We Strive and We Rise

Article published in the Konect Directory Calders edition April 2010 

by Helen-Jane Shearer

For just over a century, a home-grown local business played a central and essential role in the Calders and beyond ... the West Calder Co-operative Society left its mark in many ways, not least in the various buildings and architectural landmarks that remain of its local shopping empire.

The society was founded 1875, and rented premises at East End, West Calder, to begin trading.  Two committee members went to Edinburgh with £5 to buy the inital stock, but ended up spending over £70 - all of the initial capital of the society!

Co-Op Clock, West Calder

The Co-op clock in West Calder 

The early days were difficult.  The founding members had to contend with scepticism from the general public and hostility from other local traders, not to mention staff problems.

Despite the difficulties the society gained momentum and went from strength to strength.  Smart moves in the early days to meet real need in the community contributed to its early growth.  For example, a gunpowder workshop to produce cartridges for shale minders was established.  This avoided the need for miners to make their own cartridges from loose powder stored in the kitchens and bedrooms of their family homes, so led to a significant increase in members who wanted to purchase ready-made cartridges.

An early scrappage scheme?

One of the earliest expansion activities was the acquisition of a horse and van to deliver goods to outlying areas.  

We all know how much hassle an unreliable vehicle can be, and in this case the society’s first horse caused many problems. The salesman and his assistant were in charge of the animal, but there were complaints in 1876 that it was not being fed properly. In August that year the salesman reported that the horse was in fact fed three times a day except Saturday.  It was still giving problems in September - amongst other things, apparently it was refusing to eat its boiled supper and it required medication.

Sales from this horse and van did not progress well, and it was finally agreed in March 1877 to withdraw the delivery service for a time.  Four members took responsibility for feeding the horse, until the vet advised it should be destroyed. 

The minutes of the meeting simply record ‘‘So we buried him in No.10 bing’’ 

From its first purchase in 1879 of a small cottage on the corner of Union Street and Main Street, West Calder, the empire spread all over the village and beyond.  It opened branches in Mid Calder, Pumpherston, Blackburn, Addiewell and Haywood.  It took over the East Calder, Oakbank and Uphall co-operative societies.  Some of our largest old buildings today - such as those housing Calder’s Furniture in West Calder, Raj Poot in Pumpherston, Bargain Motors in Pumpherston - were all West Calder Co-op buildings.  Society Lane and the West Calder Workspace in Society Place also recall the huge presence that the Society had in the village. These buildings once contained a bakery, stables and coach houses.

The Store, as the Co-op was usually known, was not just a shop but a way of life. Each family who was a member had its own Co-op number, so that all purchases made were credited to their account.  Each quarter the profits were shared out as dividends to members.  Some families depended on this dividend to pay their rent and basic necessities. 

Co-Op premises West Calder

Main Street of West Calder with Co-op’s central premises with clock on the right (demolished) and its bakery on the left (now Calder’s Furniture) 

Power to the People!

The society set up its own electricity-generating plant at its central premises in West Calder in 1889.  A dynamo driven by a steam engine provided current to light the whole of the premises, as well as power for some of the machinery in the workshops and a refrigerator for the summer months.

In 1893 a group of local people got together to raise money for lamps, poles and cables for the streets of West Calder, and approached the society to supply the electricity.  This possibility had in fact already been considered by the society when a large dynamo had been previously procured.  So a major village ceromony took place for the switching-on of the new street lights on 28th November 1893, making West Calder one of the very first villages in Scotland to have electric street lights.

The clock which now stands in Union Square in West Calder was orignially the centrepiece of the society’s central premises, and was erected in 1884 on the corner building between Union Street and Main Street.   A great dedication ceremony took place in June of that year, when a memorial stone was laid with Masonic honours by West Calder Thistle Lodge.  The whole village turned out for the occasion and there was a procession, brass band and a formal dinner.

When this building was demolished and the clock removed in 1977,  a glass jar was discovered containing coins from 1884 and a copy of the Courrier from the same date. 

The entrepreneurial spirit of some local shale miners, a vision and a lot of hard work were the hallmarks of the organisation which was an integral part of community life here.  It was eventually taken over by the Scotmid in 1982. 

Mild-Mannered Killer

In 1887 one of the society’s vans pulled by a fine grey horse collided with a pony and trap, wrecking the trap and throwing the two gentlemen inside it to the ground.  They didn’t seem too badly hurt as they dusted themselves down and walked home.  The society agreed to pay for the wrecked trap plus compensation for the accident.  But one of the gentlemen developed complications from his injury and died shortly afterwards. His widow sued the society and the case went to court in Edinburgh. But blame for the accident depended on the characters of the horse and of the pony involved.  A member of society’s committee was dispatched to Carlisle to bring the horse breeder - an old farmer and his son who came to Edinburgh to testify, on behalf of the society, the good character of the horse.  The horse itself had to be kept near to the courthouse so that it could be inspected by the jury and professionals involved.  It spent the duration of the case in stables at Grassmarket.  In the end the court ruled against the society, and after an appeal it was ordered to pay £500 to the gentleman’s widow.  

Co-Op premises Pumpherston

Pumpherston Branch (drawn 1884) on corner of Uphall Station Road and Harrysmuir Road 

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