A COUPLE of weeks ago we took a look at the early history of the Co-op in Wycombe from its formation in the town in 1896 to the 1920s. We now continue that story.
1920 was a very important year for the Wycombe Co-op. It had been struggling for some years and in 1920 it was merged with the Chesham Co-operative Society.
Chesham Co-operative had been founded in 1875 when a group of eight working people agreed to each subscribe a ‘golden sovereign’ to launch the first local co-operative society.
A shop was opened in a cottage in Germain Street. Initially this had weekly sales of less than £2. The group soon moved to another cottage in Church Street opposite the Squire’s Gates, which was rented for 2/6 per week. Weekly turnover was increased to £20, so that in the first year total trade amounted to £104.
A butcher’s department was added and it was not long before the Church St premises became too small, so the move was made to a shop at the bottom of Station Road.
The opening hours were increased from 2 hours each evening and Saturday mornings, to normal shop hours including evenings. The society soon outgrew even these premises and purchased at auction a much larger shop in The Broadway, near where the Baptist Church now stands.
Around 1898 property became available in Blucher Street and this was purchased on the society’s behalf. A purpose-designed shop was built on this site and opened on May 4 1899. That same evening nearly 1,000 people attended a Co-operative Society meeting in the Gospel Hall, Station Road.
This heralded a great expansion in the activities of the co-operative movement in the town. A Penny Bank was started, 80 people joining in the first week.
An Education Committee was established and a co-operative boot society set up. This subsequently became Chesham Boot & Shoe Manufacturers Ltd in Higham Road, primarily making army boots.
By 1900 membership was 620 and annual trade £10,608. The new Blucher Street site was considerably developed over the next few years, with stables, garages, warehouses, a slaughter house, offices and a function room, Equity Hall, on the first floor.
It was to remain the Central Premises for some 36 years. In 1906 a cottage was rented in the Berkhamsted Road, at the Newtown end of town, and began business as Branch No.1.
This soon outgrew the premises and in 1912 a piece of ground was secured at the junction of Berkhamsted Road and Essex Road. Here a two storey building was erected with two houses adjoining. It embraced a grocery store, a butcher’s at the rear and a function room on the first floor.
The ‘Divi’ became an important part of the benefits to members. Typically 7-10% of purchase values was returned to them each year. In 1911 an exhibition was held to show the achievements and extent of cooperative productions.
This was held in the Equity Hall and lasted for three days. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 people attended.
As a result many new members joined the movement and sales increased rapidly.
By 1915 membership was 1181 and annual trade £30,784. Another co-operative business was established in 1919, the Chesham Builders and Decorators of Bellingdon Road.
The Merged Chesham and Wycombe Co-operative Society
In October 1920 the Chesham Society agreed to take over the engagements of the Wycombe Society. The combined membership of the Chesham and Wycombe Co-operative Society was 3,400 and the annual trade £150,000.
A vigorous expansion programme followed. In High Wycombe the Paul’s Row premises were rebuilt and the adjoining premises purchased.
A new department store was opened in Wycombe High Street and a dairy, producing 4000 gallons per week, was built on the corner of West Wycombe Road and Desborough Road.
New confectionary, bake house and ovens were installed in 1922 and a new branch opened at Wycombe Marsh in 1925, Branch No.5.
By that time membership had grown to 4,915. The society employed 100 people and owned 17 horses, 22 horse vehicles and seven petrol driven vehicles. It was the year of the society’s fiftieth anniversary and was marked by some grand celebrations.
To be continued I am greatly indebted to Keith Fletcher for allowing me to use his book The Chesham Co-operators in preparing this article. I have quoted extensively from the book, which is now out of print.
It can be loaned through the County Library service or a copy can be consulted at Chesham Museum. Keith can be contacted by email firstname.lastname@example.org
International Stores released 2,000 men for military service as we considered last week, women showed during the Great War that they could very capably undertake jobs which hitherto had been the preserve of men.
This is illustrated very graphically in a short article published in the Bucks Free Press edition of August 11th 1916, under the heading ‘2,000 Heroes’.
The article reads: ‘We hear so much of the enormous difficulties that our Tommies overcome, that we are apt to overlook the trials of those working at home, and who have every right to the glories and sympathies given to our brave men at the front.
We refer particularly to the burden which our women folk have shouldered with such patriotism. The International Stores tell us that the women now employed by them have enabled them to release nearly 2,000 men for military service.
An experienced grocer would have told you in June 1914, that a few years must elapse before a youth entering a grocer’s shop as an apprentice can consider himself qualified to ‘take charge’.
Bearing this in mind, it is really remarkable that the lady grocers should step in and fill the positions vacated by the heroes at the Front in such a capable manner. Their untiring energy, adaptability, and strong will, whilst working under the most trying conditions, calls for the very heartiest support and consideration from the shopping public.’
I am sure that many of our more elderly lady readers will remember the International Stores with great fondness. I myself can well remember that my mother used to get all her groceries from the store in Church Street.
What eventually developed into one of the first modern grocery supermarket chains was founded by H E Kearley and G A Tonge, with their first branch opening in 1878 in Brentford. By 1883 they had opened a branch in White Hart Street in High Wycombe.
More branches soon followed so that by 1889 the company had 200 stores. In 1895 the company changed its name to the International Tea Company’s Stores Limited.
The company diversified by establishing wholesale and manufacturing operations. A new large bakery was built in Bethnal Green, London, with production starting in 1906. The brand became simply The International Stores, and moved in Wycombe to Church Street in the mid-1920s.
As a result of take-overs and rebranding in the 1960/70s the name is little known today.