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Olive's father outside the Co-op offices in St Anne's Square Manchester
Olive's father outside the Co-op offices in St Anne's Square Manchester
A visit to the CWS Sweet Works

A visit to the CWS Sweet Works

CWS Male Voice Choir Membership Card
CWS Male Voice Choir Membership Card

Shopping at the Coop in the 1930s in Westhoughton

by Olive Miller

As my father spent his entire working life with the CWS in our local Branch and in later years as Secretary to the North West Managers' Union, I feel I have acquired much information over the years, which if lost, would, I think, be a part of our local History gone forever. The 'Co-op' was a predominant factor in the life of the local Community in the pre-war years.

In Westhoughton practically the whole of Market Street was lined with the different departments. First, on the left, was the butcher's shop, directly opposite to the Town Hall. There was sawdust on the floor, wooden chopping blocks holding the huge cleavers wielded by the brawny assistants in their blue and white coats and blood-stained white aprons, and with jaunty straw boaters on their head.

Everyone at the Co-op had a Dividend Share Number, ours was 207, and forever imprinted on my mind as every Saturday morning I did the errands. No money changed hands, you just quoted your number and your purchase was entered in a book to go on your account.

The delivery boy on his special bicycle, with a small wheel in front to allow for the huge wicker basket, did not need any names and addresses, he knew everyone's number by heart, and can still remember them to this day, as he reminds me whenever we meet in passing on Market Street.

Across on the right side of Market Street, the first of the many departments was the General grocery store. Inside, all along one wall ran a long counter and alongside the other wall a long bench where you could sit and chat until it was your turn. It was a social occasion for many. All the ingredients were weighed out to order, by hand, sugar in blue bags, butter patted up or curled up into balls, if you wanted to be posh and were having company. Loose biscuits weighed out in paper bags with broken ones put in for free.
The items to be pushed to sell were advertised in elegant scroll writing in white paint on the outside windows. This was my Dad's speciality.

The weekly order delivered to our house every Wednesday morning was the highlight of the week. First would come the clatter of milk bottles as the crate of Cheshire sterilised milk was heaved along the path. This made delicious creamy, pink-tinged rice pudding. The other things were in a large, brown cardboard box with the picture of a lady on a small step-ladder reaching to fill a huge teapot, and the motto 'Ceylon Tea - filling the Nation's teapot'. There would be tinned goods, and packets of lentils and barley and beneath these a thick wad of newspaper separating the block of White Windsor soap, which Mother chopped off as needed, white Izal toilet rolls, with green labels, and CWS Pelaw Black Shoe Polish.

Next to the Grocery shop was the Ladies Drapery, with everything for the home dressmaker, as well as underwear, outerwear, haberdashery, hosiery, all served by pleasant ladies with endless patience to provide any item you might suggest from curtain material to a packet of pins.

Next door was the Boot and Shoe shop. I can recall the leathery smell even now. Every Easter my sisters and I were fitted for new sandals. Always brown leather, no colours then, with thick, cream-coloured crepe soles that reminded me of tripe. But they were fitted with care and expertise and we came out walking on air.

Opposite was the Co-op Cafe and Confectionary shop, selling all kinds of bread and cakes baked in the Bakery behind Market Street. The vanilla slices had a reputation for being the 'best tissue-paper cakes this side of Wigan'. They did a lot of outside catering as well for Weddings and Funerals and there was a comfortable room available upstairs for these events.

Next to the Cafe was the Greengrocery shop with varieties of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Wedding bouquets were made to order as well as funeral wreaths. Every stage of life was catered for.

The Furnishing Department came next, specialising in lino, rolls of which stood like a colonnade on either side of the doorway. The distinct smell of the lino I can sense even now and the longing it set up in me as a child to play hide-and-seek in and around the rolls.

Later, a Chemist's shop was opened as the CWS had their own drug company at Droylsden, supplying bulk drugs to many of the big Manchester hospitals.

There was a Coal Delivery Service. In the early days it was by horse and cart but later the old stables were converted to garages as the long, low-backed lorries were in use. What a heavy job, especially in wet weather, adding to the weight of the sacks, already spaded and filled up at the railway sidings. These sturdy fellows wore black leather protectors both for their backs and their clothing as they heaved the sacks onto their shoulder and tossed over their head into your coal bunker with an almighty thud. Mother stood in the house counting the thuds to make sure the right number were delivered that the ticket said.

Once a quarter, the Divi pay-out was a busy time for the office staff. People who had to budget on a weekly amount, settled their outstanding debt with the Divi. Although poor, by today's standards, people were proud and honest, it was a point of honour to settle the account and keep the books straight. I see from the recent Press that the Divi is to be reintroduced, in a new form.

The Co-operative Committee ran a good educational programme. They sponsored a scholarship for a place at Grammar School. I was proud to be awarded one of these but had to forfeit it in favour of the Lancashire County one, so it did benefit the next one on the list. To be elected a Committee Member was regarded as being on equal status to a Town Councillor. Any complaints you may have were dealt with quickly and sympathetically.

During the War, not many people knew, but the local Co-op had to keep an emergency supply of food enough to keep the town in a state of siege. This was a headache for my dad who was the Buyer at the time, as the Government had a habit of changing the points system of rationing, at a minute's notice, which must have been a headache.

The Co-op insignia was a sheaf of wheat, hence the Brand name, 'Wheatsheaf, the binder around the sheaf bore a scroll with the motto, 'Labour and Wait'.

My dad would be amazed at the Co-op superstores of today. He would say, "What has happened to salesmanship?" The goods have to sell themselves today, done by display. The old way, for better or worse, has long gone, but I felt I must pay tribute to all who took a part in a great venture for the Working Class.
Olive is a keen writer and member of The Lancashire Authors Association. This article was previously published in The Record, the magazine of The Lancashire Authors Association, who have kindly allowed us to reproduce it.