What was The Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative Society Limited?
Many readers will have fond memories of their local Co-op shop, that part of the nationwide movement that for nigh on one hundred years, dominated the retail trade of the nation. However, not many will be aware of the manufacturing co-operatives, which were based upon similar ideals to the retail societies, but with the worker/shareholders receiving the dividends, rather than the customers.
One such society, and probably the most successful of them all, was the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative Society Limited.
The word fustian may be unknown to many even though they may possess fustians in the form of a corduroy jacket or pair of moleskin trousers. Technically, fustian is a tightly woven double-twilled cotton cloth with a short nap (pile).
Around 1870, when some workers established their co-operative in Hebden Bridge, the town was the world centre for the production of fustian cloth, in fact it was frequently referred to as Fustianopolis. In those days, fustian cloth was much in demand as a hard wearing material for workers' clothing, with some radical elements of the working class choosing to wear fustian as a symbol of their class allegiance – a statement of class without words.
One serious downside to the business was the slack demand experienced during the summer months, resulting in short-time working and much hardship amongst workers in the fustian trade. All this hardship and uncertainty prompted a small number of fustian workers in 1870 to form a Friendly Society, the objects of which were to produce and sell fustian cloth, with profits from their endeavours being paid to worker/shareholders.
The founder-subscribers were poor men and with the odd exception, none possessed as much as a £5 note, but after many vicissitudes, they scraped together sufficient capital to commence operations, and in 1873, 24 workers were employed in the co-operative. This well thought-out undertaking sold much of their production to the retail co-operative societies, of which there were many within the area. Some of these societies were persuaded to loan capital to the fustian co-operative for which they received 5% interest and in addition, a dividend on their purchases. This astute arrangement ensured the co-operative society customers had an added incentive to place orders with the fustian co-op society.
Following a loan of £7000 from the Co-operative Wholesale Society, they moved into larger premises on the Nutclough Estate, where they expanded their workforce to 260. By 1900, this had further increased to 356.
After a shaky start, the business traded profitably for a number of years. It was able to declare on average, a dividend of 9d in the pound on wages paid to shareholder workers and 9d in the pound on purchases made to loan account co-operative societies.
From around 1910, there was a downturn in demand for fustians due to their being less need for heavy protective clothing, and this had a serious effect on all those engaged in the trade. The workers co-operative was not immune from these difficulties, and in common with the majority of their competitors, they started to lose money. The final blow came in 1912 when the miners' strike prevented them from receiving coal, the vital element that generated their motive power.
Unable to operate their machinery, and with rapidly dwindling funds, they were obliged to call in the receivers. The Co-operative Wholesale Society made an offer for the business, but initially, the worker/shareholders were reluctant to see changes which would affect their privileges, and turned down the liquidators proposals. Eventually the C.W.S. proposals were accepted and fustians continued to be made there for many years. Although not structured on the original worker/shareholder basis, it was operated for the benefit of the Co-operative Movement as a whole.
Sadly, fustian cloth is no longer produced in Hebden Bridge, the only remaining manufacturer being based at Eastwood, a few miles away.
Interestingly, in 2005, Hebden Bridge was named as being the funkiest place to live in Europe by the British Airways in their flight magazine, High Life. But that's another story!
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