Kinning Park Central – The First Co-operative Women’s Guild in Scotland

A talk by researcher Sue Rawcliffe introduced us to the history of Scotland’s first Co-operative Women’s Guild. The discussion was organised as part of the regular Thursday community meals at KPC, accompanied by a banner making session for the Strike 4 Repeal Glasgow protest against the strengthening of abortion-ban laws in Ireland. Organised by resident curator Anna Tudos, the event marked the starting point of a series of interventions that reflect on the history and resources of KPC, connecting its heritage with the complex’s current identity.

Founded in 1890 and based at Kinning Park, the Kinning Park Co-operative Women’s Guild started merely as a meeting space for women co-operators to socialise and share skills of needlework and cookery and slowly evolved into a space to discuss major issues of the day. Members debated politics, business, social justice, health, education, and suffrage – often taking action and organising campaigns. Inspired by the talk, we are working in strong collaboration with interested parties to produce an event connecting the Guild’s heritage with the current aims and history of Kinning Park Complex on the 16th of July.

How did the Women’s Guild connect to the Co-operative movement?

In 1870, at the foundation of the Kinning Park Co-operative Society, Kinning Park was a very small borough, it wasn’t even part of Glasgow till 1905. Local working men had set up a committee to support a campaign to become part of Glasgow. Their campaign failed and they were left with 3d. Discussing what to do with the money, they decided to set up a retail co-operative, which where popping up around in Glasgow at that time. Their basic aims were to provide good quality food at fair prices and a good way for ordinary people to find ways to save.

“It was resolved on the spot that an attempt should be made to form a society with the wee coin as the basis of the finance”

(Dollan, 1923)

The objects of the Society were to…

• Improve the material or pecuniary means of its members by forming a fund, with monthly or other subscriptions, to purchase food, firing, clothes, or other necessaries at wholesale prices- retailing the same at ordinary rates to the members and public.

• To promote the intellectual and moral advancement of its members by providing means for social intercourse and literary culture.

• To afford a field for practically working out various questions of social reform – as, for example, the fostering of habits of prudence and business among men, open and fair trading early closing etc.

• To provide a safe and profitable investment for the savings of the working man, combining the securities and facilities of a bank with the profits of a trade

A person bought a 1 pound share (quite a lot of money at that time) and he/she could pay that up. One person couldn’t have more than 10 shares, to limit rich people taking over the co-operative.

One example of the buildings they put up was Laurieston’s tallest building, erected in 1902, designed by favoured local architect firm Messr Bruce and Hay. The adjacent block was added for the Co-op’s Drapery Department in 1935 and survived until today.

By 1898, the Kinning Park Co-operative Society had 80 branches across the south side of the city, 10 different departments and 650 employees. At the corner of Crookston and Ardgowan Street were the central premises for grocery, dairy, fleshing, drapery and boots. The stables, creamery, sausage and pudding factory were located in Stanley Street. They also had an Educational Institute at 135-141 Norfolk Street.

The incredible growth shows in the numbers. By 1909 they had…

  • 18,599 members
  • Assets of £258,856
  • Sales £530,312
  • Dividends to members £61,824

It was indeed a huge organisation. An agreed amount of their profits were set aside for educational purposes and it was the Education Committee which supported the early development of the Kinning Park Co-operative Women’s Guild.

Why was the women’s role in the Co-operative movement so important?

The women’s role in the Co-operative movement and why they were important is quite interesting. Even though it was mainly men, who were setting up the co-operatives, it was very clear that it was the women who controlled the domestic budget (‘woman with the basket’), so if they wanted the enterprise to grow they needed the get women to shop in their shops. Women were also involved with their neighbours and could encourage other women to get involved. They were also seen to have a role in educating the next generation.

Interestingly, in the co-operative movement women had equal votes with men, so long before women got the parliamentary vote, they were voting within the co-operative movement. The demand for greater involvement was there. Kinning Park Central branch, the first in Scotland, was formed in January 1890.

Mrs McLean, a founding member, described this as:

“their Guild had been organised in fear and trembling that memorable afternoon in the Clarence Street Hall, when they were almost afraid to hear the sound of their own voices”

The Govan branch followed Kinning Park Central in November 1890 and it was followed by a number of others. And it grew: by 1893 the Central branch had 146 members and every week an average of 90 women came along to the meetings.

There are records that by 1906 membership rose to 1199 and there were seven branches across the south side of the city: Kinning Park Central, Corkerhill, Gorbals and Laurieston, Govan, Govanhill and Crosshill, Hutchesontown and Plantation. A joint social gathering of the Kinning Park Guilds held in 1911 was reportedly attended by over 1000 people at St Mungo Hall. Some of these social events went on by 2 in the morning.

What kind of issues was the Women’s Guild involved in?

At the start, the Guild branches did a lot of needlework pattern cutting, renovating clothing, making paper-flowers, what people would call home industries. They also had some cookery classes and they were very interested in health, obviously, for women of that time health issues were a major concern. They got involved in sick nursing, ambulance work, and they raised funds for co-operative convalescent homes. They campaigned for better working conditions for women.

Kinning Park was one of the places where there was an experiment to extend the co-operative movement to ‘the poor’. They were also involved in the campaigns around the feeding and medical care of schoolchildren and women’s suffrage.

“Central Branch had a series of cookery lessons provided by Mrs Black of the Glasgow School of Cookery followed by lessons on sick nursing; the Govan Branch had five medical lectures from a Lady Doctor and Govanhill and Crosshill had lectures on cookery and health”

– From the Scottish Co-operator (Dec 1985), a newspaper which also originated in Kinning Park.

The way they organised followed the democratic traditions of the co-operative movement. Local branches held weekly meetings over the winter which were organised by local committees. Members were encouraged to write papers and these were discussed and votes were taken and recorded on key issues.

Members of Kinning Park Co-operative Women’s Guild were instrumental in setting up the Scottish Co-operative Women’s Guild and this developed district and later sectional committees to carry out its work. Members were also voted onto the committees of the different co-operative enterprises, the Co-operative Laundry Society, the United Co-operative Baking Society, the Glasgow and Suburbs Co-operative Congress.

Why is the story of the Kinning Park Co-operative Women’s Guild’s story interesting for us today?

The organisation involved ordinary women in Kinning Park, working women, who had duties during the day and then they organised this amazing movement in their spare time. It can be seen as the first organisation of working class women with a focus on mutual aid.

They raised their own resources and they worked out how to organise in their own way, independent of any outside direction. They worked in democratic ways and had a clear focus on skills, education and cultural activities. The Guild also served as a training ground for many women who later became active in local and national politics. This included standing for election to School Boards, being involved in the rent strikes in Glasgow in 1915, being active in the peace crusades and standing for seats on the local council.

There’s still a lot to be discovered about the history of the Kinning Park branch after the early years. There is evidence that it carried on until at least 1972 or maybe even longer? If anyone has any information – we’d love to hear it.

Sue Rawcliffe’s talk was based on research that she is doing for a PhD in the School of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde. She is looking at the role that communities have played in social welfare in the West of Scotland over the last 200 years. Kinning Park Co-operative Women’s Guild is one of her case studies. She is interested in exploring whether this history is of interest to people active in community organisations today and it can lead to any different ideas about the present and the future.

Sue’s research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the Imagine Programme.

Please get in touch in case you have any questions, further information or if you wish to use any of the materials on this page.