Walter Brierley on the Co-op

Walter Brierley worked at Waingroves pit before attending an adult university course in Nottingham. He wrote four novels and some short plays and stories in the 1930s. They all give a vivid portrait of working-class life in the area, in which the Co-op plays an important part.

Means Test Man (1935)

In this extract, the Means Test man has arrived, and is checking through all their financial information in their home. The man and his wife deeply resent this shameful prying into their affairs. The man has been out of work for three years.

“Have you any money? In the Co-op, Building Society, war Savings? Have you any houses or property?”

“We’ve – we’re members of the Co-op,” Jack said. “That’s all.”

“If you’ve a share book, I’ll see it.”

Jane went to the mantelpiece again. Her anger had a different quality now. This was what she could never stomach. The book that was the very calendar of their existence for the last three years, showing all the steps down in the losing fight against conditions. Never mind, let him see it. She didn’t want sympathy from such as him, and sneers coming from one like him wouldn’t matter much. Still, She didn’t want anyone to see the book, the graph of their fortunes, rising steadily for five years after the 1926 strike, then falling, falling, falling all the time.

She opened the book at the page where the last entry was, the one pound nineteen-and-eleven withdrawal Jack had made on Wednesday. But the man picked it up carelessly when she had laid it on the table, and the book closed. She felt sick, full of misery and shame, as if she were standing naked before decent men and women. But let him examine it, what did it matter?……

She watched the man turning over the pages, saw him look where he had no occasion, he could have begun from the back where the empty pages were until he reached the statement of their present holding. But no, he must turn the full pages. One pound in 1926 – that was the first entry after the strike, those empty months had taken every copper they had saved. But their bank account had mounted to seventy-six pounds by 1831 and they had bought a lot of things besides saving that. But then it began to fall. The man was looking at1931-1932-’33-’34, now. Seventy-six- seventy-four- seventy-one- sixty-nine – sixty-eight. Ones and twos and threes. Clothes and coal and replacing things which had worn out. Fifty- forty-eight. Holding on desperately, trying to manage without drawing. Twenty- nineteen. Only a matter of time. Six- four- two. There were two pounds left, the man had just turned the last marked page.

“Two pounds,” he murmured. “Well, I’ll put it down.” He put pen to the paper. “This is all you have, then?”

“Of course it’s all,” Jack burst out. “Do you expect us to have any more after being out three years?”

Dalby Green (1938)

In this extract from the novel, the narrator, who owns a small shop, is attending a meeting in his village called to promote the Co-op, and the possibility of a Co-op branch in the village. He is concerned: the Co-op would certainly put him out of business. It is set in the 1930s.

“The concert began – ensembles, solos, dances, comic turns. Then came the interval. A member of the Board of Management addressed the gathering. He moved shortly through the history, then briefly stated the ideals of Co-operation. But mostly he told them of the growth of the Society – from a one-roomed store to the present block of buildings and its branches. He rolled out the mighty figures of sales and share capital and reserve fund. Then he told people what it offered them – part ownership of the great concern, a dividend of never less than two shillings in the pound on their purchases. And they needn’t think they had to pay their dividend in before they got it out, the price of goods was no more at the Co-op than at a private store. And the goods were produced under ideal conditions and at trade union rates. If a member or his wife died, the Society would give the bereaved one a sum equal to the ember’s purchases averaged over a certain period. Any member would be eligible to sit on the Board and help direct the policy of the Society; at the Quarterly Meetings any suggestions could be made, any grievance aired – In a word, they ruled themselves and all the profit made was returned to them. It did not go into the pockets of a few men who, through it, were made powerful in the politics of the country, and not on the side of the workers. Join the Society now, he urged….. Join, and use the Co-op as your bank and get a good interest on your money.

A member of the Education Committee spoke next. He said, the Co-op could offer many things, many pleasures and benefits. A library, men’s and women’s guilds, a choral society for adults; for the children a choir, classes in Co-operation and subjects fitting them to be employees of the Society. The majority of employees, he said, were men and women who had taken advantage of the classes. Every year a fete day was held, with amusements and a fancy-dress parade with prizes for those adjudged the best…..”