Following the opening of Co-operative stores in Kiama and Helensburgh, the Woonona Industrial Co-operative Society began operations in 1896 during a time of industrial unrest. It was locally referred to as “the Co-op” and one of its aims was to provide food and assistance to those either out-of-work or poorly paid.
During World War 1 food and clothing supplies were scarce and people had barely recovered from this when the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Once again the Co-op was called upon to help its members through difficult times. It did this by allowing them to ‘book up’ purchases, enabling them to pay their accounts at the end of the month, or often enough, whenever they could.
Co-op members were entitled to a dividend paid every six months, depending on how much they had spent in that time. This dividend was paid in the form of a credit to their accounts.
During World War 2 food and clothing coupons were issued to families as these items were again in short supply. These tiny coupons came in booklets and whenever items such as butter, tea, sugar and clothing were purchased, they were cut out of the book. They became more valuable than money as it was essential that they were to be used when dealing with the shopkeeper.
The Head Office and largest Co-operative Store was situated in Woonona and had branches in Scarborough, Coledale, Thirroul, Corrimal, Balgownie, Wollongong and Port Kembla. There was also a large bakery which provided prize-winning bread to all these branches. This building still stands today at 20-22 Ball Street, Woonona.
The stores had many departments including groceries, usually with a screened delicatessen area, hardware, with china and other household goods, mens, ladies and children’s clothing and shoes, drapery and manchester, and all types of produce for animals and poultry. Most people kept poultry in those days.
Grocery orders were collected weekly by men who went to the customer’s home to collect the list and often to have a chat and a cup of tea. These orders were then delivered a day or two later, sometimes on a horse-drawn dray. The Co-op employed many people, all of whom knew their products well and offered much assistance to their customers. Each branch had its own area members to serve.
Although the General Manager was Mr Percy Frew, in my days of working for the Co-op, each branch had a local manager and office staff to manage its accounts. Working for the Co-op was quite a social activity, as employees knew each other and spoke often on the inter-branch telephone line, even though they often never met in person.
Such was the service at the Co-op that if a particular branch didn’t have a size or colour of clothes or shoes required by the customer, staff would phone the other branches to locate the item for them. This applied to any of the goods sold at the Co-op and included stationary for the office. The required item would then be sent over as soon as possible.
The advent of Supermarkets in the 1950s began to take its toll on the stores and many branches were progressively closed, until the Co-op finally closed its doors in 1970, which meant the end of an era in shopping.
(See also Mick Roberts blog on The co-operative stores)