The wonderful world of the Bishopsgate Institute
At the end of June, members of the Co-operative Business & Enterprise Colleges network were treated to a very special tour of the Bishopsgate Institute in London. The visit was arranged by Stephen Gillatt from Forest Gate Community School, a Co-operative Business and Enterprise College down the road in Newham, East London. Students from Forest Gate recently spent two days at the Institute being immersed in co-operative history, and staff from the Institute were very impressed by how they engaged with the material.
A library situated in the bustling City of London, a stone’s throw away from Brick Lane, the Bishopsgate Institute houses a mine of information on the co-operative movement and its development. It contains records on the major London co-operative societies such as Royal Arsenal (now subsumed into what has become today’s Co-operative Group), including numerous photos of co-operative premises over the decades (this is significant because the Co-operative Wholesale Society pioneered self-service stores, archivist Stefan Dickers reminded us). Other material relates to shop displays, as well as holidays and leisure time and Stefan, who is extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable, told us that we can get a real sense of how people used to work, shop and live.
The Bishopsgate Institute is also an amazing resource on the history of London and how it has grown and changed over time; one of the collection’s founders enthusiastically bought every book on London he could find. It still contains a collection of city guides through the ages, from tiny, aged pocket books right up to familiar present day editions. The history of London the Institute presents is very much a people’s history, and we were also shown a selection of photos which show the changing fortunes of the surrounding streets and their inhabitants.
Set up using money from a local church in 1895, the Bishopsgate Institute is in a beautiful building with decorative tiles, stained glass domes (reconstructed after the neighbourhood was bombed during the war), high ceilings and rows and rows of wooden bookcases. The Institute has long offered classes, lectures and courses for self-improvement, as well as entertainment in its Great Hall – people who have graced the stage include Paul McCartney. However, the library was not always as progressive as the books it contained: there were once separate reading rooms for men and women, policed by wardens to prevent any mixing of the sexes as they browsed the newspapers!
Stefan took us down into the crowded basement and showed us shelves and shelves of boxes relating to socialist and labour history. One minute book from a Communist party meeting, featuring none other than a certain Karl Marx, was highly coveted by Russian revolutionaries but, marked with doodles like any other notebook, it shows that even radicals were not above daydreaming to pass the time! The Institute has strong collections on the history of campaigning, and an extensive LGBT Media Archive, but some material was less expected, for example records relating to the lesser-known field of vegan terrorism!
The Bishopsgate Institute also houses the papers of radical thinkers, including nineteenth and early twentieth century co-operative journalist, and contemporary of the Rochdale Pioneers, George Jacob Holyoake – after whom the building in Manchester in which the Co-operative College is based is named!
I came away with some great postcards, including a Co-operative Women’s Guild scene featuring members of the Guild dressed up as CWS products for one of their pageants!
The Bishopsgate Institute welcomes schools groups, and it is hoped that more groups from co-operative schools will take up the offer and get a hands-on look at their co-operative heritage.
Published On: July 10, 2012
Written By: Natalie
Filed Under: Blog Category