Blog article

Gillian Lonergan - UK nomination for the ICA Rochdale Award

An annual award for the person who has made an extraordinary contribution to the co-operative movement worldwide is announced each year by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA). This is the Rochdale Award.

The announcement of the winners for 2019 is made at the ICA General Assembly in Kigali, Rwanda, which is currently taking place - attended by 1,100 co-operators from over 90 countries. 

This year, unusually, the ICA has announced that there are two winners of the Rochdale Award. These are Howard Brodsky (USA) and Dr. Kim Byeong-won (South Korea). Both are cooperative business leaders: Howard Brodsky with an outstanding enterprise-owned co-op, CCA, the work of which he presented on to the UK Retail Co-operative Conference in 2018; Dr Byeong-won has been key to the success of the farmer co-op sector in South Korea, one of the most impressive across the world.

The UK nominated Gillian Lonergan, and in this blog our Secretary General, Ed Mayo outlines Gillian's achievements.

Thirty years of co-operation

At the point of her retirement in March 2019, Gillian had been working for co- operative organisations for over 30 years and has become known worldwide across her peers as the person to go to for support when it came to identifying, preserving and promoting co-operative heritage assets.

Her work and research was instrumental in collecting what would eventually form the permanent National Co-operative Archive in the UK. Working with colleagues, she established the Co-operative Heritage Trust to manage this, a great innovation which set the management of the archive material on a professional basis. It also opened access to mainstream research and heritage funding that meant that this became under her leadership a financially sustainable programme for the future.

Early career

Gillian started her career as a librarian studying at Manchester Polytechnic (which later became Manchester Metropolitan University), and during this time undertook a fieldwork placement for Co-operative Wholesale Society Laboratories. This was an introduction into working with business records and what Gillian says also introduced her to the world of co-ops.

After graduating, she applied for a librarian’s role with the Co-operative Union and credits the late Roy Garrett who had previously worked for the Co- operative Press with introducing her to the heritage of the movement and inspiring her to immerse herself in materials which told the story. In a pre-digital world, first hand knowledge of records and collections was vital in order to help others mine for information. Through Roy, Gillian was introduced to organisations connected to the movement and became a Trustee for many years of the Robert Owen Memorial Museum following its relocation from Owen’s former home to the Newtown Council building in Wales where it is based today.

Academically, Gillian supported numerous scholars and researchers in formal and informal learning programmes, aquiring excellent proof reading and indexing skills used to support publications charting the way the movement has developed, contributed greatly to the academic work of the Co-operative College and has been on the Committee of the Society for Cooperative Studies for many years, helping particularly with its journal and annual conferences.

She acted as an unofficial research assistant to Professor Ian MacPherson in his work to compile the Statement of Co-operative Identity, which was successfully agreed in Manchester in 1995.

The early days of the co-op archive and heritage trust

In the year 2001, the College moved back to its original home at Holyoake House and as part of the widespread changes taking place in the co-operative movement, the Union merged with ICOM (Industrial Common Ownership Movement) and became known as Co-operatives UK. Having witnessed multiple mergers and changes to the way business records were being used, Gillian and her colleagues were instrumental in finding ways in which important papers as well as material artefacts representing the movement’s history could be saved.

As the working and academic environment dramatically digitised, and staff turnover of organisations sped up, it was felt that heritage and special collections might be placed at risk and safeguards would need to be put in place to prevent their loss for future generations. What would become the collections of the National Co-operative Archive were first to be addressed by merging collections held by different organisations under one roof at Holyoake House.

The building at 31 Toad Lane, the original home of the world’s first successful consumer co-operative, had been in the ownership of the Co-operative Union since 1925 (opening as a museum in 1931) and although members of the public as well as co-operators could visit, the building was in a sad state of repair and needed significant investment.

With Gillian at the fore, the creation of a new independent charitable trust would enable the heritage assets to be supported by public funders as part of an ambitious renovation called the Rochdale Project. This work to secure and stabilise the building would make it accessible to a wider audience and allow the Trust to apply for accredited museum status for the building and its associated collections. The primary ‘object’ in question was the fabric of the building itself, at the centre of Rochdale’s conservation area, and the only remaining part of the original commercial heart of the old town on Toad Lane. By 2012, the work to repair the structure and improve the visitor experience was done and the Trust was responsible for two public services based in Rochdale and Manchester, and so needed professionally qualified staff as well as the support of countless students, volunteers and partner organisations to run workshops, welcome groups, provide education and inspirational experiences to people through the values and principles of co-operation.

The role of co-operative women

One of her achievements is to highlight the important role played by cooperative women throughout the movement’s heritage, from the first woman to join the Rochdale Co-operative Pioneers Society, Eliza Brierley, through to demonstrating the efforts of the society to campaign for gender equality. Gillian pointed out that the Rochdale Pioneers rules of 1844 stated explicitly that there was no difference between male and female members, which was exceptional for organisations at that time. She also highlighted that the Rochdale Pioneers Society took part in the campaigning to parliament that led to the Married Women’s Property Acts in the 1870s. The most recent publication led by Gillian on this is Basket to Boardroom: women in cooperation.

As a co-operator, Gillian embodies co-operative values such as self-help, self- responsibility and solidarity and does this in a way that is unassuming and modest. As a result, she is widely loved by those that she supported and worked with.

Nick Crofts, President of the Co-op Group, said:

“I would like to express my appreciation and admiration of Gillian’s lifetime of work for the global Co-operative Movement. Gillian was the High Priestess of the Co- operative Temple, protecting and showcasing our irreplaceable foundational treasures.”

The co-operative ideal is a social movement which crosses generations. Gillian’s personal mission to preserve and make accessible the achievements and activities of past generations is a vital contribution to co-operators present and future.

Ed Mayo, Secretary General

watch video interview 

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Updated: 21/10/2019