Soapbox Sylvia Riley: Bring back the Co-op cow as a symbol of what cooperation can achieve
WITH Co-ops closing down, debates have started as to when and where the first Co-operative Society began. I've supposed that it was at Rochdale in 1825, which is widely believed.
But it is emerging that there were earlier co-operatives, one as early as 1797, in Blidworth. In those days millers had much the same stained reputation as bankers today – people spoke of them and spat at the same time. This was because they adulterated flour to make it go further and it often became contaminated.
Fed up with being palmed off with unhealthy food and treated with contempt, people began to band together to organise their own pure food supply, which is how the cooperatives began leading to the Co-operative Society.
The Co-op has been part of the Derby scene for years – it was everywhere when I was growing up. There was the main Co-op in town, which had a splendid toy shop at Christmas. There was a Co-op at the top of our street (Grange Street), in fact there was a nearby Co-op for most people.
The massive Co-op bakery stood on Osmaston Park Road. There was the Co-op Boot and Shoe Company, the Co-op Dairy and the milkmen. They were really good, they had horses at first, and would deliver eggs, bread, cheese, butter, bacon, with your pint of milk.
And – spectacularly – there was the Co-op cow.
At one time the Co-op cow, together with the lighted Cathedral, defined the skyline of Derby. Each evening there she was, lit up in the night sky, seen for miles. The Gateway to Health – Derby seemed safe and protected because she was always there. In the 1990s she was taken down and there was an outcry. But when she was put back it was much lower, you can't see her and she's not lit up. Westfield dominates now – a sign with no history.
Always generous, the Co-op distributed gifts at Christmas for needy children. When I was in the Young Socialists in the 1960s the Co-op gave our branch their old abattoir in Woods Lane to do up and use when we liked. We painted the horrible white-tiled walls pink and it was opened by, the then MP, Philip Noel-Baker, and Betty Guthrie (can anybody remember her? – she taught at Hargrave House School and had five children).
In the 1960s, Derby Co-op food hall stocked things you couldn't get then. Cherry jam from Yugoslavia and rose petals in syrup (mmm with ice cream); wines from Algeria; German cinnamon stars (zimtsterne) and stuffed aubergines from Bulgaria. Not all Co-ops had these things, it depended on members in each Individual Members' Section, passing resolutions urging trade with socialist states.
Restore the Co-op cow to her former glory. She is unique to Derby and though the Co-ops are going, she's a reminder of what was achieved. A tribute to people who wouldn't be ground down.
And it's time we treated the bankers the same way our ancestors treated the millers – ignoring them and starting up our own banks.