The British co-operative movement is associated mainly with industrial areas. Where consumer co-operatives existed in the countryside they were located in market towns and formed by rural trade unions, especially railwaymen, occasionally quarrymen or farmworkers. Yet the Co-operative Union membership encompassed a significant number of small single village societies founded by paternalistic gentry.
This paper draws on examples in Shropshire, East Yorkshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, to offer an account and explanation of the never before studied, paternalistic co-operatives. Recruiting estate workers and farm labourers, individual country squires showed themselves capable of using a co-operative ideology and framework, usually associated with the labour movement, to achieve very different and paternalistic goals. The relationship between these paternalistic village societies and the wider co-operative movement, both locally and nationally, is discussed, including the company paternalism of the Co-operative Wholesale Society's own farming operations. A comparison with the ‘Blue co-ops’ of the Lancashire Conservative dominated cotton spinners’ union is also made. The paper concludes that the failure of paternalistic co-operatives was part of the post Great War revival of rural cultural conservatism, linked to the effects of agricultural depression.