The Fenwick Weavers Society – the first Co-op

The story of Cooperatives started not in Rochdale within Greater Manchester as is often taught. The first Cooperative society had actually been formed 83 years earlier in 1761, by pioneers in the Ayrshire village of Fenwick. It began humbly enough when a small group of self-employed weavers met in secret in the village to sign a pledge of loyalty to one another and, "to make good & sufficient work and exact neither higher nor lower prices than are accustomed". Until this point the tradesmen and farmers of Fenwick had, like the other the workers of all the surrounding towns and villages, been dependant on the patronage of the local landowners and aristocracy. The idea that the working classes could organise themselves and cooperate with each other in a way that was mutually beneficial and which enabled them to operate on their own was brand new.
The new society had began by sharing equipment such as looms and raw materials used within the weaving industry but a few years later had developed significantly enough to begin selling discounted foodstuffs and other necessities to it's members. Soon after its establishment, the Fenwick cooperative began lending small amounts of money to the families of its members when in need making it the first recorded credit union. A subscription library was founded in 1808 along with an 'emigration society' in order to help members to relocate abroad in order to take advantages of the opportunities available elsewhere in an expanding world. Around the same time the villagers founded the 'Fenwick Parliament', which was held in secret to avoid any intervention by disapproving landowners who regarded workers self-sufficiency as detrimental to their own interests. 

Ultimately Fenwick's size and its lack of proximity to major trade routes coupled with its own success in promoting the emigration of it's members caused the Weavers Society to collapse in 1873 (Fenwick's population had fallen by three quarters!), but it's example had already began to be copied throughout Great Britain and would soon spread across the world. The last member of the society, a weaver, Matthew Fowlds, died in 1907. Fowlds son, Sir George Fowlds, was created Minister of Labour in New Zealand and Matthew's loom is on display there in Auckland museum however a few of his tools and a fine portrait of him remain in East Ayrshire and can be found in the collections of the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock. 
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