St George’s Co-op

St George's Co-op building shortly before demolition.<br />Copyright David Warrilow
St George’s Co-op building shortly before demolition.
Copyright David Warrilow

The Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Society (SCWS) was founded in 1868, with local  branches (societies)  quickly developing across Scotland. They built their own factories and developed their own supply chain. The purpose was to supply  food and manufactured goods directly to local societies in working class areas , with profits being shared with their customers rather than with wealthy shareholders.

A dividend was earned on every purchase by means of a unique “divi number” which was allocated to each customer. This was recorded in ledger books every time a purchase was made, and the money accrued was paid out twice a year. The  divi was a greatly appreciated windfall by low-income families. It could be used  to purchase essential items such as shoes for the children, or maybe an  item of furniture.  There was little that the Co-op did not sell.  Entire families, from small children to the oldest members knew their “divi” number off by heart and many can still quote it many years later.

Grove St. Institute with teh the new wing added at the corner of Balnain St. The original Halls are to the right.
Grove St. Institute with the new wing added at the corner of Balnain St. The original Halls are to the right.

The origins of the St George’s Society go back to December 1870 and a meeting held in Grove St Hall for the purpose of establishing a co-operative store. The people attending were mainly weavers, employed at the nearby Grove Park weaving factory. As a result of their meeting the St George’s Society came into being, and the first store was opened the following year at 398 St George’s Road.

Various other  stores across the north-west of the city soon followed, and by March 1897 they had acquired a total of 45 branches. as well as a variety of functional buildings such as workshops. A  stables block was built at Craighall Road to  accommodate the lorries and delivery vans  on the ground floor, with the horses that pulled them being kept in stalls on the upper floor.  In the same year  the  Society opened their landmark store on St George’s Road / Gladstone Street with the distinctive sculpture of St George slaying the Dragon on top of the building.

The Co-op was an integral part of daily life for many working class people, and not only for their shopping.  They branched out into  other service industries,  such as restaurants, banking, insurance and funerals.  When a person died, all the arrangements could be made via the Co-op, using their undertakers and their restaurant for a meal.   In all probability the expense would be covered by the life insurance policy to which the  family had contributed weekly payments to  the Co-op insurance agent when he came calling.

The impact of the Co-op on the neighbourhood cannot be over-stated, with all kinds of activities being provided for local people including a library, choirs and a literary society. The  Co-operative Guilds provided an introduction to political engagement for many women, very few of whom had the vote in the early days, and were not generally encouraged to become involved. Sporting  activities were financed from the education and benevolent fund, and they had a representative on the Glasgow School Board.

In the second half of the 20th century  the Scottish-based  Co-operative movement began a terminal decline, and in 1973  ceased to exist after merging with the Manchester-based  CWS. The landmark building fell into disrepair and was  demolished in the early 1980’s. Modern flats now occupy the site.