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The Cooperative Wholesale Society Pelaw Works

by Joan Hewitt

The vast group of factories which occupied the ground between Shields Road and the railway was established by the Lancashire cooperative movement, to spread the commercial principle of cooperative trading into the North-east at the turn of the century.

It began with the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, and was instantly successful. Working people had for long endured adverse conditions in urban shops - profiteering, false descriptions, shoddy goods passed off as superior, lack of hygiene, and worst of all, the adulteration of produce. Chalk in flour, other dried leaves in tea, ground nutshells in pepper, chicory in coffee, red lead to colour cheese were just a few common practices.

The ethic of the Cooperative Societies was to trade by a few basic simple rules for the benefit of members. Every member must buy shares (often one shilling each), be issued with a share Number. All goods would be retailed at a fair market price, and profits returned to the society for expansion, and to members in dividend related to the amount purchased, so much in the pound, say 2s. Each society formed would have its own trading name, its own shop premises to be called a ’store’, and elected committees to manage it all.

At first the cooperative movement was entirely made up of retail stores sited in heavily populated industrial areas, particularly in the North of England. In the 1870s a change to manufacturing began, again in Lancashire, round Manchester The Coop saw the advantage of producing its own goods. Soon it required to expand its manufacturing base, and Tyneside was seen as a splendid place to put up new works.

Finding a suitable site took some time. The railway was important as it would transport the finished goods, and a large, easily accessible piece of ground was essential. Negotiations for a site were conducted from Newcastle.

In 1896 The Ecclesiastical Commissioners agreed to lease 3.75 acres of land between Heworth and Bill Quay for 999 years at 2d per square yard ground rent. It lay conveniently between Shields Road and the North Eastern Railway, near Pelaw Junction, where the N.E.R. crossed the older Pelaw Main Waggonway. The Cooperative Society, understandably, called its works by the name handiest, Pelaw. Before the factories were built, there was nothing between Heworth village and Bill Quay but fields, the odd cottage, a stream called the Catdean Burn, bridle paths and the waggonway. Within ten years a whole new community grew around the works, using the name Pelaw.

Before the first factory could function, a workforce had to be found and trained, and skilled men came from Lancashire to start this process. There are still families in and around Pelaw today, whose grandfathers came and settled down to work for the rest of their lives in the C.W.S. works. These are some of their surnames:

Crowther; Slinger; Howard; Ducker; Slowther; Humble; Walker; Punshon; Lownes; Wiley;Dodgson; Shaw; Ford; Eckersley; Sturrock; Routledge; Smiles; Hazelby

The first factory to open was the Drugs and Drysaltery in 1902. At the same time as training went on, houses were beginning to go up across Shields Road in the former fields. Terraces in red brick one after the other straddled the ground from Heworth to Bill Quay. Fronting onto Shields Road, most were stone faced in the Heworth Quarries freestone. The bricks almost all came from William Foster’s Pelaw and Stoneygate brickyards. Indeed Foster also built many houses.

Between 1902 and 1912 along Shields Road a parade of factories went up in good red brick, most of them Foster’s. He was a very fortunate man, in the right place at the right time, his brick works flourished, and he even built his own detached house in Pelaw, opposite the Printing Works, called Croxdale House, after his birthplace in County Durham.

The series of factories included as well as the drugs and dry goods, clothing (shirts, suits, coats, night attire, etc) quilts and bedding, cabinet making, engineering and printing. They covered two acres, and behind them were sidings on the railway.

In 1906 the C.W.S. became involved in a dispute leading to a lawsuit. Other manufacturers resented the Coop’s high moral approach to trade, its lower prices, its success in drawing away their customers. Pharmaceutical and drug companies began to withhold supplies to the C.W.S. The Coop responded by purchasing its own bulk raw materials, and expanded its drug departments to make all its own pharmaceutical preparations and market them in its own chemist shops. One particular item was used by its opponents in a court case in the Chancery Division, namely Iron Oxide tablets. The C.W.S. was accused of copying another popular iron tablet, (possibly Iron Jelloids), in shape, size and green colour, but at a lower price. The C.W.S. lost the case, and had to exercise great care to avoid similar incidents.

By 1912, one of the most popular products ever made was well established at Pelaw, with sales rising dramatically. This was Pelaw Polish. Millions of tins of it were sold every year, all over the world. Polish production continually grew as did the sales, and world-wide advertising meant that Pelaw Polish became a household name. When people looked up at neon signs in the cities they saw Pelaw Polish flashing at them. It was easy to remember too, with its two P words.

In the clothing factory, women workers at their sewing machines turned out not only shirts, nightwear, underwear, coats and suits. But also industrial clothing - overalls, boiler-suits, and pit clothes. A memo on this last read "In the North-east, so strong is the tradition, that men’s pit-drawers of flannel kersey are still in use and must be supplied."

Cabinet making soon became as important as clothing, there being plenty of skilled men employed in making wooden furniture at first, but eventually upholstery commenced, with equal success. Pelaw was the third cabinet works of the C.W.S. and all followed the same rules: no luxury furniture, all union labour, all time served men, no bought-in timber or ready-made pieces, and every upholsterer was C.W.S. trained and tested. In 1936, the cabinet works outgrew its first factory on Shields Road, and a much bigger one was built at Bill Quay, beyond Station Road. By then the works was also making commercial furniture, for offices, hotels, cinemas and boardrooms. During the Second World War, the whole factory was compelled to do war work, in particular the building of gliders and aircraft parts.

Pelaw’s famous Down Quilts were first made in 1914, in the Quilt factory. Again the workers were women. They were clever quilters, probably because here in County Durham there was an ancient tradition of quilting, and the skills thus acquired were drawn on for the Pelaw workforce. But the Durham quilts though popular, were later eclipsed by the Eiderdowns, filled with the soft, warm and light down feathers of the eider duck. The covers were in satins and silks of deep, lustrous colours and strong patterns.

The Pelaw Quilt factory had its own buyers, who travelled the world to find the finest materials. Its first year’s output realised £396, and in 1933, so great was the demand, the factory was enlarged and the staff increased. In 1938, its total sales were over £90,000. Not only were eiderdowns made, but there was a thriving service in the recovering of old eiderdowns originally made there. Some people still have them! In the Second World War the quilting works made uniforms and flying suits.

The tailoring factory grew like the others, and was extended twice, in 1933 and 1937. The women who worked there were all expert machinists and tailoresses. All the female workers were paid less than the male staff, as was the general rule. There were wage disputes at times even in this benevolent regime.

During the Great War, in 1917, girls in the printing works went on unofficial strike over wage levels among skilled, unskilled, printers and craftsmen, because they were set to do men’s jobs but paid girls’ wages. The trouble spread to other departments, but the union gave little support. The problem returned in 1923, when a post-war trade slump brought a reduction in wages. In the Drugs factory for instance, men’s wages were reduced by 2 shillings a week and women’s by 1 shilling - a lot in 1923.

The union, N.U.S.D.A.W. called a strike in April, with a rally on the Town Moor attended by at least 850 workers, but to no avail. They were back at work in June, at even lower rates of pay, bar the young employees, aged 19-24 who were slightly upgraded. Cynicism suggests the C.W.S. wanted to keep a well trained future workforce.

During the Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, the Pelaw works were a godsend to the people of Felling and district, when so many men in heavy industry were out of work. Many a family here survived the lean years because one or two of their number worked in Pelaw Wholesale. Their daughters often earned more than their fathers could get on the dole.

In 1928, work was diverted from Manchester to the Pelaw Drugs and Drysaltery. For the first time the manager appointed there had to be a Pharmaceutical Chemist, and the Under-manager had to be an industrial chemist. Pelaw Polish was still the supreme product, and in 1930 came an innovation with the introduction of a new process, ready-mixes in packets, such as Cake Mix, Bun Flour, Trifle Mix and Fruitloaf Mix.

During the 1930s a special Works bus service was inaugurated by agreement with the Northern General Transport Company. The workforce of several thousand lived further away than Pelaw, all over Felling, into Gateshead and Hebburn, and the buses were laid on four times a day: morning, noon, one p.m. and after five p.m. Most people went home for dinner in the middle of the day then, but in 1937, the Coop built a new Dining Hall on the corner of Green Lane, to serve cheap meals to staff. This was very popular in wartime with food rationing making it difficult for mothers to provide a hot dinner every day.

All the C.W.S. staff had concessions in the purchase of Coop goods, and at certain times, Christmas for example, employees received vouchers to obtain goods at discount in the big warehouses at Blandford Street, Waterloo Street and St Anthony’s. The Pelaw Works also catered for employee’s social needs. There was a Social Club, Sports Club, Drama Society which put on plays and concerts in the dining room which had a stage.

The staff were encouraged to join the C.W.S. Savings and Insurance Schemes, with conditions of membership very much in their favour.

One would suppose that this vast and busy works would continue to progress and expand after the War when demand for goods returned, and prosperity was much improved. It proved not to be the case. As the 1960s passed, the Coop fell behind its competitors in both retailing and manufacturing. It was slow to see the potential of supermarkets, and did not modernise its production methods soon enough, losing a large share of the market.

Some say that its employees were busy looking after themselves rather than customers. Others assert that the management was too old-fashioned and the goods likewise. Retail Cooperative societies began to amalgamate or disappear, and membership fell. A general decline began which in the 1970s greatly accelerated and by 1980 most of the factories were closed, a sad blow to the district which had for so long taken it for granted. The printing works gave up in 1993, but still stands forlorn and battered by vandals. In 1998 only the Shirt Factory is alive. The other buildings have been demolished and in part replaced with private houses and an Aldi supermarket.

The lifetime of the Cooperative Wholesale Society Pelaw Works has proved to be a similar span to that of many people - about eighty years.

These are other dates connected with the story of the C.W.S. in this area - always a staunch and loyal supporter since the beginning.

It is remarked that older people who were once members of "The Store" can still remember their check number, even after as long as 60 years.

A publication of Felling Local History Society (1998)





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