The village of Fenwick, Scotland, has laid claim to being home to the world's first financial cooperative.
FENWICK, Scotland — The Fenwick Weavers Co-operative Society, a weaving cooperative founded in Fenwick, Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1761, is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. Based on the cooperative's historic documentation of financial activity now housed in the National Library of Scotland, the Fenwick Weavers also lay claim to being the world's first credit union, according to those currently involved with the cooperative's legacy program.
"Everyone needs to know where his roots are, and the Fenwick Weavers are recognized as the world's oldest [financial] cooperative," said John Smith, a retired British Aerospace Systems assembly line worker and lifelong Fenwick resident who is voluntarily spearheading the current effort to revive the cooperative's legacy. "The past should not die, but should be kept going for future generations."
Smith is coauthor with John McFadzean of the 32-page booklet, "The Co-operators: A History of the Fenwick Weavers." He and several board members of the Fenwick Weavers, no longer an active cooperative, manned a booth at World Council of Credit Unions' (WOCCU) World Credit Union Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, last month, where they distributed copies of the publication. Members of the WOCCU board and staff visited Fenwick prior to the start of the conference to learn firsthand about the cooperative and its impact on the community.
The cooperative, which signed its covenant on March 14, 1761, in Fenwick Church to avoid persecution from the ruling gentry, predates by 83 years the Rochdale Weavers Society, founded in England in 1844 and generally credited as the first financial cooperative. It also predates by 89 years the first formal credit unions, founded in Germany in 1850 by economist Franz Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch.
Fenwick Weavers' John Smith (center) explains the history of the world's first financial cooperative to attendees at WOCCU's World Credit Union Conference in Glasgow.
The Fenwick Weavers formed out of necessity during harsh economic times to ensure a higher standard of living and more secure future through its members' mutual cooperation. During its early days, the cooperatives' members met at the town water pump, the only place they could gather without arousing suspicion, to discuss the cooperative's affairs.
The cooperative's charter outlines several of the organization's operating principles, including the need for honesty, member loyalty, fair pricing, majority decision-making and regular contributions to a fund for the poor. Members paid two shillings and six pence to join, which went to support the cooperative. On Nov. 9, 1769, another document was signed stipulating that the cooperative could purchase food in bulk to distribute to members, who would be allowed four weeks of credit before paying for the purchase.
Documentation also exists showing that members could receive loans made at fixed rates from the cooperative funds. The documents are housed in the National Library and thought to be the first recorded instances of credit union activity in the world.
In 1839, the economic outlook for the individual weaving trade turned bleak. The cooperative set up an emigration society that helped its members move to Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. The population of Fenwick dropped from around 2,000 to fewer than 500 people. By 1873, the cooperative ceased operations and remained closed for 134 years until Smith, at the suggestion of his granddaughter, revived the Fenwick Weavers in 2007.
A website is currently in the works at www.fenwickweaverscooperative.com. The group also hopes to one day establish a museum dedicated to the weavers in Fenwick as a way to strengthen the cooperative's legacy.
"There has been a lot of talk about cooperative history, and we hope our research on the Fenwick Weavers will encourage credit unions everywhere to dig a little bit into their own history," said board member Margaret Smyth.
World Council of Credit Unions is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions. World Council promotes the sustainable development of credit unions and other financial cooperatives around the world to empower people through access to high quality and affordable financial services. World Council advocates on behalf of the global credit union system before international organizations and works with national governments to improve legislation and regulation. Its technical assistance programs introduce new tools and technologies to strengthen credit unions' financial performance and increase their outreach.
World Council has implemented more than 290 technical assistance programs in 71 countries. Worldwide, 57,000 credit unions in 105 countries serve 217 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.