bridle Lane, Lowes Hill, Hammersmith, Chapel Terrace, Chapel Street and Alma Street.

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The first shop

It was not the first attempt: there had been at least one other which had failed. At first they collected funds, and by August 1860 they had £14, enough to buy their first goods and start selling. They used the two front rooms of Parkin’s house, (a more modern picture of which is shown  here) let free for six months. They opened on Friday and Saturday evenings from 8.00pm to 11.00pm, the members voluntarily running the shop on a rota. Only the Secretary was paid, and very little at that.

They didn’t make much money, but in the first year made enough to move up to Lowes Hill and rent premises next to the Blue Bell Inn. In June 1864, they changed the name to the Ripley Co-operative and Provident Society. They even appointed a manager, Mr Slack, at a salary of £1 per week. However, he was dismissed the following year as income fell, replaced by Mr Blount at 18s per week. By the end of 1864 there were only 24 members.

From then on, though, trade increased. By the end of 1866 there were 51 members. In 1867, they bought 2 houses belonging to Job Shaw further up Lowes Hill, taking out a mortgage to do so. One became the manager’s house, the other the shop. An assistant was employed and the opening hours extended. By 1868, the mortgage was paid off and the Society for the first time owned their own premises. They began to pay their committee, and distributed a magazine called the Co-operator, an 1866 copy of which is shown here.

They also diversified into boots and shoes. By then they could afford to have an educational fund, and to give to charity, grants for £1 1s being made to the Devonshire Hospital, Buxton and Derby Infirmary. They continued to support the Infirmary for many years.

Expansion was rapid. In 1870 they bought premises on Park Corner from Joseph Thrush for £50. Being afraid the price would be higher if it was known that the Society was the purchaser, the committee, once they had made the decision to buy, locked themselves in a room whilst two men went to make the purchase. They obviously didn’t trust everyone to keep quiet about their intentions!

Park Corner shops

They made structural alterations to the premises and it became both the provisions (i.e. grocery) and boot and shoe departments. The shops were now open until 7.00pm, and until 10.00pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

William Burgin, a committee member, later said that the committee had to “serve every Friday and Saturday night in turn. We had to weigh the flour, bran, sharps, corn etc and were paid 5d an hour. The time thus spent was from 5pm to 11pm. AND ALL THIS FOR 2s 6d! We have counted 80 people in the shop at 10pm, and so closed the doors, but as one opened the door to go out, two more slipped in, so we began to let them slip out through the back door.”

 By 1872 a bakery was established, and goods purchased from the CWS, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, as well as from local suppliers. The first branch shop opened in Codnor in 1873.

In 1874, they bought their first horse and cart, the forerunner of a whole fleet of vehicles which extended the reach of the Society into the surrounding villages. In 1876, a Childrens’ Penny Bank was established, the idea being to encourage a habit of thrift among children. By 1910 deposits amounted to over £4000, with a membership of nearly 4000 children.

It wasn’t until 1877 that they appointed their first paid permanent secretary, William Bridge. Before that, all the clerical work had been done voluntarily by the members in their “leisure hours”, in the evenings and on Saturday afternoons. They advertised for a pork butcher (see below) and in 1878  built a slaughterhouse, so that they could begin to sell their own meat, and also constructed stables and a cart shed.

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The following year the Co-operative Hall was built, next to the Park Corner premises, with shops underneath it. It was reported that 800 people sat down to tea there at the opening ceremony on January 1st 1880.

The Co-op was becoming a force in the town, a fact underlined by the formation in 1879 of a Town and Trade Association, which pointedly refused to admit the Co-op.

In 1880, a reading room opened, with 20 newspapers and free entry to the public. Money to support it was raised by events like the musical entertainment in January 1882, with a string band and artistes from Nottingham. A couple of years later, a lending library was opened with 875 volumes. It remained the town’s library until replaced by the County Library in the 1950s. According to Fred Miles’ memories of the 1920s, books were not on view but were numbered and a catalogue was issued. Readers would peruse this and make a list of desirable reading. Around and above the issuing window, something like a railway ticket office, the book numbers were on show. If the number was in red, the book was out; if it was in blue, it was in stock. By 1910 the library had 5000 volumes and over 2000 borrowers.

More branch shops were opened, and in Ripley a tailoring department and a fresh fish shop which only sold fish on Wednesday afternoons during the summer months. Coppice Farm was rented from Mr Woolley and used to provide fruit, eggs and milk for sale.

In the late 1880s, the Society bought land on Nottingham Road, though the development was delayed because of difficult economic conditions. In March 1888, it was decided to pay the dividend in cash, rather than goods as had hitherto been the case.

At the end of the 1880s, the Society began lending money to its members to buy or build houses, extending its role as a bank for working people. A new bakery was opened in 1891, with machinery driven by a 9 HP Ogles engine. There were over 4000 members.

During the strikes of the early 1890s, the Society supported the miners: during the lock-out of August 1893, the Co-op Hall was used as a free meeting place, and bread and soup was distributed from the shops. Hardship grants were given to striking miners.

The Society began to run its own insurance cover, and also had representatives on the new Ripley Urban District Council. In 1897, the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee included a procession of all the Society’s horses and carts to the Co-op farm where there was music, singing and dancing. New stables for over 30 horses were built in Crossley Street, with workshops, a sawmill and a messroom. Woodside farm was purchased.

In 1901, the Society finally took the decision to abolish credit, an argument that had been going on since 1863. By 1911, all transactions were strictly cash only.

The crowning moment for the Society was on the 18th July 1903 when the new premises on Nottingham Road were opened, with a procession through the streets and a “great meeting”. The premises were massive, with a frontage of 225 feet to Nottingham Road and Booth Street. There was an 82 foot high tower with a copper roof, a flagpole and a clock made by Smiths of Derby. There was a magnificent staircase leading to a landing with concrete mosaic floor, the walls lined with Pilkington glazed tiles. There was a loading yard at the back, with an electric hoist, and an electric lift to all floors, electricity being supplied by a high-pressure engine in the basement which also provided electric lighting and steam for heating, both for the new building and the older one on Park Corner.

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An early colour photo of the 1903 headquarters

By 1910 there were nearly 30 branch shops as far afield as Westhouses, South Normanton and Stonebroom. The Society had 8000 members and employed 226 people, and its expansion continued in the years before WW1. In 1912 it bought its first motor lorry, registration R19. The war years saw rationing and shortages, but membership blossomed, reaching nearly 15000 by 1920.

A slightly later Co-op van

In the 1920s, the Society bought the Victory Hall, newly built as a memorial to those who died in the War, but never successful. It was turned into a bakery, but kept a ballroom above. There was also a plant to produce pasteurised milk, sourced from local farms, and the Co-op even began selling coal in the 1930s, in an area where mining still predominated. An opticians was opened, and travelling grocers and butchers vans introduced. In 1935, on its 75th Anniversary, a parade nearly a mile long made its way from the Market Place to the Welfare Ground.

The Second World War brought rationing again, but the Co-op, by then the major retail force in the area, thrived. By the late 1940s, the Society had begun making loans to Local Authorities, first to the RUDC to enable them to lay a bigger water main in Church Street and Nottingham Road, and later to other bigger Authorities. A radio and TV shop was added (in Grosvenor Road) and the Funeral Service established, together with the motor garage in Derby Road and a taxi service.

By the centenary in 1960, the Ripley Co-op had over 32000 members, 738 employees, over 100 vehicles, and annual sales of £61 million. This was the peak period for regional Co-op societies, with over 950 societies nationwide. There are now less than 40.

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The early 1960s also saw the first “walk around” stores, or supermarkets. Ripley Co-op’s first was in Belper, closely followed by a new building on the site of the Empire Cinema in Ripley (shown here in an artist’s impression from the 1960 centenary booklet).

Retail was changing rapidly, and the Co-op was struggling to keep up. In 1968, the Ripley Co-operative as a distinct organisation began to disappear, with its amalgamation with the Selston, Langley Mill and Aldercar and Codnor Park and Ironville Co-ops to form the North-East Midlands Co-op. The headquarters moved to Langley Mill and the Co-op in Ripley entered a period of rapid decline.

The new supermarket building had no car park and was replaced in 1981 by the present store, built on a site which had housed, in succession, Topham’s cotton mill, Crossley’s wick factory, Dean’s bakery, Spiller’s biscuit factory and a council car park.

All the other Co-op shops were rented out or sold, with the exception of the funeral service. At the same time, the branch shops disappeared and the travelling shops stopped travelling.

In 1981, the North-East Midlands Co-op merged with Derby, Burton and Stafford to form the East Midlands Co-op, and further mergers formed the Central Midlands in 1985 and the current Midlands Co-op in 1995.

New smaller branches, or convenience stores, were built around the area, including the petrol station and store on Hartshay Hill and the store on Maple Avenue.