I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Let's face it, there wasn't much to like about the old Soviet Union, but could they ever produce a poster! Take that you greedy Capitalist swine!
My blog of last week’s blog which highlighted the rip off prices being charged by the Co-Op in Kelloholm certainly seemed to chime with readers across the length and breadth of Scotland. If you missed the blog, the killer fact was that a basic bag of shopping in the ex mining village cost 350% more than the same groceries could be had for 26 miles down the road in Dumfries. The blog was published on the ‘Wings over Scotland’ site and comment after comment confirmed the fact the Co-Op likes to create monopolies in small, isolated towns and then proceed to take its customers to the cleaners.

It is all a very long way away from the ideals of the Rochdale pioneers who set the Co-operative movement ball rolling way back in 1844. Those gallant Lancastrian mill workers took a wheelbarrow on a twenty mile round trip over the moors to Manchester where food was a third of the price and twice as fresh as what was on offer in Rochdale.

Sadly, my eye watering till receipt from the Co-Op branch in Kelloholm rather suggests that a wheel has come full circle over the course of 170 years. The poacher has become the gamekeeper, and how! How those lads who heaved their wheel barrow along that rutted track must be turning in their graves. A couple of weeks ago the banking arm of the Co-Op announced that they were going to pay their Chief Exec £3.6 million a year because that is what you have to pay to get the right sort of guy. So much for founding ideals. Top, 'fat cat' dollar for the man at the helm at the same time as they are screwing the rural poor for every penny they can get.

And what goes around, comes around.

In 1844, factory owners calculated pay rates on the basis of stumping up the bare minimum required for their workers not to starve to death. Well, not too many at any rate. Then came Trade Unions and votes for everyone over the age of 18 and they were forced to stop doing that kind of thing here in the UK. Not that they stopped altogether. Instead they closed up the factories here and carried on business as usual in Indonesia and China. And what goes around, comes around and now those pesky Asians are getting ideas above their station. The cheeky sods are aspiring to more than a bowl of rice a day and they seem to think 14 hours of work entitles them to a McDonalds and a television. I mean, really…

Not to worry. Things are getting better on the home front. We now have zero hour contracts and most of those annoying factory inspectors had been downsized. And then there is that wonderful Polish chappie from Bialystok who can deliver a minibus full minimum wage lads to your factory gates at 12 hours notice. Who needs Indonesia?

But here’s the thing.

The idea of what goes around, comes around doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. There is no rule why it can’t be a good thing.

Time to hop into the Tardis and take a time trip back to those rain drenched, cobbled streets of 1844 Rochdale.

The problem? There was only one shop selling food in town and the shop owner was exploiting his monopoly to charge three times as much as the shops in Manchester.

The answer? Club together and take turns to push a wheelbarrow over the moors to Manchester and break the monopoly. The idea really couldn’t have been much more simple. And like many simple ideas, it proved to be monumentally effective. It was a genuine game changer.   


Can that simple idea from 1844 be dusted down and made to work in 2014. As far as Kelloholm is concerned, there are a couple of major problems that need to be acknowledged from the get go. A round trip from Rochdale to Manchester was 20 miles. A round trip from Kelloholm to Dumfries is 50 miles. And let’s face it, we aren’t as robust as we were back in 1844. Even if the round trip was only 20 miles, you would have to look long and hard to find anyone willing to push a wheelbarrow that distance.

But things have moved on since 1844. There have been successive technological revolutions which have brought us motorised transport and the worldwide web. So the key is to take the idea beyond needing a wheelbarrow and some stubborn Lancastrian muscle.

The key to the 1844 idea is the clubbing together bit.

The good news is that it is entirely possible for someone in Kelloholm to buy their groceries at Dumfries prices: they can order it online from Tesco or Asda and have it delivered to their door the very next day. Cue archive shots of church bells ringing and massed crowds in the streets cheering and waving.

But of course it isn’t quite as easy as that.

The downsides? There are two big downsides. Two deal breakers.

Number One: it costs a fiver to have your groceries delivered. No big deal for the Chief Exec at the Co-Op bank, but almost 10% of your disposable income if you are eking out an existence on Jobseekers Allowance.

Number Two. To qualify for a delivery, you need to spend at least £40. This is where cash flow becomes a major issue. Once power bills are paid, most people are left with about £25 a week or so for food. Basically you would need to go without food for two weeks to generate the cash flow required to make that £40 purchase. There ain’t many who will be able to manage that. So they remain doomed to walking down the road to the Co-Op and getting robbed blind.

Can that 1844 idea be dusted off to solve the problem?

Sure can.

You need someone to step up to the plate and volunteer to become a co-ordinator. That person will need a working debit card and a small amount of liquidity. The first thing they do is invest £60 in a Tesco or Asda delivery season ticket. We have these at First Base. For a tenner a month, you can have as many deliveries as you like so long as you spend at least £40 each time. We once had 15 deliveries in a month which meant that our average cost was about 66p. Now that’s more like it.

Does such a person exist in Kelloholm?

They sure do. I had a chat last week with Alistair who is the local Church of Scotland Minister and he indicated that he would be more than happy to take care of that side of things. He also said that the church hall could be used as a delivery point.

So what is the next box to tick?

Well that would be the co-operation box. Ideally 20 families will decide to co-operate to make the thing happen. Every week they will produce a shopping list for about a tenner’s worth of groceries. They take the list to a central point at an agreed time. They stump up their tenner and someone takes the list and orders it online. As soon as four people have taken in their lists, and the total goes past £40, the order can go through the checkout and be scheduled for delivery the next day. The maths are both simple and completely manageable. If 20 people spend £10 a week, there is enough to ensure that a supermarket delivery van will arrive at the church hall five days a week. Once this minimum target is reached, then people can take in orders for £5 or even £3. Once this point is reached, the delivery cost drops to 50p a day. Not so bad for a 50 mile round trip.

So. All of a sudden we seem to be getting there.

We have the company who will deliver groceries at a third of the Kelloholm price for an average of 10p per order - Tesco or Asda or both.

We have the man with the debit card who will take care of the transactions - Alistair

And we have a place where the groceries can be delivered – the Church Hall

After this morning, it seems like we have a place where with a computer and internet access: an ideal place where those involved in the scheme can call in with their shopping lists and cash.

Anything else?

A couple of smart as paint young volunteers wouldn’t go amiss. Some time spent co-ordinating this kind of project would look pretty damn fine on any young person’s CV and it would certainly give them plenty to talk about at future job interviews.

Some final pieces of the jigsaw?

We agreed this morning that it would be good to get some sort of public meeting organised to punt out the idea and see if we can win over a few converts. One of the last echoes of the village’s coal digging past is the Miner’s Memorial Hall which seems to me like a pretty ideal venue. It is worth remembering that a few miles up the valley is the town of Cumnock where Keir Hardie cut his teeth as a Union man representing miners back in the 1880’s before going on to become the first ever Labour MP to enter the House of Commons.

Bums on seats?

Well, I have left a message on Tommy Sheridan’s mobile and when he calls me back I’ll see if I can twist his arm to take a ride south from Glasgow to give the thing a kick start. I have a feeling that this kind of grass roots, bottom up trouble-making will be right up our Tommy’s street. We’ll see. Fingers crossed.

Then I guess some kind of name will be needed. 'The 1844 Club'? Maybe. Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

I figured it might be a good idea to list all of these various steps from the get go. If this thing works, then it shows that it doesn’t need anything particularly earth shattering for people to start kicking back. This kind of thing is happening more and more in Greece and Spain and France, though it remains under the radar. When the lads did their wheelbarrow yomp back in 1844, there was no Facebook or Twitter or YouTube to carry the news of what they were up to around the world. Well, that is no longer the case. Should the '1844 Club' prove they are capable of giving the profiteering Co-Op a proper kick in the teeth, then there is no reason why lots of people shouldn’t know about it. And then maybe a few will copy what they are doing and break other monopolies in other isolated towns.

Which of course takes us to the very heart of the matter. 

Will the good folk of Kelloholm decide to club together and co-operate like the good folk of Rochdale did 170 years ago?

That remains to be seen.


  1. Brilliant Mark. I won't shop in the co op due their high prices. I sincerely hope this takes off!

  2. So was the 'spirit of 1844' to buy from the biggest company, so big it can undercut everybody, then your local convenience store (NOT supermarket) is forced to close? I wonder how long it would be before the coordinator realised they were indispensable and started charging a cut for their monopoly....

  3. Had the shop in Kelloholm been a small independent family business, I would not be writing these blogs. The thing is, the Co-Op is NOT a family business. It is a national business which goes public with all kinds of mission statements and ethical promises. As a business they promise to look after coffee growers in the Third World and quite right too. My issue is that they do not take a similar view to help people who are struggling at home. As a national business, they could easily take the decision to ensure that a subsidised range of basics are always available for customers in all isolated and less favoured areas. All supermarkets sell 'loss leaders'. Why should the Co-Op be any different? The difference should be their motive. Tesco, Asda etc use 'loss leaders' to entice customers into their store to buy expensive stuff. Surely the Co Op could use 'loss leaders' to help out those who are struggling. With regard to our co-ordinator turning into a slavering, money grubbing capitalist... I don't think so. Thankfully most people don't behave like that. It is corporations who behave like that.

  4. Rebuttal unchallenged so far Mark! A rebirthed1844 Club sounds guid to me in the manner you got going on there. Robbie two above there seems to miss the point that if the Co-Op weren't ripping folk off there would be no need for the scheme! Monopolising isolated towns and villages to that tune of profiteering happens all over and is not just immoral, it's hitting the poor the hardest as usual. I hope that many schemes like it spring up all over. Didn't seem to get that it's all accountable and the local church is helping, not profiteering. I'll stop now, it might get me swearing soon.

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