The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society was formed by 28 weavers in 1844. Their warehouse in Toad Lane only had four items - flour, oatmeal, sugar and butter - but their founding principles of democracy and equality became the benchmark of the co-operative movement.

The first North-East co-operative was formed in 1842, two years before Rochdale, by the London Lead Company. It created the Governor and Company's Teesdale Workmen's Corn Association in Middleton-in-Teesdale so that its leadminers could buy cheap flour. However, it didn't write down its principles and the corporate nature of its beginnings means it doesn’t count as the nation’s first co-op.

The first formal North-East co-ops: Blaydon (founded 1858), Bishop Auckland (1860), Durham (1861), Barnard Castle (1862), Whitby (1865), Tow Law (1865), Stockton (1866), Middlesbrough (1867), Darlington (1868 - first known as the Priestgate Industrial Co-op).

In 1862, there were 30 co-operative societies with 4,000 members in Durham and Northumberland; by the end of the century there were at least 150. Most were based in mining communities, and as well as fulfilling their members' basic needs with bakeries and dairies, some even had libraries, dentists, coal depots, opticians and piano tuners.

The Priestgate co-op opened its first branches in Albert Road, Harrowgate Hill and St John’s Terrace; its cartman visited villages like Croft, Fighting Cocks, Heighington, Aycliffe, Barton, Middleton Tyas, Eppleby, Aldbrough St John and Melsonby on a weekly basis, and then it expanded into Richmond and Leyburn.

The first North-East Co-operative Wholesaler was formed in Newcastle in 1872 to buy in bulk for the co-ops of North Durham and Tyneside, and banking and insurance services soon followed.

In the 20th Century, co-ops began to merge: in the 1930s, for example, Barnard Castle and Willington co-ops merged with Darlington.

In 1970, most of the region's surviving co-ops merged into the North-Eastern Co-operative Society.

In 1986, the co-op in Priestgate closed to make way for the Cornmill Centre and so that a co-op supermarket could be built in Neasham Road.

The Stanhope and Weardale Co-op, with shops in Frosterley, Stanhope, Westgate and St John’s Chapel, was one of the rare co-ops that remained outside the North-Eastern. In 2002, it merged with Penrith and in 2013, although some members wanted it to go in with the North-Eastern, it merged with Scotmid, Scotland’s largest independent co-op.

“THEY sliced bacon in the store on dangerous looking machines, scooped sugar, currants, mixed peel into rough blue paper bags, carved butter and lard from large slabs onto greaseproof sheets then wrapped the parcel round in envelope-corner folds,” says Ann Cuthbert, evocatively remembering the days of the divi.

“All was served up by staff in brown aprons, prices scribbled down then totted up on the side of the sugar bag or on white meat-wrapping paper.

“And of course, you had to remember to give your divi number.”

Memories 470 invited memories from the days when the co-op had a branch in every village and on nearly every suburb street corner, and boy has the invitation paid dividends.

Ann, who grew up in Thompson Street West in the north end of Darlington in the 1960s, is remembering the co-op that was on the corner of Crosby Street and Lowson Street.

“Behind the store was the slaughterhouse,” she continues. “We could smell it from our garden (that and the fat works up Drinkfield) – the hot stink of animals stronger when we walked up the back lane.

“We saw the cows arrive in cattle wagons, saw them leave, headless, split down the middle, the curve of their ribs exposed. The carcasses were loaded into vans or carried across butchers’ shoulders into the shop.

“Sometimes, a cow escaped and wandered down the road in front of our house.”

The branch was one of about 30 that the Darlington co-op had scattered across town, and in 1968, aged 16, Ann got a job as a Saturday girl in the women’s and children’s shoe department of the main co-op in Priestgate, where the Cornmill Centre is today.

“We wore brown nylon overalls, were treated very patiently by the manager, and got similar perks to the full-time staff – reduced price snacks and lunches in the canteen and a discount on footwear. I loved the soft black leather knee-high boots I bought in 1969.

“We had to use sliding ladders to reach the top boxes piled up in alcoves off the display and sales area.

“After customers had tried on pairs of shoes, aided by us with our long shoe horns, if they decided to buy, we wrote out bills in duplicate and took payment but didn’t have to ring it in or give out change because this was done in the offices upstairs. We put the cash and paperwork into a canister and sent it pinging off via a system of pneumatic tubes. When the canister was returned, we’d unscrew the lid, take out the change and hand it to the customer along with their shoe box wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.”

Ahh, don’t get us started on the joys of pneumatic cash-dispensing systems. We’ve done that one before…

“In 1973, when I was between student life and a permanent job, I spent three months as a peripatetic shelf filler, moving between Darlington stores to cover staff holidays,” continues Ann.

“At Albert Road – demolished now – the best-seller was tinned dog food, heavy to heave around, while the North Road store smelt of washing powder. Brinkburn Road was quite small and stock was piled up the stairs, which was where we sat to have our breaks too, among packets of Cornflakes and tins of corned beef.

“The Stockton Road store, with its DCS sign in the brickwork above the door, was where I first met Pat Buttle, another patient and caring manager, who convinced me that belonging to a trade union was a must for any worker.

“I thought them all excellent employers but a career with the Co-op wasn’t in my plans so, by November, I was on my way…”

OUR interest in co-ops began through a request for information about the early 1930s branch on North Road, Darlington, which now looks a little forlorn.

“My family – mother, father, plus four children – lived opposite and I remember when we were young, bed at 7pm, and listening to the dance music coming from the upstairs dance hall during the summers in the war,” says Ray McKay.

“One night a German bomber dropped a load of incendiaries, and one landed on the forecourt of the co-op. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but I had an exciting grandstand view.”

Ray also remembers the queues down Priestgate on divi day. “The co-op was the sort of organisation that had an educational and social side,” he continues. “They had a mixed choir for many years. The choirmaster was Cyril Wells and the pianist was Audrey Simpson, my late wife.”

“THE article about the co-ops brought back vivid memories,” says Ray Todd, of Newton Aycliffe. “I was born and bred in the Middleham Road area of Harrowgate Hill and for part of our VE celebrations it was decided to hold a fancy dress parade on the first floor of the North Road co-op.

“My mother decided to dress me up as a nurse.

“When we were lined up waiting to be judged, I was told to go in the girls queue, at which point my mother had to point out I was a boy.

“No prizes for guessing who won.”

“I WAS brought up in Rochdale, where the first co-op was started by a group of local tradesmen who were concerned about poverty among millworkers,” says Margaret Garrett. “Their small shop in Toad Lane is now a museum.

“When you made a purchase, you were given a small pink slip as a receipt. Every six months, there was a dividend or ‘divi’, a share of the profits that was paid out and which you could spend in their shops.

“My husband, who was brought up in Darlington, remembers a co-op at the top of Yarm Road. I used to shop at a small one on the corner of Park Crescent where we lived when we were first married.”

GILL WOOTTEN and Mark Cooper wrote about Rowland May’s carpet shop in West Auckland Road, which started as the Cockerton branch of the co-op – it looks, like so many of our Darlington co-op branches, to have been built in the 1930s.

“It had a huge hall above it where our whole final year class at Alderman Leach School was given a party by the parents of one pupil,” says Gill. “Of the two small shops, one was a butcher’s and I think the other was a general grocery. One has seen several businesses come and go and is now empty, but the other has been a hairdresser’s for many years.”

“In the 1960s, the garage to the right of the branch was a lean-to corrugated iron garage which housed an old converted single decker bus which was used as a travelling shop,” says Mark, “and I also seem to think the shop to the left was a co-op chemist.”

Rowland May’s carpet shop business is now 51 years old so it must have taken over the premises when the co-op closed.

This business deserves a special mention because it is one of the few surviving ones that has painted its name or its speciality on its roof. “Carpets”, it says in capital letters down one of its eaves. In decades past, far more businesses painted messages on their slates – perhaps attracting custom from passing aeroplanes was seen as important in the 1960s.

“IN the late 1950s, almost every town or village had a co-op store,” says Richard Wardrobe. “In the Gaunless Valley, the co-op had stores in Butterknowle, Cockfield, Evenwood, West Auckland and St Helen Auckland, and the large department store on Newgate Street, Bishop Auckland.

“In particular I remember the store in West Auckland, which is now The Crusty Loaf. They also had a butcher’s shop almost directly opposite across the village green which is now an antiques shop. Behind the butcher’s were stables area where they kept the horses and carts which delivered the milk, fresh bread and meat.

“My mother’s divi number was 3064.

“The co-op also had a grain and feed Store in St Helen's where I would go with a wheelbarrow and pick up corn and mash for my father’s hens. After it closed, it became a business building ice cream vans and then, after a fire, it became a Pickwick onion factory.”

The Pickwick firm of pickled onions manufacturers, which also pickled beetroots, cauliflowers, gherkins and anything picklable, was founded in Byker in the 1890s, but moved south to expand, arriving in St Helen’s in 1964. It closed in 1970, and now the Pickwick Industrial Estate is on its site – although, really, it is a co-op site.

Any more thoughts from the days of the divi? Please email