THE hand-to-mouth existence of desperately poor Wearside families during Edwardian times gave political campaigner Margaret Llewelyn Davies great cause for concern.
But, instead of dipping into her savings to make a charitable donation, the Yorkshire-born suffragette opted for a practical approach – helping to open a “poor store” in Sunderland’s East End.
“In 1902, the Co-operative movement chose Sunderland as the front line in confronting poverty in Edwardian Britain,” said Kathleen Hardy, a local historian from Great Lumley.
“A joint initiative by the campaigning Women’s Co-operative Guild and Sunderland Co-operative Society saw the opening of what became known as ‘the Poor Store’ in Coronation Street.”
She added: “This innovative project, with Margaret Llewelyn Davies taking a leading role, was aimed at bringing the benefits of Co-operation within the reach of the poorest of the poor, and it did.”
Low and irregular incomes placed membership of the normal Co-operative Society, and even the purchase of basic shopping essentials, well beyond the reach of many labourers at the time.
But the new Co-op poor store sold small quantities of groceries such as tea, coffee and jam at low prices, as well as cheap cooked meats, pease pudding and cups of nourishing soups at ½d.
Indeed, so proud were staff of the products they offered that 1902 adverts promised “a ha’p’orth of pease pudding soused in pork gravy” would be enough to satisfy a small family.
“The development of a bright and attractive store in Coronation Street was described as ‘splendour against drab surroundings,’ said Kathleen, a member of Durham Area Committee of The Co-operative.
“It soon became a focal point for shopping and community activity in the courts and alleys of one of the poorest, most overcrowded districts in the country.”
In addition to selling cut-price groceries, the store boasted a miniature “Settlement”, complete with meeting hall, two resident social workers, club-room facilities and volunteer workers.
Leaders of the Women’s Co-operative Guild also took turns in taking up temporary residence at the site, overseeing the work of the project and documenting daily life in the East End.
“Customers of the poor store were encouraged to become members of the Sunderland Equitable and Industrial Society and, through a dividend, take a share in the profits,” said Kathleen.
“The local children enthusiastically saved in the Penny Bank and, together with their parents, were welcomed to a rich and varied programme of education classes, talks and entertainment in the hall.
“The offer of such a programme even drew one seasoned drinker, who would ‘kill for a gill’, away from the Coronation Street-based pub Grace Darling and into classes and discussions.
“The training offered was rather like lessons at a public school, but for working-class women. It instilled confidence in them, and encouraged them to develop their lives and aspirations.”
The poor store was to prove both a financial and community success. Families saw a good return on their dividends, and many women and children enjoyed their first taste of a real education.
Sadly, the project was to last less than two years – with political arguments behind the scenes blamed for its closure. The legacy of its work, however, lived on.
“It was a mission to help the poor help themselves,” said Kathleen. “It was all about teaching people to help themselves by not getting into debt – and it worked.”
Details of the Sunderland poor store have been unearthed by the Popular Politics Project – a Lottery funded initiative by the North East Labour History Society and Co-operative membership.
Kathleen, a member of the project, found her interest sparked by an oral history interview in which she heard how the Co-operative Women’s Guild helped develop the talents of working-class women.
“I decided to do some further reading, which was when I discovered more about the poor store,” she said. “Our research has been ongoing since last spring, and now I need to write it all up.
“I’m hoping to write a report for the North East Labour History Journal on the store later this year, and it is possible we may make a booklet out of all the material too.”
l Volunteers at the North East Popular Politics Project tackle a wide range of research projects each year. To find out more contact project co-ordinator John Charlton on 07761 818384.