John Castle was a founding member and manger of the Colchester Co-operative society. This blog will discuss the political implications of this society on both a national and local scale.
‘Let them promote the diffusion of that knowledge and the boon of education which would extinguish superstition and jealousy, and they would have that bond of united interest which no power on earth could break asunder – they could free themselves from the toil and misery which oppressed them; they could make for themselves a heaven upon earth.’[i]
J.T.W. Mitchell. 1877
The political backdrop of 19th century Britain so described by John Castle is one of increased mechanisation of industry, the results of the industrial revolution. Whilst Britain succeeded in increasing industrial efficiency this meant traditional labour based industries, for example the wool industry John Castle was involved in, became more volatile for the labour force. The country as a whole got wealthier but the working classes saw little of the trickledown effect. Thinking about the Co-operative society in these terms it is possible to think of it as a minor socialist revolution. It is described in Co-operative Culture and the Politics of Consumption in England, 1870 – 1930 by Peter Gurney as a movement that would ‘eventually transform competitive, capitalist society into a society based on the principles and practices of mutual association’ [ii](29). The Co-operative movement meant that working class people could control prices of essential amenities and also profit together from the sale of the same products. This improved standards of living for many people in surrounding areas.
The origins and reasons for starting up the society, and politically they parallel the wider national cause described by Peter Gurney, are clearly defined by Castle in the memoir. The first was about social mobility, ‘to elevate ourselves’ (30), merely making more money in order to enjoy a better life. The second is a question of fair trade, Castle talks of how bakers would sell bread that was far lighter than the weight paid for. ‘This dishonest system seemed to me to arise out of unfair competition one with the other’ (30). Castle and the others hoped to create a free and fair market.
The Co-operative movement however was never a basis for radical social reform or radical protest. What the movement was was a gradual realisation from hundreds of different communities that they had the ability to better themselves in a small way by implicating a few small steps to ensure fair prices for goods along with a small profit for themselves. As Peter Gurney says ‘social transformation depended on the gradual and peaceful expansion of the movement, facilitated by an educational strategy’ (176 -177). As eluded to in previous sections the importance of education was a key. John Castle lived his life as he created his memoir; to educate people around him to better opportunities. Politics in 1860 for a person of Castle’s class would have been unrecognisable to politics as it is today. The prime minister at the time would have been Henry John Temple more commonly known as Lord Palmerston, originally Tory but towards his later life he became Liberal. These two political distinctions however are inconsequential when looking at the effects upon the working class. The two parties differed upon economic ideas of free trade and government market intervention however neither spared a thought for the working class. It was only when the Labour party was founded in 1900 that rights for workers’ became a major topic for political discussion. So working class people had limited options for change politically and change came not from top down policy but from the expansion of ideas like the Co-operative movement and others such as the expansion of trade unions.
The importance of John Castle politically does not then lie in radical change through one man but in his involvement in a gradual and successful process to change society. The concept of politics is blurred by many as something only concerning government. My understanding of politics is that it is an involvement in any facet of society however large or seemingly trivial. Politics is everything to everyone whether it be questioning why a loaf of bread costs what it does, or instigating political revolution.
I will end with the song of the Colchester Co-operative society.
“What might be done if men were wise
What glorious deeds, my suffering brother
Did we unite in love and right
And cease our hate of one another.
The meanest wretch that ever trod
The lowest sunk in grief and sorrow
Might stand erect in self-respect
And share the teeming world to-morrow”
[i] Mitchell, J. T. W. Co-operative News. 7/04/1877
[ii] Gurney, Peter. ‘Co-operative Culture and the Politics of Consumption in England 1870 -1930’. Manchester University Press, 1996