People's History Museum hosts The People's Business - 150 Years of Co-operative Group

By Sarah Jackson | 19 November 2013

Exhibition preview: The People's Business - 150 Years of The Co-operative Group, People's History Museum, Manchester, until May 11 2014

A CWS jam advert c1930s.
A CWS jam advert (circa 1930s)© The Co-operative Group
The past few months have proven rocky for the Co-operative Group, with the downgrading of its banking group’s credit rating and the latest revelations concerning disgraced former chair, Paul Flowers. It must feel immensely frustrating to executives that the latest scandals are threatening to overshadow the 150th anniversary of the group.

The People’s Business – 150 Years of The Co-operative at the People’s History Museum explores how The Co-operative grew from the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) in Greater Manchester in 1863 to becoming the UK’s largest mutual business, owned by more than seven million of its customers.

Objects include print advertisements for CWS-branded items, ranging from jam to tea and photographs showing Co-operative retail outlets, including a mobile unit run from a van. Interactives are dotted around the space allowing visitors to get involved and share their individual experiences and feedback.

Advertisement for Co-operative cocoa from 1902
Advertisement for Co-operative cocoa from 1902.© The Co-operative Group
The Co-operative’s slogan, “Here for you for life”, reflects its range of services, which now includes the UK’s fifth-biggest food retailer, financial services, funeral services, the third-largest pharmacy chain in the UK and travel providers.

The group’s USP has been the way it does business and uses its profits. Often considered to be an ethical high street choice from banking to shopping, they have been pioneers in areas such as Fairtrade and combating climate change.

One of The Co-operative’s most innovative ideas was the dividend, the principle of which reflected how co-operative societies are run for benefit rather than profit. Customers collected stamps on qualifying transactions, which could then be used as payment for goods or services. A pre-cursor to the now ubiquitous loyalty card schemes, Co-operative Membership now entitles members to a share in the profits.

The People’s History Museum is a fitting venue for this exhibition exploring the evolution from a wholesaler in Manchester to a business group owning 85% of the co-operative retail businesses in the UK.

The museum originated from the Trade Union, Labour and Co-operative History Society, who began forming its collections in the 1960s. It displays the largest number of trade union and other banners in the world as well as housing a unique archive including collections of the Labour Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain and more.

Despite the turbulent times the group currently finds itself in, The People’s Business reveals the fascinating story of not just The Co-operative, but also how its values and business practice has changed the way we shop and live.

  • Open 10am-5pm (closed December 24-26 and January 1). Admission free. Follow the museum on Twitter @PHMMcr.

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A Co-operative Wholesale Society 'mobile shop in Cardiff, c1930s
A Co-operative Wholesale Society 'mobile shop in Cardiff, c1930s© The Co-operative Group
Co-operative tea advertisement, c1920s
Co-operative tea advertisement, c1920s© The Co-operative Group
Advertisement for The Co-operative Bank's ethical policy, c1992
Advertisement for The Co-operative Bank's ethical policy, c1992© The Co-operative Group
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Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.
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