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Since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, Long Eaton was one of the new urban communities where there was no single firm or family that exercised a leading role in the community. It is perhaps not surprising then, that in Long Eaton, communal enterprises thrived.
Long Eaton has always been an intensely co-operative town and the development of the Long Eaton Co-operative Society during the past century has been, in many respects, a reflection of the development of the town itself. Most residents of Long Eaton would, if questioned, say that the Society served the town and the villages on its borders. But in reality the Long Eaton Society's trading area was actually some 80 sq. miles taking in S.E. Derbyshire, N. Leicestershire and S.W. Nottinghamshire. Its original territory began at the Borrowash boundary with Draycott and included the population of Draycott itself and Breaston, the Urban District of Long Eaton, and part of the adjoining Beeston and Stapleford district. To the south it stretched as far as Castle Donington and Kegworth, including the small hamlets of Barton, Thrumpton, Long Whatton and Stanford. Remember that in 1868 when the L.E.C.S. was formed, Long Eaton itself was but one step removed from the status of an isolated rural hamlet.
A form of "Co-Operative Society" has existed in many countries throughout the world for centuries, so the idea was certainly not a new one. Much of the early propaganda in this country was carried out as early as 1771 by a man called Robert Owen and his disciples which were often referred to as "Owenites", and it was from his vision that more and more of these communities were established and they would eventually interlock and transform the whole world into one vast Co-Operative commonwealth.
A century or so later a group of workers who were employed at Claye’s Wagon Works in Long Eaton first discussed the possibility of setting up a form of co-operation. This was mainly due to the high meat prices at the time, and the idea was to form a club for the mutual purchase of meat at competitive price and then distribute it between themselves. Thus making a little profit.There then came upon the scene a Mr. William Burns, the first of the great figures in the L.E.C.S. and who eventually became its first Chairman. Little is known of this character apart from the fact that he moved to Long Eaton from Mickleover and was first employed to manage the Gas Works at Trent Station. Eventually Claye's Wagon Works employees and Mr. Burns agreed to make the effort to start a society. The first meeting for this purpose was on December 13th 1867, and the outcome was that William Burns took on the role as Chairman.
The first general meeting of the Society was held on January 31st 1868 in the Wesleyan Chapel. The attendance was estimated at about 40. As no suitable premises for the start of business had been found, a Mr. James Sutton offered his front room for use as a temporary shop in Gibb Street. Sets of scales were purchased and the first supplies of flour, barley meal, bacon, cheese, butter and lard were also acquired. Mr. Sutton’s front room was kitted out with shelving brackets and a shop counter. These items were designed in such a way that they could be used for other purposes when the opportunity arose, it was never intended to trespass for long on Mr. Sutton’s hospitality. This new "shop" opened on the evening of Wednesday February 12th 1868, and the first customer was a Mrs. Smedley, wife of the village barber who purchased 2oz of gunpowder tea (a fine kind of green tea).
Mr. Sutton’s front room, a typical Victorian parlour complete with gas lighting continued to house the Societies business for five weeks, in which time, £130 of trade was recorded (a very promising beginning). The first dividend to members was 2/6d in the pound (non-members 1/- in the pound).
A vacant building was purchased at the Market Place end of Union Street. It was a disused warp shop, a long narrow building. The transfer of stock from Mr. Sutton’s Gibb Street home was made with the use of a hand cart, the first vehicle of any type to be used by the Society. The time had come to trade as a normal shop and Mr. George Allan was appointed as shopman.
The Society also experienced its first setback in that two bakers and a publican broke into the Union Street shop breaking windows and damaging the sign. It is believed that their motive may have been the aversion that some traders had to the new Co-Operative principle. The Society later purchased a plot of land in Howitt Street which was behind Long Eaton’s main shopping thoroughfare, High Street. A meeting was held on October 9th 1868 and the committee agreed to build a new store on the site. The grocery department of the new building was occupied on March 2nd 1869, and all the stock was transferred from Union Street with the help of a horse and cart and a man hired for the occasion. In 1869 they began to spread their wings they made inroads into the shoe trade, and a stock of boots and shoes were purchased from Manchester. In October of the same year they went in for drapery and fabrics. The Society continued to expand at great pace and in 1880 a loan of £2,406 was acquired to build the new central premises, which was a reflection of the financial soundness of the Society and the growing business confidence of its members.
Around this same time Long Eaton's neighbours tried to muscle in on its success, but the Long Eaton Society were having none of it and gave the outlying communities such as Sawley, Draycott, Breaston, Sandiacre etc. short shrift, and advised them to start their own Co-Operative.
There were 15 - 20 men who were members of the L.E.C.S. who actually lived in Sawley and these men broke away and resolved to set up their own Society. Business was started in a former bakehouse where for five years, the little independent Society prospered. They later purchased a house at the corner of Tamworh Road, opposite the Parish Church. Trade continued to thrive and a few more years later the Sawley Society was prosperous enough to purchase two old thatched cottages adjoining their shop. These cottages were demolished and a new store erected in 1888. In 1895 a dispute arose between Long Eaton and Sawley over deliveries. The Sawley Society claimed that Long Eaton had poached some of its residents at Trent Lock. The matter was referred for arbitration who came up with a recommendation that the two Societies should consider a merger. After lots of discussions it was accepted by both parties. In later years, a similar story was enacted at Breaston, Draycott, Sandiacre and Borrowash.
A large desirable property was shortly to come onto the market. It was situated on the corner of Station Street and High Street, but other concerns including breweries were also expressing an interest, and the Society were anxious not to let the opportunity slip. This new site would cost the Society £3,500, and some old cottages which stood on the land were quickly cleared away. Tenders were sent out to builders and to their dismay the lowest one they received was for £6,000, which was £2,500 over the maximum limit they had laid down. The committee decided that to cut costs further they would ask the architect to take the top floor off the plans. The plans were later passed and a Mr. R. Clarke and Sons of Nottingham were hired for the building work.
There were a few setbacks along the way, and eventually the contract to complete the work was awarded to someone else. Even with the new contractor progress was painfully slow, but in March 1877 the new stores were opened amid scenes of great enthusiasm.
It has to be noted that no firm of building contractors carried out more work for the Long Eaton Co-Operative Society than that of Messrs F. Perks and Son Ltd. Examples of their work were: The New Central premises and warehouses, branch numbers 2, 4, 6, 7, 11, 12 and 20. Stables and garages in Chapel Street. The bakehouse, Fletcher Street and the new dairy on Meadow Lane. They also carried out alterations to existing premises, alterations to the clock tower in the New Central, the building of 28 houses in Co-Operative Street, 13 houses in Oak Leys Road and numerous houses both on Berkley Avenue and College Street.
Around the turn of the century, the existing bakery had a turnover of 60 sacks of flour which they made into bread each week. All the work had to be done by hand in a stifling atmosphere, requiring long working hours for the bakers.
When the new bakery on Fletcher Street was opened in 1907, it was equipped with the most modern machinery at that time including the latest plant for kneading dough. The dough was only touched by hand twice before the customers received the bread. The 11 drawplate ovens were capable of baking 20 stones of bread at once. 340 sacks of flour weighing 20 stone each were used every week.
The onset of the First World War brought many challenges to the Long Eaton Co-Operative society. Staffing shortages as male employees left for war service. Obtaining supplies from existing sources and exploring new ones. Distributing supplies fairly to members whilst preventing individuals from hoarding food. A "purchase book system" was adopted, allowing members 50% of their usual supplies. During 1916 and 1917, rationing was so tight that members were restricted to half a pound of sugar per head and half a stone of flour per week. The cafés catering was confined almost to vegetarian meals. Although earlier in the war they provided free meals for schoolchildren, the County Council paying 2d-2½d for breakfasts and 3d-3½d for dinners.
Various fund-raising events were arranged in support of the Distress Fund, Long Eaton Relief, Women's Guild Relief Fund and soldier's and sailor's christmas gifts. The Society began to make paper bags, providing work for girls who had lost their jobs due to the slump in the Lace trade.
On July 1st 1918, many lives were lost during a terrific explosion at the Chilwell Shell Filling Factory. The glass in some Long Eaton branch shop windows was shattered, giving an idea of the power of the blast.
At one time, the Co-Op was one of the biggest landowners in the country. They owned numerous farms and livestock around the area, including dairy cows. The supplying of perfectly pure food went without saying and was one of the integral objects of the Society, and no department had a higher standard of cleanliness and hygiene than the Oak Leys Road dairy which in 1914 had a modern pasteurising plant installed. The annual report by the then Long Eaton Medical Officer of Health stated that the Society were to be "heartily congratulated on their enterprise in installing a pasteurising plant". As the Society developed and more outlets appeared, the existing dairy became inadequate for the Society's needs. Therefore the building of the model dairy on Meadow Lane was commenced during 1928. The Oak Leys Road dairy could only produce 6,000 gallons of milk per week, while the plant at the new dairy which was installed by Messrs T. Hall & Son Ltd from Rotherham, was capable of dealing with 500 gallons per hour. It also provided ample accomodation for the milk carts.
In 1906, the Co-Op even had a men's hairdressing business in a Station Street café. In more recent years they ventured into the restaurant business in the form of "The Countryman" above the old Gas Showrooms and the travel business. Even today, the Ilkeston Co-Op is one of the biggest travel agents in the area.