About The Archive


The Co-operative Union was formed in 1869 and its educational activities formalised in 1882 with the appointment of an education committee. Some societies were heavily involved in educational activities, but the entry of other agencies into the field gave the opportunity for co-operative society education funds to be directed towards education in Co-operation – as Arnold Bonner described it, “the making of Co-operators”.

Technical correspondence courses and junior classes were developed during the 1890s and, by 1900, over 1,000 students were enrolled for courses, over 500 adults had already taken exams in industrial history, bookkeeping and citizenship and over 900 juniors.

In 1906 George Jacob Holyoake, the co-operative leader, secularist and social reformer, who had done much to spread knowledge of the co-operative movement throughout the world through his writings, died. The co-operative movement decided to build, as a memorial, a headquarters for the Co-operative Union. The Union, the national federation of co-operative societies had rented premises in different buildings in the Long Millgate district of Manchester, but had never before had its own headquarters.

The intention for the headquarters, along with office space, was to have a centre where co-operators could meet together and a library where they could learn more about the movement. Holyoake had already deposited his Robert Owen correspondence collection with the Co-operative Union and his own correspondence was deposited by his daughter, Emilie Holyoake Marsh. 1919 saw the formation of the Co-operative College within Holyoake House and the library became an integral part of the educational resource for students.

Despite the extension of Holyoake House in the 1930s, the Union and College had outgrown the premises by the beginning of the second world war. The destruction of the top floor by an incendiary bomb in 1940 brought matters to a head. The Co-operative College was the only residential college to remain open for the duration of the war, using its hostels for teaching as well as accommodation. An appeal to societies led to a fund to celebrate the centenary of the Rochdale Pioneers by acquiring premises for the College.

The movement of the Co-operative College to Stanford Hall, near Loughborough resulted in a split in the library. Some material, including the correspondence collections remained in Manchester, while collections used by the College students moved south.

In the subsequent 55 years, both libraries developed archives through acquisitions and donations. The Co-operative College collections specialised in education and in later years, the original records of societies in the Midlands were deposited by Midlands Co-operative Society. The Co-operative Union specialised in the correspondence collections and material by and about Owen, Holyoake and Edward Owen Greening, Co-operative Union, Co-operative Party and Co-operative Women’s Guild collections and the records of the Co-operative Press. There was substantial overlap between the Archives’ runs of journals from the early 19th century to the present day.


The opportunity was taken at the beginning of 2000 to bring the Union and College archives together to create a National Co-operative Archive. Following the merger, further collections were deposited by co-operative societies and work began on integration.

The Co-operative College and the Archive relocated to Manchester in 2001. Work is under way to improve access for researchers to the collections, both in the provision of facilities for visitors and by digitisation of items on the Archive web site.