In 2014 Barnsley Museums was awarded £43,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to launch an exciting project focusing on a company that was at the heart of communities in Barnsley and the surrounding area for over 100 years. David Blunden, Local Studies Librarian reflects on the ‘Service Please: Digitisation and Display of the Barnsley British Co-operative Society Archives’ project and the legacy it provided.
A Century & More of Service
Barnsley British Co-operative Society (BBCS) was founded in August 1861 as a result of being heavily influenced by the philosophy of a founding member named George Adcroft. Adcroft had moved from Lancashire to work at the Oaks Colliery in Barnsley. He had previously been a member of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers which was established in 1844. The Rochdale society was one of the first co-operatives to pay a dividend ‘divi’ to its members and many of its objectives around trading were used as a basis for new co-operatives across the country. The first store in Barnsley was opened in March 1862 at 16 Market Street and the first district store opened in Dodworth in 1863. By the end of the century the majority of outlying districts had a grocery branch and the society’s principle for being self-sufficient meant that a number of production plants had opened, including a flour mill, bakery, abattoir and tin can factory. In 1950 the society opened its first self-service grocery store at New Lodge, which paved the way for a number of other store conversions over the next two decades. By the 1960s other departments of the society included butchery, restaurant, clothing, jewellery, optical, travel agency and decorating. However, by the early 1970s the society began to contract; it started to close smaller grocery stores which weren’t profitable or suitable for self-service and in 1971 merged with another society, Co-operative Retail Services (CRS). The name ‘Barnsley British Co-operative Society’ subsequently disappeared from the high street.
A Story To Tell
The aim of the project was to catalogue and make available to the public the large collection of archive material relating to the company. Not only did this involve employing a member of staff to physically sort through boxes of records, but also for them to be individually catalogued. The finished catalogue would then appear online, enabling researchers to browse this information and request to see the documents in person. A second online aspect was the creation of a Barnsley British Co-operative Society (BBCS) celebratory website featuring mini histories for many individual shops along with digitised photographs and architect’s building plans. A key strand of the project was the importance of involving local communities; collecting their memories of how BBCS was closely connected to their lives through stories, documents and objects, culminating in an exhibition at Experience Barnsley.
Remembering The Barnsley Co-op
A timetable of community events took place across the borough including reminiscence sessions, recording of oral histories, heritage walks, object and archive collections roadshows and geocaching. Group reminiscence sessions tailored for individuals living with dementia and memory loss used enlarged archival photographs of traditional co-op practices to encourage engagement with carers. It enabled participants to share and relive their own experiences of how they and their relatives’ lives were impacted by the Co-op. Oral histories were filmed in various libraries across the borough which encouraged a variety of former employees and shoppers to give personal insights into daily life. The purpose of this was to give relatable content to individuals of a similar age, but also provide younger listeners with a comparison with modern shopping habits. The collections roadshows were an opportunity for the service to acquire either permanently or through short-term loan objects and documents to display in the exhibition. These additional personal donations also complemented the official company collection. The guided walks and geocache elements of the project were designed to be a visual and active way of interpreting the past. The guided walks covered notable BBCS sites and buildings within Barnsley town centre, including Market Hill, New Street and Cheapside. The geocaches were placed near former Co-op branches in Darfield and these were located over 90 times in the first month.
Service Please Exhibition
The exhibition in Experience Barnsley Museum enabled people to learn about their heritage by exploring objects and photographs donated by local people, view some of the recently conserved archives and watch films with people’s memories recorded. The exhibition was also supported by the Rochdale Pioneers Museums who loaned a former BBCS delivery bicycle for display. Areas of the exhibition also sought to recreate the designs from former buildings such as the wallpaper used in the Arcadian Restaurant. The largest item on display was an original shopfront sign from the Racecommon Road branch which had been donated and conserved, and which now hangs proudly in the museum. A play shop ensured that families could be entertained and provided many return visits. A supporting programme of events included a talk about the Co-operative Movement, printmaking and baking sessions. A total of 8,287 people visited the exhibition and 671 engaged in the programme of family and adult activities.
Project Legacy & Online Exhibition
One of the objectives of the project was to create a range of resources that could be enjoyed long after its conclusion. The newly catalogued archive collection was chosen as one of the featured ‘showcase collections’ when the Arts, Museums and Archives online catalogue was launched, highlighting its importance to the history of Barnsley. A website was launched following months of research by volunteers and staff, providing short histories and images of many shops in the Barnsley area.
This has been useful over the subsequent years in guiding researchers interested in a particular branch of the Co-op. Following on from the guided walking tours, a free Barnsley town centre Co-op walking map was created which contained historical facts about the buildings along the route. A book titled ‘A-Z of Barnsley Co-op’ was published resulting from the success of the reminiscences sessions and was distributed to care homes and libraries. The oral history interviews that were included in the exhibition were later uploaded to YouTube to be shared with a wider audience. The success of the project also had a lasting influence on future exhibitions and archival cataloguing projects. It enabled the team to feel more confident in tackling larger business collections and making the documents available to the customers. Since the end of the project the large Corah clothing factory collection has been catalogued as well as an exhibition and cataloguing project relating to the Barnsley Canister Company.
The end of an era
In 2016 the first Barnsley British Co-operative building on Market Hill suffered a large fire and unfortunately had to be demolished due to safety concerns. A digital model was created to show the development of this iconic Barnsley building through time, based on a laser scan that Historic England had undertaken before the fire. Which era is your favourite?
Find out more about the documents relating to the Barnsley Co-op in Barnsley Archives by browsing our online catalogue: Barnsley Archives online catalogue (opens in new tab).