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Symbols of Co-operation

Symbols Of The Cooperative Movement by Jules Abraham

The Good Things Collective is, at present, collaboratively creating many bizarre, beautiful, exciting and extraordinary things: digital minotaurs...South American rainforests...the list goes on and on. We are preoccupied no less in the production of a large banner on which the words ‘Make More Art Together’ will be sewn.

The banner is inspired by the extensive amount of research various members of the Collective have undertaken into the Cooperative Movement and by group visits to historical Cooperative sites in Rochdale and Manchester. Banners similar to the ones being made that were carried by the original Cooperative ‘Pioneers’ (as they were known) on marches and displayed at gatherings. Our banner is part of a larger project, ‘Cooperation Street’, which will culminate in a November exhibition at the Good Things Studio. Opening Saturday 26th November 12-3pm at the Good Things Studio, Arndale Morecambe Bay.

As well as words we hope to include many symbols on the banner in much the same way that symbols were used to adorn the banners of early Cooperatives. This aspect of the enterprise has interested me greatly. Symbols convey in pictorial form abbreviated thoughts, feelings, conversations, histories, secrets, philosophies, beliefs. A few years ago, when i was working in the archives and collections department of a Kendal museum, a great deal of my time was taken up researching and deciphering symbols embroidered on 19th century textiles. On those occasions many of the symbols were drawn from the ‘Language Of Flowers’. All flowers, from the commonest to the most obscure, could be used to convey a message – sometimes in imagery – sometimes in the form of a bouquet in which a variety of flowers might form a lengthy sentence. The members of the early Cooperatives were very much aware of this language and, embroidered or painted onto their banners, are several ‘meaningful’ blooms – such as ‘honeysuckle’, representing affection.

Photos by our community project team taken at the Cooperative Heritage Trust Rochdale Store and Museum Visits.

Another symbol with which the Cooperative members were familiar was the ‘wheatsheaf’ – used because “one stalk of wheat cannot stand alone”. So central to their lives was this symbol that the word could be found associated with many Cooperative businesses. The Wheatsheaf Works in Leicester, for instance, was built in 1891 by the Cooperative Wholesale Society.

Images below show the 1891 structure in Knighton Fields, Leicester. In 2017 - The Wheatsheaf Works under went transformation and been converted into flats with roof garden. Read more:

“It claimed to be the largest shoe factory in the British Empire and cemented Leicester’s position as the UK’s largest centre of footwear manufacture. The Wheatsheaf Works supplied boots and shoes to Britain’s co-op shops where the profits were ploughed back into lower prices. It aimed to combine the latest production technology with good conditions of employment for its workers.”

Leicester’s Radical History, Ned Newitt -

The Cooperative Movement also created images that were more than simple flat representations. I remember watching a documentary about the English Civil War, and discovering that, on account of bright white under-leaves (easily visible in the slightest of breezes), a Hornbeam tree, at the gateway to a large property, secretly symbolised a sanctuary for Catholics. A similarly three-dimensional object often to be seen over the entrances to cooperative stores was the relief of a beehive. These beehives symbolised industry (busy as a bee) and also the cooperation required to carry out and succeed in work. On Greaves St in Lancaster there is a small beauty salon – but a closer look reveals the imposing stone image of a beehive, jutting out above the doorway – indicating that the salon was once the local corner Coop.

Beehive date stone on former Co-op, Greaves, Lancaster cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Karl and Ali -

Former Co-op, Greaves, Lancaster cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Karl and Ali -

"The Lancaster and District Co-operative Society was a mainstay of retailing in the district from its foundation in 1860 until the 1980s. Their main department stores were in Lancaster on Church Street and Morecambe on Regent Road, but they had branches around the district. Each store had a beehive carved prominently on their shop front, to symbolise the Cooperative’s values of thrift and prudence in finance and budgeting. The enlarged shop premises was constructed in the centennial year of the Lancaster and District Co-Operative Society and this gave rise to the building being named Centenary House." TB - Lancaster City Council

Details from Centenary House, Morecambe

Another very visible symbol of the Cooperative Movement was (and is) the rainbow. Over the millennia the rainbow has been a symbol for many cultures and peoples, for many societies and causes. In Ancient Greece it was personified by Iris, a female messenger of the gods (indeed Iris means rainbow in Ancient Greek). In Norse mythology it was a bridge between the mortal and immortal world which a soldier would cross upon their death in battle. In the bible it was a sign of God’s covenant with man, a sign of hope. Today it is used by both the Peace Movement and the LGBTQ community. For the Cooperatives it signified “unity in diversity” and in 1925 the rainbow flag became the symbol for the International Cooperative Movement. Not only was the rainbow as a whole symbolic but so too were each of its colours : red, for example, “represented the courage to stand together.”

So now, as we continue to make our banner, we are taking great care in the choosing of symbols – recognising that they are important in both a collective as well as personal sense.


Cooperative Notes

1 Thora Hird

“The Morecambe of Madge and Ada was home to Hird. Her dad, James Henry Hird, was manager of the Royalty theatre, and later of the entertainments on the pier, where a weekly ticket admitted holidaymakers to a pocket opera company and Madame Rosa Vere, who dived off in red tights every high tide, after which her mother passed the hat. Thora's own mother, Mary, had carried her daughter on stage at eight weeks old; mam was acting a lass who had been done wrong by the squire's son, and the bundled baby played the result. Theatre then was a reliable local business, like undertaking or clog repairs.

On leaving school, Hird worked for 10 years behind the Co-op cash desk, storing away the look of Mrs Edale, "who always sucked a split pea", and Mrs Bradley, trying to feed 10 kids on nowt, and practised their mannerisms by night in the Royalty rep, while dad coached her timing and checked her inflections.”

The Lancaster Guardian

2 Rise and Fall

The rise and decline (though not extinction) of the Cooperative movement mirrored the rise and fall of Morecambe’s tourist industry.

“The 1930s saw the seaside re-invented for a new generation. Cinemas, lidos, sleek new hotels and ice cream parlours all brought a new glamour to Morecambe.”

The Morecambe Coop was situated on a main thoroughfare, Regent Road, leading to the promenade, next to the first traffic lights in the town. This was the first department store in Morecambe and would have provided for thousands of Sandgrown’uns and tourists over the years – it had everything – food, clothes, furniture, a restaurant on the top floor. It was more than a department store – it also offered a savings scheme and a funeral plan. It could literally cater to you from cradle to grave. Education was a fundamental concern of the Pioneers – each store contained a library – the books of which would be circulated between branches.

"Education is desirable for all mankind, it is the life's necessity for co‑operators."

Professor Stuart, Gloucester Co-operative Congress, 1879

Each Coop had its own unique brand of tea. Many Coops were destinations for holidays which could be booked at the stores. If you travelled from Manchester to Morecambe, for instance, excursions onwards to the lakes were then available.

“Things weren’t though to last. The package holiday to Spain and its guaranteed sunshine marked an end to the traditional seaside holiday at home.

Boarding house landladies and hotel owners had to look elsewhere for ways to fill empty rooms. Power station workers, students and benefits claimants were all tried as Morecambe, like many seaside towns, fell into decline. Poor road links didn’t help and by the 1980s Morecambe was on its knees.

In recent years the Eric Morecambe statue, renovated Midland Hotel and a new road linking directly to the M6 motorway have all brought a new optimism. The prospect of an Eden North as well has re-focused Morecambe on its natural assets.

Thora hird had her first job at the Coop, working behind the cash counter for 10 years, using the quirks of the customers to polish her act and impressions.

Once billed as the Naples of the North, it might now become the Eden of the North – but the lesson of past experience is that only time will tell, especially in these uncertain times.”

On the way regent Road passes Chatsworth Road and the house of artist William Woodhhouse, the still unfinished St Barnabas’ Church begun in 1898, Centenary House (the town’s first department store) and the traffic lights (the first set in town and inspiration to comedian Colin Crompton).

3 Rochdale and Manchester

21st December 1844, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened their store selling food items. While there had been previous cooperative groups, the Society proved to be the starting point for the modern movement

When the Society moved into new, purpose-built central premise in 1867, a large beehive adorned the exterior of the building.

CWS begun in 1872 renamed later as cooperative group.

In the so-called Cooperative quarter of Manchester four imposing buildings bear witness to the former force of the movement. Only one of them Holyoake house is still owned by Cooperatives Uk, built 16 years before centenary building but in much the same style.

Writing on plaque at Holyoake House:

This building was erected by the

voluntary contributions of 794 Co-operative Societies members of the Union to perpetuate the memory of the late George Jacob Holyoake one of the pioneers of Co -operation, who for nearly 70 years was a strenuous worker for liberty and reform. Born 1817. Died 1906

(plaque on Holyoake House, built in 1911)

It is the home of Co-operatives UK, The Co-operative College, The National Co-operative Archive, Co-operative Press and other Co-operative Organisation.

The Co-operative Union changed its name to Co-operatives UK in 2001.

4. Various Mottos Used by the Movement (often found on their banners and other promotional material):

Each for all and all for each

Peace and prosperity

Unity is strength

Equal rights for all

Of whole heart cometh hope

More than a collective

Hope, Change, Achieve

The motto 'Labor and wait', also used by the Cooperative Movement, deliberately employed the American spelling of labour in order to express support for those fighting slavery in the United States.

5. Symbols

The wheatsheaf, bees (and beehive), circles, hands, the rainbow.

Bees – invoke industry and cooperation - seen on a lot of Coop buildings and on the first 1867 central store in Rochdale.

Wheatsheaf – because ‘one stalk of wheat cannot stand alone’.

Floriography – the language of flowers:

The dominating flower symbol, used by members of the Coop, is the daisy flower which symbolises the daylight as well as honesty and purity. The 'day's eye' flower was so called because it symbolised the sun and the light, opening its petals in the daytime and the delicate white flowers came to represent the wheel of life and community for people living in the rural hamlets of England before mass manufacture changed the way of life in the North West. Even the song 'Daisy Daisy' about entering into marriage with honesty reflects what the flower meant traditionally, as part of the Victorian fashion for the symbolic language of flowers. The flower symbols used by the Cooperative Movement were commonly understood by society therefore.

Cornflower – fidelity and reliability (also many romantic connections – the batchelor’s button for instance).

Honeysuckle - amongst other things, denotes affection and friendship.

Vine – “The vine... represents the ability to survive. The vine can grow anywhere. It uses other objects to climb to areas of more sunlight. No matter what, the vine will find a way to get to where they need to be. They refuse to die...In fact, the tougher the environment, the stronger the vine gets. Not only is the vine or person able to thrive in harsh environments, they can end up growing beautiful flowers that exhibit what was hiding all along...

...The vine must struggle to find the light sometimes. This represents the struggle of life. For those that have endured hard times, it makes it even sweeter when they find the sunlight. They fought through the tough times making them a better version of themselves and by doing so, they know there is still room for growth. They will always seek a level of higher learning or divinity.


“…the rainbow symbolized unity in diversity and power of light, enlightenment and progress…And, from a scientific viewpoint, the rainbow is in fact a single, indivisible entity.”

All these meanings make the rainbow a perfect emblem for the co-op movement. After some experiments with different designs and kinds of cloth, the first rainbow flag was completed in 1924. Everyone loved it, and it was adopted as an official symbol of the international co-operative movement in 1925. The Rainbow Flag is the international emblem of co-operatives. It was adopted as the official co-operative symbol by leaders in the International Co-operative Alliance in 1925.

It symbolizes the fading political divisions and the union of peoples. Composed of the primary shades of the rainbow, the Rainbow Flag contains all the colours of the flags of the world. All people merged under this pennant are united into one international brotherhood. The Rainbow Flag includes all the colours of the flags of the world. Each colour contributes to the whole and symbolizes harmony and universal unity of all people.

Each of the seven colours in the flag has a special significance:

Red – represents the courage to stand together.

Orange – represents hope and offers the vision of possibilities.

Yellow – represents warmth, friendship and concern for others. It also represents the challenge that green had kindled.

Greenindicates a challenge to strive for growth in co-operatives and individual members as we learn more about ourselves and others.

Sky Blue – represents unlimited horizons and possibilities and the need to provide education and help the less fortunate. It also represents unity with all peoples of the world.

Dark Blue – represents hard work and perseverance- the challenge of working together to achieve our goals of harmony, equality and economic efficiency. It also represents the less fortunate who can learn to help themselves through co-operation.

Violet – represents warmth, beauty, friendship and respect for others.

Links to Historical News Articles:

... New £125,000 Co-operative Society store for Morecambe AT an estimated cost of £125.000. the Lancaster and District Co-operative Society is to giv e Morecambe West End its first ma ior departmental store which will Incorporate the latest trends in design ...

Published: Friday 23 October 1959 Newspaper: Morecambe Guardian County: Lancashire, England Type: Illustrated | Words: 843 | Page: 11 | Tags: none

... and District Co-operative Society furniture stole in Euston Road, Morecambe was opened on Saturday morning bv Mr H. Hoggarth. president of the society's Board of Management. Mr. Hoggarth said this modern store was in one of the best shopping centres in ...

Published: Friday 02 November 1956 Newspaper: Lancaster Guardian County: Lancashire, England Type: Article | Words: 886 | Page: 3 | Tags: none

Online Links (these can be added to):

This is a brief history of the Cooperative Movement on the Tamworth Coop website.

Kate Greenaway: The Language Of Flowers

Just a link to images of general symbols of cooperation – not specifically to do with the Cooperative Movement.

Beehive Symbol

A guide to the rainbow symbol as used by the Cooperative Movement



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