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The Victorian Preston Co-Operative Society, against adulterated food

Posted on - 4th June, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston News
One of the early Preston Co-Op shops, off New Hall Lane Pic: Preston Digital Archive
One of the early Preston Co-Op shops, off New Hall Lane Pic: Preston Digital Archive

High food prices are not a new thing, and this was one of the reasons that co-operatives began to be formed in the mid-19th century. Additionally, food was often adulterated with alum and lead. As a result, Co-Op shops were setup to provide low-priced food that was guaranteed to be safe.

The Co-Operative Society, early history

The Co-operative Society originated in the North West of England and Preston boasted a wide range of Co-Op shops. Most of these had opened by the early 20th century. The first was opened off New Hall Lane in 1869. It was situated at the junction of Geoffrey Street and Carey Street. However, the origins of the Society went back to 1844.

The location of first Co-Op shop in Preston Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The location of first Co-Op shop in Preston Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The Co-Op was born in Rochdale in 1844. Here a group of working men formed the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. The aim was to club together to buy food at a low price. At the time working people struggled to afford food and it was often adulterated, and even hazardous to health. Customers could also become members and take a share in the profits. Only  four products were available at first – flour, oatmeal, sugar and butter. These were the items most commonly adulterated, by such things as alum and lead. Other northern towns soon followed Rochdale.

Victorian food adulteration

A remarkable range of poisonous substances was added to food in Victorian times. There was no regulation and food poisoning was often fatal. Most of the urban poor had no ovens so bread had to be bought. It was often adulterated with quantities of alum, instead of flour. Alum was cheaper than flour and was used to make a bigger profit by mixing it with actual flour. Unfortunately it also inhibited digestion! Lead was added to sugar while milk was often adulterated with chalk. This made sour milk palatable.

The Preston shops

Fletcher Road Co-Op, 1902 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Fletcher Road Co-Op, 1902 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The shop on Fletcher Road followed a common pattern, with a large sash window, that slid up to serve customers. Fresh meat would be displayed and the customer did not need to enter the shop. Tea was another product that was often adulterated, prior to the Co-Op being founded. Some towns also had their own Co-Op bakery.

The Co-Op continued to grow and a large new store opened in 1935, on Lancaster Road. This was an art deco design and the building is still standing.

Preston Co-Op’s 1935 store Pic: Lancashire County Library
Preston Co-Op’s 1935 store Pic: Lancashire County Library

By the 1930s the Co-Op had expanded into other areas such as china and pottery

The china department of the Lancaster Road store Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The china department of the Lancaster Road store Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The old Co-Op building today Pic: Google Earth
The old Co-Op building today Pic: Google Earth

Today the Co-Op group is still headquartered in the North of England and has over 65,000 employees.

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