David T. Hughes.
Co-operative Society Front Page     20th June 1999

Shoppers generally walk by the unoccupied and boarded up premises on the corner of Wood Street at 97 High Street without giving them a second glance. The building is however of some local interest being one of the few still existing lap-board shops from old Sheerness. It is also, many would be surprised to hear, of both national and international importance, being the oldest still surviving shop of the great worldwide Co-operative Movement.

The seeds of the co-operative movement were laid in Sheerness in 1816 when a small group of dockyard employees, disenchanted with the high prices and sharp practices of the local purveyors of provisions, banded together to supply for themselves some of the essentials of everyday living. They formed themselves into a trading organisation, or society, clearly defining its objective;

"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 Dock Yard, 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 Butcher's Meat, shall henceforth be denominated the Economical Society."
From this small beginning grew the great consumers' co-operative societies of today.

The bread, meat and, later, fresh water provided by the society for its members was sold off carts which operated around the town. it was not until the formation of a second co-operative society in Sheerness that the town would get its first retail outlet offering a much wider range of household goods

The call for a society providing more goods than the very limited range offered by the Economical Society led to a meeting being held at Sheerness on 14 December 1849 where shares of five shillings each were floated for the formation of a new society. Funds were also raised by borrowing the sum of 451 from the local lodges and friendly societies. Customer loyalty was encouraged by the rule "that members not purchasing the Society's goods receive no dividend from the profits".

In January 1850 a stock of groceries was acquired and shipped down to Sheerness by barge. At the pier the goods were transferred into a waiting carrier's dray. A procession of members was formed in front of the loaded cart and, preceded by a band at the head of which a wooden legged standard bearer carried a flag bearing the defiant inscription "We Have Subdued our Enemies" the whole assemblage moved off down Blue Town High Street in the direction of Mile Town.

The procession terminated when it arrived at the modest shop that had been rented by the society in the High Street at the corner of Wood Street Here, on 30 January 1850, The Sheerness Co-operative Society commenced business.

As trade progressively increased tbe Co-op soon outgrew its original shop and, when the opportunity arose, moved to a more substantial premises on the opposite side of the High Street. The shop then passed out of Co-op hands becoming Chittick's Fried-Fish Shop. In October 1892 the historic little building was nearly destroyed by fire when the pan in which fish was being fried was accidentally overturned. The room at the rear of the shop in which the frying was taking place was quickly ablaze and, as it seemed to the gathering crowd outside, a major conflagration was inevitable.

The local fire was soon on the spot however and, by prompt action, managed to contain and extinguish the fire. The repairs to damage caused the fire and water were afterwards soon put in hand and, before long the shop again restarted trading.

In 1919 the Economical Society and the Cooperative Society, which had long been working in association with each other, formally merged to form the Sheerness Economical Co-op Ltd. By this time the fried-fish business of the shop had given way to a painting and decorating retailers. It then became a butcher's, originally owned by the British and Argentine, but, after the last war as Eastman's Family Butcher, under the umbrella of the Dewhurst chain.

A few years ago the shop finally closed its door to business, since which time it has remained unoccupied. A couple of years ago the front of the shop was heavily boarded over to prevent vandalism. The first signs of deterioration are now starting to appear.

The conservation record of the local authorities In Sheerness has been truly appalling. Some positive action now for the protection and renovation of this modest little building, a surviving cradle of the international Co-operative movement, and the provision of a plaque to inform the general public of its great historical significance, might do a little to redeem a tarnished reputation.

Upstart Rochdale, where it was not until 1844 that a Co-operative society was begun by a group of weavers, but where civic pride is not at a premium has achieved universal fame and prestige through its claim to be the birthplace of the Co-operative movement. Sheerness, where the Co-operative societies, were really founded has, through a mixture of apathy and lethargy remained largely unknown to those having an interest in the early history of the movement. This situation should not be allowed to persist. The restoration of the original co-op shop, accompanied by the publicity and media attention that could thus be generated, might at last place Sheerness In its rightful place at the centre of the history of the Co-operative movement. Surely this Is not too much for the people of Sheerness to hope for?


Webmaster's Note It appears that at the time of preparing these pages the shop is getting a new lease of life. I understand that it will be providing financial services. Maybe something to commemorate its history maybe possible.

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