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Words: Alan Middleton
Featured in the April 2011 issue

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In 1861 the population of Lincoln was 23,000 and growing, but conditions for working people were harsh, with none of the luxuries many of us take for granted today. For those in work they were long days and even then, everything they earned was spent on everyday living expenses. For those out of work, it was off to the soup kitchens.

In the shops they paid top prices for food and goods of often doubtful quality. The controls and hygiene regulations which are in place today, were non-existent then. Pure and unadulterated food was rarely available to working people and certainly not at affordable prices. Flour was often diluted with chalk, tea with sawdust and butter, if it was obtainable, was invariably rancid. A pound of tea cost four shillings, but good table beer was available at three old pence (3d.) a gallon, so the problem of alcohol pricing is not a twenty-first century phenomenon.

It was against that background that Thomas Parker, a joiner, who had come to Lincoln from Gainsborough, became the inspiration for what is today, Lincolnshire Co-operative. Parker, a Methodist, was Secretary of the Lincoln Temperance Society and there had often been discussions at meetings of that organisation as to whether something supplementary to the advocacy of teetotalism was not necessary to provide an interest to working men, apart from their daily round of toil.

Co-operation was a big talking point amongst working people in those days and it was through co-operation that Parker saw a way of improving the lives of those less privileged members of society. He called a meeting and explained the principles on which co-operative societies were based. Such was the enthusiasm for this new idea that a provisional committee was formed there and then. Parker was appointed Secretary. Many of those attending this first meeting were tradesmen like Parker, who had probably been attracted to the city by the new building work.

The committee met every Saturday from 6pm to 7pm to collect small weekly contributions from members until they had enough money to take a quarterly tenancy on No. 1 Napoleon Place and buy some stock, mainly butter and tea. The business started with capital of £40. Napoleon Place was knocked down in the 1950’s to make way for Pelham Bridge.

In August 1861 the first General meeting was held and officers appointed. Parker remained on the committee but not as secretary, perhaps because he was ill. Sadly, he died of consumption in 1863, aged only thirty-four. A storekeeper was appointed and trading began on 8th September. The store was open from 7am to 8pm. Orders were frequently left at the store by members and delivered to their homes by the committee on bicycles, although some time later, an errand boy was appointed. Today’s generation did not invent home delivery.

At the end of the first quarter there were seventy-four members, sales amounted to £365, net profit was £12 and a dividend of 9d. in the £ was declared. Fixed stock was depreciated by £1. 4s. 10½d., a remarkable example of Lincolnshire financial prudence.

Lincolnshire Co-operative today is one of the county’s biggest and most successful businesses with annual sales of £280 million and over 200 trading units, including seventy-one foodstores.

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