The Co-operative Society in Dover, can be traced back to Radford Evans (1835-1912), born in the village of River. He was the eldest son of Thomas Evans, a labourer at River paper mill, and his wife Ann who worked as a layer at the same mill. By the age of 14, Radford was an apprentice labourer and in 1858, he married Hannah Hopper from East Langdon. They settled in a cottage (demolished 1957), close to the old pub, Dublin Man O’ War, then in Minnis Lane, River. Hannah also worked at the paper mill but with nine children in the space of as many years, she, like other mill wives, continually had financial problems.
Successive members of the Phipps family owned the mill and workers were paid on the piecework basis – that is on the amount they individually produced and how much the product was worth at the time it was sold. The hours were long and workers bought their provisions from the Butty – the mill shop – at prices determined by the mill owner. To save expense, workers were often issued with truck (tickets), as part of their pay. These could only be spent at the shop. It was not until 1875 that Trucking was finally declared unlawful in England.
Radford was bright and self-taught. His literary skills were such that he wrote pamphlets on the workings of paper mills and on the village of River. By 1874, he had been promoted to foreman and although they were now being paid by cash, most provisions were bought from the Butty shop at inflated prices. Radford, along with six other men, decided to form a co-operative to purchase their groceries wholesale.
Their inspiration came from Rochdale where, on 21 December 1844, a group of mill workers had set up a co-operative store. They had bought their goods wholesale and sold them to their members at market prices. They then divided any profits among the members in proportion to the amount spent.
The biggest problem the Rochdale pioneers faced was boycott by wholesale merchants and as the movement grew, having to bid against other co-operatives for goods that were kept deliberately short, by wholesalers. To get round these problems, the co-operatives had set up, on 3 April 1863, the Co-operative Wholesale Industrial and Provident Society Limited (CWS), in Manchester.
The idea of co-operative quickly caught the imagination of other workers at River paper mill and in May 1880, under the Industrial and Provident or Friendly Societies Act (1876), the River Co-operative Society, (RCS) was registered. Originally there were 65 members and each member paid 1s (5p) a week that amounted to £139 share capital for the first year. Out of this the RCS paid 10s (50p) to join the CWS and bought tea, coffee, cocoa and corned beef in bulk.
Business quickly grew and the sales at the end of the first year amounted to £1,162 and they established their first shop, at 92 Lower Road, River. The house is still there. Radford Evans was elected secretary and within a year, a small bakery was built. This brought their first confrontation with local businesses. Mannering family owned the corn mills and they refused to supply the RCS with flour. Although Radford Evans was able to get supplies from further a field as time passed the boycott spread.
Nonetheless, in 1882, RCS acquired a small house at East Cliff but sadly this business failed. Not long after they officially re-registered as Dover and District Co-operative Society Ltd (DDCS) although publicly were known as the River Co-operative Society for a very long time after. With a loan from the Sheerness Co-operative DDCS bought 3 Market Street. Centrally located the site augured well but George Rubie, who owned one of Dover’s major grocery stores and had a lot of influence in the town, organised a boycott.
Enthusiasm with the co-op movement was at its lowest point and Filmer Phipps, the mill owner, was declared bankrupt in 1888. Working at the Market Street store was Joseph Rayner, who took over the reigns and actively, countering Rubie’s boycott. Soon the store outgrew the premises. On 10 April 1889, having purchased the site in Biggin Street, DDCS but reverting to its original name, moved in with Rayner in charge.
This was a major confrontation as George Rubie’s main shop was close by. So angry was Rubie that he re-wrote his Will leaving a pension for local elderly persons of good character connected with the grocery trade, ‘but not the Co-operative Society!’ The Rubie Charity is now handled by the Municipal Charities of Dover.
On the day the Biggin Street shop opened some 800 of the 921 members were entertained to a celebration tea and were addressed by both the Secretary, Radford Evans and the now President of DDCS, Joseph Rayner.
In the meantime, DDCS bought, for £2,000, a plot further up Lower Road, River where the Co-operative store is today. There the shop, assembly room, bakery, and for their employees, cottages were built. Most of these building are still there today. Rayner also persuaded local corn millers that it was in their best interest to supply at prevailing market prices. They were happy to do so. In 1895, the Society reported that their capital was £17,276 and the annual receipts was £38,000, the dividend paid to their 1770 members was 2s6d in the pound on purchases!
A new branch of DDCS opened in Winchelsea Road in December 1896, South Road, Tower Hamlets in 1898. In 1905, total sales amounted to £81,807 and they opened their iconic shop on Cherry Tree Avenue. In Biggin Street DDCS opened a restaurant and cake shop while their bakery, which was still entirely carried on at River, baked 240,000 gallons that year. Other facilities DDCS offered included a Penny Bank, Building Society, and library with reading room as well as a Mutuality Club.
The latter enabled members to have loan vouchers to spend in the DDCS stores valued at £5 or £10, which were paid back as 1s (5p) a week. DDCS paid the Royal Victoria Hospital in Dover’s High Street, to give members a discount on treatments and also ran a Women’s Guild and junior and senior choirs. To bring coal from Newcastle for members, they bought their own brigantine, James Simpson, built in 1857.
In May 1912, Joseph Rayner senior retired but instigated the motion, ‘No person shall be eligible to serve on the Committee of Management if he has a son or daughter in the employ of the Society.’ His sons Joseph and George had served under him, Joseph manager of the River store and George the manager of the Cherry Tree Avenue branch.
Radford Evans died at Princess Square, Bayswater on 12 September that year, he was aged 76. Radford was buried in the family grave at Finchley and on the day of his funeral all the DDCS shops closed. Hannah, Radford’s wife, died in March 1917 in Paddington.
The shop in Biggin Street was named as the registered office in 1914, and thereafter was referred to as the Central Store. On 4 August, World War I (1914-1918) was declared and the initial effect on DDCS was similar to most other businesses, inflation. Credit was only allowed at the discretion of the managers. As the war dragged on and male employees left for the Front, their places were taken by women. On 4 September 1917 employee, Minnie Rhoda Smith aged 40 of Widred Road was killed in a bombing raid. Her coffin was borne by fellow DDCS employees.
Frederick Clark took over the River Co-op in 1918 and was, in 1945, succeeded by his son Leonard. Joseph Rayner junior was promoted to manager and buyer at the Central Store. Faced with the post-war economic depression he introduced a number of ways in which families could augment their finances. Typically, paying children 2d (approx. 1p) for every bucket of horse manure collected in the streets. At the time, DDCS had a fleet of horse drawn wagons and stables in Edwards Road, off Biggin Street. Children were also encouraged to collect, wash and return jam jars for which they received payment in kind. Often this was lumps of bread dough to bake at home.
In 1928 work started on a neo-classical style butchery and furniture department in Biggin Street. That year the business acquired Charlton Lodge, on Maison Dieu Road, where they opened a dairy that quickly enveloped premises on Crafford Street. In October the following year Joseph Rayner jnr. died. He was buried in St Andrew’s Churchyard at Buckland after a service in Buckland Wesleyan Church. Not only did the staff of DDCS, but their families and members of the Society along with many of Dover’s elite lined the funeral route. DDCS carried on Joseph’s philosophy during the economic downturn of the 1930s when annual dividend for members brought about long queues on payout days.
At a meeting on 18 February 1931 it was agreed to use the official name, Dover and District Co-operative Society, publicly. Three days later on 21 February a meeting was held to promote the formation of the Co-operative Party at Dover. Later that year the new Party unsuccessfully ran one candidate in the Municipal Election, in the Hougham Ward.
Far reaching decisions were also being made at the headquarters of CWS, to help poor working class areas by making loans available for capital spending. With such a loan, in 1931, DDCS built a community hall on the Charlton Lodge site in Maison Dieu Road. Costing £4,000 it accommodated 800 and opened in June 1932 with a dance organised by local impresario, Freddy Overton. Another loan enabled the store on the west side of Biggin Street to be extended and in 1938, a state of the arts bakery was built next door. In July 1937 James Lawrence, one of the original founders of the DDCS died, he lived long enough to see the membership of DDCS reach 10,000.
As the dark clouds of World War II gathered, the River store was designated as an ARP post. A telephone link was installed to connect it with the Police Station at the Town Hall. The stables at the back were turned into air raid shelters for 80 and the basement of the Central Store in Biggin Street was designated to provide shelter for 200. Although the different Co-op stores did not suffer a great deal of damage in the war, in May 1941 an exploding shell brought down the workshops behind the Central store. Six months later, bombing damaged its front and in the heavy bombardment of September 1944, the garage, housing the Co-op’s vehicles, was flattened. The following year Richard Fakeley, another of the Co-op pioneers, died on 18 September 1945, aged 92.
Following the war, DDCS reacted quickly to the needs of the townsfolk and became the main grocer. A new River store opened and shops opened on the Aycliffe, Buckland estate and on Sheridan, Folkestone, Manor and Union (later Coombe Valley) Roads. They also opened branches at Whitfield, Elvington and Aylesham. In July 1948, the Olympic Torch was carried through Dover by Sidney Doble of the Co-operative Sports Club on the way to Wembley.
The first self-service shop in the town was the co-op store at Elms Vale in 1950. The dairy in Crafford Street was replace by a modern one in 1953 and three years later, (1956) the Biggin Street shop was revamped to become Dover’s first supermarket. The following year Co-operative Retail Services Ltd (CRS) separated from its parent company CWS and DDCS came under its umbrella. July 1960 saw the amalgamation of the Dover and Deal Co-ops and in 1971, the Dover branch reported an annual turnover of over £2m.
However, at the national level internal strife and stagnation brought about the decline of the Co-op and in Dover shop after shop closed. In 1984 the town centre electrical and furniture store on the west side of Biggin Street closed, it was said, to centralise all departments in the bigger premises on the opposite side of the road. The Crafford Street dairy closed in October 1988 and was demolished to make way for Charlton Centre car park. The Co-op Hall in Maison Dieu Road was taken over by the Post Office and since demolished. In 1990, the Biggin Street supermarket closed followed a year later by the departmental store. The request was granted for the demolition of both.
On 23 October 1990 the Co-op, operating under the name of Leo, opened a £7.5m food super-store with its own car park at Charlton Green employing 200 but this closed at Christmas 2004. By 2008, it was reported that only the River shop and the Dover funeral parlour remained. The year before, the national company, the Co-operative Group undertook major changes and in 2009, they acquired the Somerfield supermarket chain. Investing £240,000 on refurbishing the former store in Stembrook, this opened in July 2010 bringing a Co-op back to the centre of Dover. However, it was announced in November 2016, that the supermarket was to close in February 2017 and it did. Dover District Council purchased the building in April 2018 for starter businesses to boost the town centre’s regeneration.
First Published: Dover Mercury: 23 & 30 June and 07 July 2011