Remembering a true co-operator - Emmanuel Merchant JP

Remembering a true co-operator - Emmanuel Merchant JP

Remembering Emmanuel Merchant JP

 Blog written by Elaine Dean, President, Central Co-op

It was a bitterly cold morning on January 17th but sunny and with a blue sky as around 70 people wound their way along the frosty paths of Duffield Cemetery to a recently renovated grave. This was a re-dedication service on the exact day that 100 years ago the great co-operator and philanthropist Emmanuel Merchant JP died. He had a massive impact on the former Derby Society with his expansion plans, grand schemes such as building the iconic Central Hall during the First World War and founding the Senior Members' Gathering in 1912 which is still held in Derby 112 years later. It was his idea to reward long membership (then 40 years) with a 'sumptuous repast followed by a concert'. The co-op historian W. Leslie Unsworth described it in 1926 as 'one of the greatest joys the co-operative movement has ever produced'.

He was a man of humble birth who worked in the mill at Belper and later at Midland Railway and he became involved in strike committees for better conditions and pay for workers. He was very active on the Derby Co-op Education Committee which he set up as a separate entity.
In 1902 the General Manager retired through ill health and in those days it was an elected position. Emmanuel Merchant stood to be General Manager and was elected with a landslide vote receiving more than twice as many votes as his nearest rival.

Thus began continual progress in Derby and surrounding areas for the next 21 years with new branches opening in all areas of Derby and in many of the surrounding smaller towns where very small co-ops transferred their engagements to Derby, spreading out to Ashbourne 1904, Uttoxeter 1906 and Melbourne 1911. It also saw the building of the prestigious Central Hall premises with its grand ballroom and wonderful acoustics which opened in 1917.

During his tenure, classes for members and activities such as dancing, weekly cinematograph evenings, education about co-operatives and other groups for recreation were held. It is said that 600 people turned up to one dance class in the Central Hall !

Emmanuel Merchant was an outspoken man of principle and became well known throughout the national movement for his passion for co-operation. He believed in Principle 6 and only wanted to trade with other co-operatives and sell food grown on co-op farms of which Derby owned a large one.

During those 21 years the Derby Co-operative Society made enormous progress paying good dividends to members, opening the new premises at Stenson Road (known as The Cavendish) with a row of stores in a semi circular design and a large hall above. The Society still owns these premises today but doesn't trade from them and the Jubilee Hall was used by the Derby Retired Employees Association until about 2015 when it was declared unsuitable due to an eroding steep stone staircase and they moved out.

In 1888 Emmanuel had married Rebecca Allen of Spondon at the London Road Wesleyan Methodist Chapel and in autumn 1890 the Merchants had a baby, Elizabeth, but she sadly died at 3 months old on 29th December and they had no other children born. There are no direct descendants and consequently his grave when we found it in 2022 was overgrown and neglected.

In 1923 Mr Merchant's health began to decline and he asked to be relieved of some of his duties – and typically for a man of his principles he asked for his remuneration to be reduced accordingly.  He was operated on twice but surgical skill and science could not save him and he passed away on 17th January 1924.

He was buried in Duffield Cemetery on Hazelwood Road close to his last address in a lovely site with a gently sloping graveyard leading down to the River Ecclesbourne and green fields beyond.

Quite staggeringly he bequeathed what was left of his estate of £2,195 to the Derby Society for the furtherance of co-operation to be paid after the death of his wife..

Little is known of his wife Rebecca except that she is buried in the same grave and was the chief mourner at his well attended funeral with well over 100 attendees. Two of the listed attendees were the grandfather and great uncle of the current Central Co-op President Elaine Dean.

Rebecca died on 4th January 1931.

“For twenty-one years he served the Society faithfully and well. He was a man of considerable administrative ability and gave himself fully and with enthusiasm to the duties of his office. He was honest, upright and sincere. A Co-operator by conviction he never swerved right or left in his determination to apply the principles of Co-operation in which he believed. He had earned the respect and admiration of his fellow Co-operators in this Society and throughout the movement “   Mr. W Warren, President of Derby Co-op 1924.

Elaine Dean and Tanya Noon, Member & Community Relations Officer for the area vowed to honour the memory of this great man who made Derby a centre of co-operation which it still is today. The Northern Region Member and Community Council paid to renovate the grave which now looks splendid and we held a rededication service and laid yellow roses there. We sang the Co-op hymn 'These Things Shall Be' and also 'Abide With Me' and Kate Spencer and Elaine Dean read poems. Methodist Minister Judith Neale presided.

There then followed by a talk on Emmanuel Merchant and a display of relevant historic artefacts. Central's Chief Executive Debbie Robinson spoke about the relevance of celebrating our history with the modern society we have today. Attendees were then treated to a 'sumptuous repast' in the form of a hot and cold buffet at the Makeney Hall Hotel formerly the home of George Herbert Strutt who lent money to the original founders of Derby Society. The people attending were also given white poppies knitted by co-op member group ladies.

Thanks to everyone who attended and made this a very special occasion.