The Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society Limited

The Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society Limited, 119, Paisley Road.—

    One of the most striking examples presented during recent years, or indeed at any time, of the successful application of the great principles of co-operation to the workings of a wholesale trade and industry is afforded in the remarkably prosperous career of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society Limited, with head offices at the above address, and branches at Links Place, Leith ; Grange Place, Kilmarnock ; Trades Lane, Dundee ; and Enniskillen, Ireland.

    This notable organisation was certified on April 20th, 1868, under the provisions of the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, 1867, and has had for its object, from the first, the providing of goods to retail co-operative concerns as nearly as possible at cost price, thus saving a large measure of the wholesale margin. The society was enabled to commence actual business on the 8th of September, 1868, the registered offices being then at Madeira Court, and now at 119, Paisley Road, Glasgow. Any one who chanced to observe the small, dark, dingy warehouse at the south-west comer of Madeira Court, Argyll Street, opened for general business by the society twenty years ago this summer, would scarce have imagined that it was but the humble beginning of what was to become one of the largest general trading concerns in the West of Scotland.

    Yet so it has turned out. The sales, which for the first quarter amounted to £9,783, increased so rapidly that in 1872 it was absolutely necessary to find more commodious premises. These were had in that massive stone building at the corner of Paisley Road and Dundas Street. The accommodation was much in excess of the requirements, and it was thought ample provision had been made for the future increase of the trade. Despite this, other extensions had soon to be made, and now the large triangular block, with its imposing front and clock at the junction of Paisley Road and Morrison Street, is occupied by the society as a warehouse and offices. In Leith, Kilmarnock, and Dundee branches were some years ago opened, each of which has proved quite a success. So far the business was only distributive.

    When it was proposed to begin manufacturing for themselves grave misgivings were entertained by many as to the advisability of the step, and those opposed to the movement confidently predicted failure. Cautiously feeling their way, the directors at first experimented with some of the smaller and less risky departments, and when these were seen to yield fair returns it was resolved to try production on a larger scale. The business was inaugurated with groceries and provisions, and it was the steady and continuous increase of trade in this, which is still the society’s leading department, that encouraged the directors to engage in additional branches. The first of these additions consisted in drapery goods, which were placed in stock, in 1873, as a separate department of the business, the commencement being a modest one, and confined to plain goods such as were in everyday demand. Any goods, in the handling of which there appeared any element of risk were for the time being avoided, until the wants of the society’s retail shops should be known, and the full extent of their requirements understood. At the present day everything that can be properly classed under the broad head of drapery is supplied.

    Another magnificent range of buildings was erected in Dundas Street, and a boot and shoe factory located therein. The turnover here was at first about 1,500 pairs a week, but, increasing by leaps and bounds, it has now reached something like an average of 7,000 pairs per week. The growth of the other productive departments, though probably not so marked, was sufficient to tax to the utmost limit the premises which the committee could put at their disposal. To relieve the pressure twelve acres of ground, on the Shieldhall estate, near Renfrew, were last year bought for works purposes at a cost of £6,000. The original intention was to proceed at once with the erection of tobacco, sweets, and preserve factories, but the congested state of affairs in Kingston led to a boot and shoe, a clothing, and a cabinet-making factory being raised instead. These being now in a forward condition, about four hundred workers, male and female, were at the beginning of the present year transferred from the Glasgow factories to the new works ; and it is anticipated that before long another two hundred will be engaged. Looking at it from a worker’s point of view, the site is somewhat inconvenient, there being no dwelling-houses in the immediate vicinity, but the Clyde Navigation and the Tramway Company are doing their best to put that right by running specials. The main entrance to the works is from Govan Road. Here a large, red stone wall, with raised butts and iron railings between, has been put up, and in the centre, hung with massive stone pillars, a large artistic iron gate for vehicles, and two small ones for foot passengers. Twenty feet back from the roadway the plans show a handsome stone building of five storeys, running across the whole breadth of the ground, but operations have not been begun on this part, and, we understand, will not be for an indefinite time. In short, only the three buildings already indicated will be finished at present, the rest being left for future consideration.

    Of these, perhaps the most important is the boot and shoe factory. It is a plain, one-storey structure of red brick, with white glazed facings, and covered with slate. In external dimensions it measures 105 feet broad and 250 feet long, an abundance of roof-lights and windows giving it a light and pleasant appearance. Besides being the largest boot factory in Scotland, it is the only one of any size which is confined to one flat. At the north end are the offices, and the manager, by simply turning his head, can see all that is going on inside the workroom. As rats, when once they have gained entrance to a leather store, do much mischief, special precautions have been taken for keeping them out by laying the foundation of the floor with six inches of slag, and above that four inches of concrete. The business is carried on pretty much on English lines. It is divided into two — the uppers and the bottoms department. When the leather enters the latter, it is cut by means of a circular knife into different lengths, and then passed through a rolling machine till it becomes quite hard. A couple of stamping machines are put in operation, and the shape of the sole is blocked out. The waste leather is thrown into a basket, and afterwards disposed of for casehardening steel or chemical purposes. The soles are next examined, and ranged into three classes according to quality, for leather, like everything else, is full of inequalities. Meanwhile, the uppers leather has been going through a similar experience. After being cut out by clickers, according to certain zinc patterns, the different pieces, of which there are about twenty-four in each pair of tops, are handed to the machinists, who stitch them together, and then to the finishers, who see that all loose ends are securely tied, buttons sewed on, or eyelets put in before being delivered over ready for the soles. In this section there are sixty sewing machines, some of which are of a novel and interesting character, as, for instance, Reece’s button-hole machine, which cuts and sews the buttonholes with a speed and precision that could hardly have been thought possible. In the benchers’ section the soles and the uppers are put together, and the channels cut in the leather for sprigging or sewing. These two operations are performed by two special machines, superintended by skilled tradesmen. The boots are now sent back to the benchers, who close the channels by means of hammering, and put on the seals, previous to passing the rough but complete article on to the finishers, whose hands it leaves ready for the showroom. The speed with which those useful articles of everyday wear are made here is wonderful, as may be understood when it is stated that a visitor may have his measure taken, when he enters, of a pair of boots or shoes specially made, and presented to him ready for use on leaving. All the machines, of course, are driven by steam. It should be remarked that the society’s boots and shoes are of first-class quality, and may be implicitly relied upon, both as regards material and workmanship.

    The next branch added was the furniture department, in which the society have developed a very large and important trade with the working classes, through their retail concerns, the aim being to supply at the lowest possible prices furniture of a sound and useful character, little attention being given to the more highly ornamental lines in this respect. The inauguration of this department, like that of all the others, was upon a very unpretentious scale, ten workmen only being employed at first, a staff which has been nearly quadrupled up to the present time. The society’s new cabinet-making factory is a fine building. Standing back from the others, it rises to the height of three storeys and attics, and measures 100 feet long by 35 feet wide. It will be fitted up with the latest machinery and appliances. Indeed, it cannot fail to be noted as singularly striking, the great results achieved by the society, starting always from a modest basis. It is anticipated that this furniture department will be further developed to a considerable extent by the aid of the labour-saving machinery it is proposed to introduce as an aid to the manual staff, and that the branch will ere long become a very distinctive feature in the society’s business.

    The second building, which is occupied as a shirt and clothing factory, is similar in design and structure to the one just described, though slightly smaller, measuring only 210 feet long and 70 feet broad. In the shirt department there are sixty-four machines, and it is hoped that when the arrangements are completed double that number of finishers will be able to be taken on. In the tailoring or clothing department, which is separated from the shirt factory by a passage and wood and glass partition, a hundred machines have been placed. These will all be in motion in a day or two, and when the tailors, cutters, &c., to fully half that number, have made a start, the shop will be in fair working order. At the south end of the building are two spacious dining-halls, in which breakfast and dinner are served to male and female workers respectively. Nothing has been left undone for the pleasure or interest of the employees.

    A printing department is the latest addition to the industrial undertakings of the concern, and the several branches of letterpress printing, paper-ruling, stationery in general, and bookbinding have been taken up and vigorously developed. The various retail organisations working in connection with the wholesale society are taking full advantage of the excellent facilities thus afforded for securing their stationery stocks and satisfying their customers’ printing requirements at the lowest cost. Another feature, not of a productive or commercial, but of a financial and economical kind, was incorporated in the business in 1879, this being an insurance fund as provision against marine and fire risks. The result of the working of this fund up to the present time has been extremely satisfactory, for, taking the amount that would in the ordinary course have been paid for insurances as £3,663, and the amount of actual losses at their real figure of £1,767, there is shown a clear saving of £1,896 as the outcome of the society doing its own marine and fire insurance business.

    Nothing will more accurately and instructively indicate the remarkable success and progress of this great wholesale co-operative concern than the properly-ascertained and authenticated figures relating to its past and present workings. In the first full year of fifty-two weeks, ending in September, 1869, the capital invested was £5,175, the sales £81,094, and the profits £1,304. In the last year (1887), a full term of fifty-two weeks being represented, the capital stood at £353,321 18s. 10d., the sales for the year were shown to have reached the remarkable amount of £1,810,141 11s., and the profits accruing therefrom were £47,278 6s. 5d. Looking at the operations for the seventy-seventh quarter of the society’s commercial existence, ending December 31st, 1887, the total turnover (£504,669) for that period shows an increase of ten per cent, over that for the corresponding fourteen weeks of 1886. Without going more deeply into details, it is safe to assume that the benefits of co-operation in trade have never been more powerfully or fully illustrated than in the twenty years’ career of this enterprising association. The branches the society has established, viz., the fine grocery and provision warehouses, with head offices, at 119, Paisley Road; the boot and shoe factory and furniture warehouse in Dundas Street ; the furniture works in Houston and Clarence Streets ; and the ready-made clothing and drapery establishments in St. James Street and Morrison Street; all these point to a splendid development of active industry and successful trade.

    In each of the above instances, the buildings occupied are of the most substantial description, and are eminently commodious and handsome in constructive plan and general equipment and appointment. Nor are the society’s branches confined to Glasgow, for, as already stated, they have branches at Leith, Dundee, Kilmarnock, and Enniskillen (Ireland), the two last-named being purchasing stations for various supplies. And, in addition to these, the society has connection with the wholesale co-operative stores of Manchester, and a tea and coffee establishment in Hooper Square, Leman Street, Whitechapel, London, E.

    Tea, as a single commodity, has been one of the most successful enterprises of the concern. The teas are all most carefully and skilfully blended by a London gentleman who has made this highly important work a life study ; and the demand for the society’s much-esteemed packet teas is one of daily increase. They have been equally successful in a more limited degree in producing a mixture of pure coffee, of which they make a speciality, by obtaining the very finest coffee berries and roasting and grinding them on their own premises. For those who prefer an admixture of coffee with chicory, the society has prepared a number of excellent mixtures suited to every taste, and these meet with widespread and deserved success.

    The purchasing depot at Enniskillen secures in the open market the best of butter, eggs, bacon, &c., and there are also valuable sources of provision supply established and maintained at Cork, Copenhagen, and Hamburg. In America the association has its own buyers for such commodities as cheese, bacon, hams, lard, flour, and fruit, which goods are consigned direct to the society at Glasgow and Leith, thus saving the middleman’s commission. The quantity of flour that passed through the society’s stores last year, and was sold therefrom, aggregated the vast bulk of 218,420 bags of 280 lbs. each. Three buyers are retained who attend to potatoes alone, one being attached to the Glasgow district, one to Kilmarnock, and one to Leith.

    The directors purpose to continuously extend the benefits and usefulness of the organisation as opportunity offers, but always in the spirit of proper caution and judgment by which they have from the first been guided and influenced. There are from eight hundred to nine hundred hands constantly employed in the various departments, and every detail of convenience with regard to these workers has been thoroughly considered. For those who do not go home to dine, meals are prepared on the premises, and only the cost price of the food is charged. The society’s new premises, recently erected in Clarence Street, constitute a singularly fine block, which, however, it would be useless to attempt to describe in detail in this limited sketch. It is sufficient to record that the establishment is in every way worthy of such an institution, and that it gives evidence at every turn of the fact that this society is a co-operative organisation in the fullest sense of the term, eminently considerate of the interests of its employees and patrons in an equal degree, and unswervingly devoted to the exemplification of the one grand principle of co-operative practice—“the greatest good for the greatest number”.

    In addition to the various large premises utilised by the society in Glasgow, they have also purchased a fine plot of ground at Shieldhall, about three miles west from the Paisley Road offices. Here is being erected a large block of workshops and warehouses, a finished portion of which is already occupied by the boot and shoe, and boys’ and men’s clothing departments. The furniture department will also have its future centre at Shieldhall, and will, as above indicated, be supplied with extensive and valuable mechanical facilities.

    A great deal might be said of the essential purposes of co-operation, and the advantages to be derived from such associations as that now under notice. Certain it is that co-operation is steadily extending its influence in Scotland, and this is more particularly the case since the established success of the wholesale society, whose retail associates are now feeling the full benefit of a community of interests, and are therefore well in a position to popularise a system in which that community has had its origin. The effects of the system on the industrial classes are varied, and all beneficial — a greater amount and fuller share of the comforts and necessities of life in return for hard earned money, an increased knowledge of the true economics of trade and labour, and a capacity to apprehend and appreciate business matters previously found only in rare instances outside the ranks of the commercial classes.

    At all events, the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society has demonstrated once more the wondrous power of combination, and has proven in itself what has long been tacitly admitted, that “co-operation is no idle dream.” The almost phenomenal success of this great concern, a success that has attended its career from its very inception, is due, in a large measure, to a splendid efficiency of management. Buyers, sellers, workmen, foremen of departments, all are alike in the possession of a high individual capacity, each in his allotted station ; and from the head of this huge organisation, all through the ranks of the executive staff and down to the humblest employee in the society’s service, the spirit of thorough competency is all-prevalent, and the will and the power to serve, promote, and sustain the interests of the association, and its host of indirect supporters in the great mass of the public, are everywhere manifest and predominant. Such a condition of affairs can be associated only with the full accomplishment of a set purpose and the attainment of a sequential prosperity ; and whether the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society he regarded as a manufacturing organisation or a trading enterprise — and it partakes of the nature of both — its achievements are certainly unique in the annals of North British co-operation.

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