Lost Edinburgh: St Cuthbert’s Co-op Association

The last milk delivery by horse in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPLThe last milk delivery by horse in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL
The last milk delivery by horse in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL
ST. CUTHBERT’S Co-op was a proud Edinburgh institution which at its height employed many thousands of people – including one time milkman Sean Connery.

St. Cuthbert’s Co-operative Association began following a meeting in 1859 in a house in Grove Street, Fountainbridge.

Co-operative societies allowed customers to obtain membership, effectively becoming stakeholders in the company, meaning that the business could be tailored to suit the economic interests of the consumer rather than the store owners. Each customer was assigned their own specific 5 or 6 digit dividend number or ‘divi’ which would see them receive a remuneration at the end of the financial year based upon how much they had purchased and how much profit the co-op had made as a whole.

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The first St. Cuthbert’s Co-op store opened on the 4th of November 1859 on the corner of Ponton Street and Fountainbridge and sold a wide range of consumer goods. The store’s name was derived from St. Cuthbert the patron saint of Northumbria. The presence of the patron saint in Scotland’s capital has been in evidence for many centuries. The foundations of St. Cuthbert’s Parish Church near present day Lothian Road are said to date from as early as 850AD.

The Fountainbridge Co-op buildingThe Fountainbridge Co-op building
The Fountainbridge Co-op building

By 1880 the co-operative was proving to be a huge success and was looking to expand. A new headquarters was opened in Fountainbridge in order to cope with the increase in trade and membership. Located on the main road conveniently close to the Union Canal, the new turreted, baronial-style premises were an impressive sight. ‘The Store’ as it was commonly referred to, was becoming famous for its ability to provide a vast array of high-quality services. St Cuthbert’s would go on to boast a large-scale dairy with daily horse-drawn milk deliveries, a bakery, a butchery, a tearoom, a department store, a laundry and carpet cleaning service, a carriage works, land and property letting operations and a funeral services department. In addition, the company-owned thousands of acres of farmland. Further expansion saw St Cuthbert’s Co-op merge with other local and national societies and by the end of the World War I the company was the largest co-operative in Scotland. The co-op boasted the highest sales in the UK, paying out an incredible £4 million in dividends, as well as being the single biggest ratepayer in the city of Edinburgh with multiple branches across the capital.

Sean Connery

In 1944, a local Fountainbridge lad by the name of Thomas Sean Connery earned his first wage of 21 shillings a week at St. Cuthbert’s Dairy in Corstorphine. Sir Sean, or ‘Big Tam’ as he was then known, went on to work as a milkman and stuck with the company until January 1950 before eventually going on to seek fame and fortune as the first James Bond. If any of the local hyperbole is to be believed, then Sir Sean once delivered milk to almost every household in Edinburgh. It is of course much more likely that the future 007 served a much smaller district.

New ground was broken as St Cuthbert’s opened its first supermarket store on Leven Street, Tollcross during its centenary year in 1959. The gates of the goods entrance still bear the letters SCCA (St. Cuthbert’s Co-operative Association) despite the store changing name many years ago.

Picture: TSPLPicture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL

1966 saw St. Cuthbert’s become the sole co-operative in Edinburgh as the company completed the takeover of five of its biggest rivals including the famous Leith Provident society. Over 3,000 employees were now under the control of St. Cuthbert’s Co-operative Association Ltd.

St. Cuthbert’s changed name to the Scottish Midland Co-operative Society, or Scotmid for short, in 1981 after amalgamating with Dalziel of Motherwell. The name change reflected the company’s intention to expand further across the nation. Sadly, the sight of milk deliveries by horse and cart came to an end soon after. Never again would the morning milk delivery be accompanied by the clip-clop of hooves. January 26th 1985 marked the last ever day of horse-drawn milk floats in Edinburgh after 125 years.

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Today, despite significant competition from rival supermarkets, Scotmid goes from strength to strength as it continues to focus on a wide range of services. It is Scotland’s largest and best known co-operative, continuing a long-standing and proud tradition, with more than 300 stores and 5,000 employees nationwide. Scotmid chose to move from the historic B-listed headquarters in Fountainbridge in 2005 to a purpose built home at Newbridge. A café and restaurant have since taken residence at the 133 year old Fountainbridge premises as it embarks on a brand new lease of life.

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