The second instalment of the Co-operative College’s new initiative Holyoake House Hour introduced the tenants of the building to the man behind a statue that has “been in Holyoake House for longer than any of us”.
A bust of nineteenth century co-operator JC Gray was the starting point for a presentation by writer and researcher Andrew Bibby, who used to session to tell “tales from the Holyoake House basement”. Along with the College team, the talk attracted a crowd drawn from Holyoake House tenant organisations including ABCUL (the Association of British Credit Unions), the Co-operative News, Co-operatives UK and a visiting guest from the University of Texas at Brownsville.
Bibby’s most recent book, All Our Own Work: The co-operative pioneers of Hebden Bridge and their mill, was published in June and his session focused on the life and work of JC Gray, who spent some of his career in the town. Bibby started by asking: “Do people look at the bust and wonder who he is?” Although we work in the same building as the statue, it is easy to overlook the stories of lesser-know figures in the co-operative movement, even if we see visual references to these vaguely remembered figures from the past. Bibby explained that Gray is “pretty well forgotten nowadays, unjustly, as he was a significant figure in the earlier co-operative movement”. Bibby explained that Gray, who was “a good administrator as well as an idealist, and occasionally allowed himself to be visionary, pulled a fractious co-operative movement into a strong and functioning movement”. Among Gray’s significant achievements were playing a very early part in making sure the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) got started – which Bibby says has been not recognised. Gray attended ICA congresses across Europe, calling for a co-operative state and commonwealth.
Gray was born in Ripley, Derbyshire in 1854 and initially worked as a railway clerk. In 1873, he started working at the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Society in West Yorkshire, which Bibby describes as “one of the best examples of productive [what we would now know as workers] co-operatives” at the time. Hebden Bridge was one of the key towns for manufacturing fustian, a fabric a little like corduroy and moleskin, which was “like the denim of the nineteenth century as everyone had it”. The co-operative was formed after an old man worked himself to death and his fellow workers clubbed together for a funeral. Initially, the society had wanted a dye-works, buying an empty mill and reservoirs. However, such was the success of the fustian manufacturing that there were soon lots of visitors to see what was going on in the mill. Gray was offered the new role of secretary and went to work in Nutclough Mill. Gray still retains a presence in Hebden Bridge today through his grave, along with a monument funded by co-operative subscription.
In the 1880s, Gray became deputy to Edward Neale, general secretary of the Co-operative Union (the Holyoake House Hour takes place in the College’s Neale Room) and socialised with interesting and influential thinkers including Beatrice Webb, with whom he shared cigarettes and talked philosophy and politics.
Bibby set the context for co-operatives in the 1890s, explaining that there was great debate and a divide over issues such as co-partnership and profit-sharing, and that there were tensions between the CWS (Co-operative Wholesale Society) and productive societies, the forerunner of today’s worker co-operatives. In writing his book, much of it based on research undertaken at the National Co-operative Archive in Holyoake House, it was apparent to Bibby that “history was written by the victor”, and he said he “rediscovered a whole productive co-operative history”.
The session concluded with a discussion about parallels between Gray’s time and the challenges facing the co-operative movement today, as well as what has been learnt from this history. Topics included the role of co-operatives in ensuring decent work and a living wage, despite political and economic challenges; the tensions between trade unions and worker co-operatives; what today’s politicians could learn by looking back to the 1880s and 1890s for models for nationalisation; the role of the state in socialism and bottom-up versus top-down models; the ways in which work could be restructured to be less exploitative and oppressive; how processes for checks and safeguarding around scale and governance can be embedded in the co-operative movement; and how to combine thought with practical action.
For an introduction to the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Society, explore the Co-operative Heritage Trust’s free online ArcHive resource ‘The Workers Who Ran Their Own Mill’ at www.archive.coop/hive/the-workers-who-ran-their-own-mill.