All for One and One for All

Growing up with the "Co-op" in the 1940s

Personal reminiscences of Vivienne Harris (nee Jacomb)

Having recently been lent a book entitled "The Co-op in Birmingham and the Black Country", author Ned Williams, courtesy of Miss Minnie Partridge, it has prompted me to put pen to paper.

As a child growing up in those difficult years of the Second World War, I became aware of my mother's involvement in the Coop movement. "The Guild" was not to be missed, whatever else happened and it seemed to me at the time, it was the highlight of Mother's week. I later learnt that my grandmother, Lily Parish, her sister, Florrie Hipkiss and Mrs Maud Parkes, had been the instigators of forming the Quinton branch of "The Guild". I do not remember what "went on" at those afternoons in the Parish Hall, but after school was over, I used to wait by the gates until the meeting was declared at an end and the anthem had been sung. Suffice to say I do remember the social occasions when members "did a turn", the choir sang and there were solos too. Monologues, which at the time were hard for me to understand but later on I came to appreciate their clever wit and humour Mrs Moulick was expert at delivering these.

As time went by, Mother (Dorothy Jacomb, but known as Gwen) duly took her turn on the committee and I was schooled in how to conduct a meeting - i.e.: the composition of a committee and the democratic election of officers, the importance of an agenda and so on ... Nominations were put forward by members for someone to represent them on the Halesowen and Hasbury Main Body Committee and Mother's name was put forward. I remember the "Divi" slips that were produced, quarterly I think, to tell each member how much she had spent. Also on the “divi forms” was a voting slip attached, when elections were due. We canvassed around neighbours and friends asking them for their vote and before we knew it, Mother was "on the committee" - a sub section, the Education Committee. Soon after that she started to attend conferences, usually at Easter time, in places like Scarborough, Blackpool and Glasgow. Leaving me, at the tender age of 10 or 11, to look after Dad and the house while she was away.

From these experiences, she decided to start a Youth Club, which was held every Friday evening. Initially, in the old Coop Shop on Hagley Road West, Quinton, the brand new Co-op Grocery shop a little farther along the road had replaced that. Children from "the village" as it then was, and also from further afield, came along to enjoy this new venture, and after a representative committee was formed from amongst the older ones a programme of events was set out. There were the usual games played, with an emphasis on teamwork and a little friendly competition, songs were taught, talents were encouraged and outings arranged. In summertime there was an outing to a place of interest. I particularly remember going by bus to Hagley and from there walking all the way to Harvington Hall. We had a guided tour, were told about the priest hiding holes and the history of the Hall. We were rather footsore by then and were glad to sit down on the grass by the Moat and rest before the journey home.

Most of the children were aged between 7 and 14, they came from lowly working class homes and "the club" was an important part of their life. One year, the grandmother of one young lad was so appreciative of the pleasure he had from the club, she surprised us all at Christmas by treating everyone to a seat at the pantomime in Birmingham, an event never before experienced by many.

By this time, the war was over, celebrations past and life though still hard, was returning to normality. As transport became easier, we entered into competition with other branches of Youth clubs from other Districts. I remember well a Swimming Gala, held at Woodcock Street Baths in Birmingham. We were only a small group representing Halesowen and Hasbury. Ten Acres and Stirchley were favourites to win, but gradually we built up the points one by one, the excitement was intense and in the end we took the honours!

As the years slipped by, there were now other attractions for young folk to pursue and gradually numbers dwindled down to a few old faithfuls. The old Co-op shop was needed for retailing again, so the club had to move to "new" premises in the basement of an old church in Halesowen, near to the then traffic lights at the bottom of Mucklow Hill. We set about cleaning the bare cobwebbed room and tried very hard to start again, but the atmosphere was not the same. Finally, reluctantly, the club closed. A group of us did attend a Summer School at Tong Hall, Bradford where we met and shared experiences with young people from Coop Youth Clubs around the country. After the disbandment of the club, several of the young teenagers would call to see Mother. Just to chat about old times and recall the happy times spent together.

For the next few years, the Co-op slid into the background while I studied for my exams. I did not have much to do with the Co-op until I was married, and then of course, began to shop for myself - at the Co-op. From my childhood, I remember my grandmother Lily Parish sitting in our house with her note book, making out her grocery order to take to the shop. The heavier goods were packed in a box and delivered to your door by the grocery boy on his bicycle; only the lighter essential goods were carried home. It was a regular outing on a certain day each week to take the order to the shop. I remember going first to the bacon counter to be served and then along to the dry goods counter, and so on. I watched fascinated as the money was put into a small metal container together with the ticket showing the cost and most importantly, your Co-op number. The container was attached to wires overhead, by pulling a cord it was whisked away to the Cash Desk where the cashier sat. The change and your ticket was placed back in the container and returned along the wires to the assistant serving you. As well as grocery, there was the Co-op milkman and breadman. During the war years the vans were pulled by horses, it was a real treat to hitch a ride on the van. An uncle happened to work for the Co-op. Sometimes, in the summer holidays; I would meet him, at the grocery shop on Hagley Road West and help with the deliveries.

One day, he let me go the whole round with him. When all the bread was sold, the van had to go back to the Depot in Halesowen. Proudly I sat on the cab beside him while the horse, knowing his day was ending, clip clopped happily down Mucklow Hill. I watched as the harness was removed and hung up and the horse was led to his stall for his supper and well earned rest. Very tired, but happy, we made our way home.

©QLHS & Vivienne Harris 2003

Ed’s comment – You all seem to have fond memories of the Co-op, I would bet that everyone remembers their mom’s or gran’s ‘divi’ number. A lovely article, thank you Vivienne.

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