Soho Co-operative Society

Scope and Content

Records of the Soho Co-operative Society. Includes minute books for the General Committee, Finance Sub-Committee, Boot Sub-Committee, Building Sub-Committee, Drapery Sub-Committee, Grocery Sub-Committee, Special Sub-Committee and Quarterly meetings.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Soho Co-operative Society was formed in 1887. The members of the provisional committee were Messrs Darlington, Griffin, Harrison, Jones, Levick, Malcolm, McRae, Poole and Felix Smith. These nine had been members of the failed West Smethwick Society. The West Smethwick Society had commenced trading in 1866 and was making £7000 in annual sales. Despite the society's initial success and rapid growth it stopped trading in 1887.

Initially the society was going to be named The Phoenix Society, until it was pointed out that this would remind prospective members of the failed West Smethwick Society. Instead attention was focussed on the locality's association with the successful Soho Foundry: the works built by Messrs Matthew Boulton and James Watt to manufacture their innovative steam engines. The Society adopted the name, The Soho Co-operative Society and incorporated on its seal the engineers' names and a picture of Stephenson's Rocket

A public meeting was held by the provisional committee in St Matthews School Room, Windmill Lane, Smethwick on 13th June 1887. The creation of society was approved at the meeting and fifty people enrolled right away. The society opened its first store on 16th July 1887 in High Park Road. The committee having already witnessed the failure of a society were keen to trade in a wide variety of goods right away. As well as groceries and provisions the society began trading in coal, bread, clothing drapery and footwear. Purchasing all these things from local wholesalers.

By 1895 the society only had about 120 members and a turnover of £3,735. However membership started to increase after the Society began producing its own bread in a small, old fashioned rented bakery. The society continued to make progress, it took over the Smethwick Co-operative Boots Store and established a small drapery business.

Having made steady progress the society was looking to expand its premises and in 1896, with the advice and assistance of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), they built their own central store - again in High Park Road. From there on trade expanded rapidly and by 1905 sales had increased to £37, 624. By the outbreak of the First World War, the society operated seven branches, three in Smethwick, two in Handsworth, one in Langley and one in Dudley Road, Birmingham.

In 1914 the society began the erection of a large new store in Handsworth and the comprehensive reconstruction of a site in Cape Hill. The new building in Handsworth was completed in 1921, at a cost of £36, 000. By 1921 the society had 14 branches and a central store.

The society's success was followed by difficult times. The Smethwick area was hit particularly hard by the depression and unemployment and short time working led members to withdraw their capital invested in the society. The society responded by running campaigns to foster loyalty amongst members but by 1925 the society was forced to merge with the Birmingham Co-operative Society. The amalgamation extended the influence of the Birmingham society into the Black Country, through Smethwick and out to Oldbury and West Bromwich.

Sources

Birmingham: A handbook and souvenir. Thirty-eight annual Co-operative Congress 1906. Compiled by Frank H Bruff.

The Co-op. Birmingham and the Black Country. By Ned Williams (1993)