THE Co-op often faced opposition when it applied for licences to sell alcohol.

Teetotal members felt it went against the spirit of the movement to sell alcohol and constantly objected, while bosses argued that if the organisation was to live up to its boast of being able to supply the needs of its members, it had to enter this growing trade.

Opposition had been reported as early as 1879. The Oxford committee had bought the lease of a pub and was almost forced to resign when the purchase was announced at a meeting.

Lady Murray, an influential member, said it grieved her to see the society “dealing in intoxicating liquor”.

By the 1940s, however, there were fewer objections and the Co-op bought the Lambert Arms at Aston Rowant, the Board Hotel at Eynsham and the Elms and Hawkwell Hotels at Iffley.

It also opened a cafe and restaurant in High Street, Oxford, calling it The Angel as the site was believed to be that of the city’s first coffee shop, from 1650 to 1866.

The Oxford Co-op was in a stronger position than many societies to adapt to the post-war changes as full employment and growing affluence brought a boom in consumer spending.

Membership and trade continued to increase and by 1953, Oxford was becoming ringed with Co-op shops on new housing estates and in neighbouring towns and villages.

‘Conservator cabinets’ – better known as fridges – started to appear in 1948 to store frozen foods and the first self-service shop opened in Cowley Road, Oxford, the following year.

Despite the Co-op’s modern image, horse transport continued to play an important role in delivering goods to customers.

In 1947, Co-op members expressed concern over the control of the sale of manure from the society’s stables. Two years later, they agreed to donate a load of dung to the East Oxford Allotment Association as a prize in its annual show.

Records show that in 1950, the society was still buying horses – several were bought from circus owner Billy Smart. However, by the end of 1951, the horses had been sold and all transport mechanised.

Expansion continued throughout the 1950s, with a jewellery department being set up in 1954, a new bakery opening in Botley Road, Oxford, in 1955, followed by the society’s first supermarket in Headington, in 1957.

At the same time, the Co-op was conscious that its main trading area, George Street, was losing its appeal among customers and that it needed a more central department store.

Oxford Mail:

  • The exterior of the Queen Street store, now the site of Marks & Spencer

In 1957, it opened a large store at 13-15 Queen Street – on the site of the present Marks & Spencer store – and extended it in 1960 after buying the Electra cinema next door.

The society faced more intense competition in the 1960s, but embarked on new ventures, including a new store at Cowley Centre and a petrol station in Botley Road.

However, the days of small societies were numbered and in 1969, the Oxford and Swindon societies merged to form the Oxford and Swindon Co-operative Society.

As the Oxford society prepared to celebrate its centenary in 1972, sales the previous year were reported at an impressive £14m.

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