Official recognition of the creation of the first Co-operative came from Mr. Tidd Pratt, the Registrar of Friendly Societies for, in 1863, on their registration, he complimented them on being the oldest society in existence. In identifying 'them' we have to go back to 18l6, Following the end of the Napoleonic troubles, tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors were thrown out on to a land where work was not available. True there had been regular employment on the Isle of Sheppey for the dockyard men but ten to twelve shillings a week for a labourer was indeed a starvation wage for him and his family. A combination of workers was feared by the authorities and even mutual assistance was then classed as illegal assembly or conspiracy.
The dockyard workers and their families lived mostly in Blue Town - a conglomeration of small timber houses in alleys and courts. Decaying animal and vegetable waste thrown on the unsurfaced roads no doubt assisted with the spread of the diseases which so often plagued them such as ague, which was in fact a form of malaria,
The dockyard men went very quietly about the job of helping themselves and their families to survive. In such adverse circumstances it is surprising that we can name any of these pioneers, but we can. James Mockett, a joiner, was appointed Chairman and another Mockett printed the Rules. These were drawn up by the Secretary, F. Venable, a local solicitor. Named in the Rules are J. Curry, a smith, E. Munn and H. White - both joiners and A. Logan, a shipwright.
RULE ONE read:-
The Society established this twenty-first day of November In the Year One Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixteen, by the Officers and Workmen of His Majesty's Dockyard, Ordnance and New Work at Sheerness in the Isle of Sheppey, in the County of Kent, for obtaining for themselves and families a supply of Wheaten Bread and Flour and Butchers Meat -shall henceforth be denominated the Economical Society.'
It was established that all should share the responsibility of management and the routine business. There was a general Committee of thirteen with the Chairman and the Secretary. A further Committee of representatives came from each of the groups of workmen in the proportion of one to twenty. These representatives not only collected subscriptions but shared out the meat every Friday and were responsible for the weighing and issue of flour to the bakers and the issue of bread to the members. The Committees met every Monday within one and a half hours of leaving work. Various failures brought fines which were all put to stock so that all shared. Bearing in mind how little cash was in the hands of these men the fines may only be described as swingeing.
For refusing to serve as departmental representative
For refusing to serve as a Committee man
For refusing to serve as a Trustee
For absence from a meeting
For obtaining more food than necessary for consumption by a member's family
For not obeying the Chairman at a meeting
The providing and selling of pure water was most necessary as local water had always been in short supply all over the island. The dockyard was supplied by twice weekly water boats from Chatham and had a small regular supply from the well in Well Marsh where the water was raised by Capt. horizontal windmill.
Pure water to drink and for cleaning was available from private wells whose owners maintained a pecuniary interest. Vhen the members took a site on the corner of Broad Street and what was to become Railway Road, there was a well already there.
Two members. having already done a day's work, now spent the evening pumping water. Some members took to supplying others for a small fee whilst a Mr and Mrs Terry had a water round with a barrel on a donkey cart. One member in a small office beside the gate recorded the amounts issued. To members the price was a halfpenny a bucket or a penny a load, which was a yoke. This enterprise went on until 1864 when the municipal supply was provided.
The bread rounds men carried large baskets which they refilled from two-wheeled barrows. To help these along large dogs were harnessed to run between the wheels but the passing of the Dog Act put a stop to this. The best known dogs were- called Lion and Joe.
It was known how much bread was needed because the members bought metal checks in advance. These were stamped with the letters E.C. the member's name and the quantity. These were for one quart, a half or a gallon. Each quantity check was of a different shape.
The bakery grew until it was decided it would be good policy to mill their own flour. As well as for their own use they soon supplied many other societies on the mainland. This project prospered until the building of the large mill at Silvertown made the local effort uneconomical.
From the beginning all profits were ploughed back so that all members benefited but in 1865, after much discussion, it was agreed
that profits should be apportioned according to purchases. The profits were given as bread tokens until 1877 when cash was given.
To the end o f the nineteenth century there was steady progress in the range of co-operation. In addition to those already mentioned further shops were opened and milk supplied from their own cows kept on their own pastures.
Sheep, poultry and even horse breeding went on at West Minster. A market garden with glass houses supplied fruit and vegetables. An Education Committee, a library and reading room and a Womens' Guild all helped improve the lot of members and their families.
Contact with other societies was developed and groups attended conferences all over the land. The choir sang at the Great Exhibitions in the Crystal Palace.
Those locally, not dockyard workers, decided that if they could not join them they would also help themselves. The Sheerness Co-operative Society Ltd. was formed and opened its first shop in- the High Street on the corner of Wood Street on 30 January 1850 under the management of Mr Munro from Dover, at £70 a year and a residence.
The opening was marked by a procession led by a wooden-legged standard bearer carrying the banner of the True Britons Benefit Society. During the next fifty years shops were opened in Mile Town, Blue Town, Marine Town, Minster, Queenborough and Halfway providing grocery, butchery, drapery, furnishings, boots and shoes, coal, shipping, building and saving facilities.
In 1875 each took up some shares in the other and in 1919 full amalgamation took place. Since then, due to the various link-ups of areas-and national groupings our two have- been totally assimilated into the gigantic whole, supplying every conceivable commodity from all parts of the known world.
But the Dockies of Sheerness in Kent's Island of Sheppey founded the very first 'co-op' in the world and should be in the Guinness Book of Records.