Do you remember your Co-op ‘divi’ number?

Clare Weston, Researcher, discovers the history of the Co-operative Society dividend number ahead of the opening of our recreation of the Halesowen and Hasbury Co-op shop, set in 1949.

If you are looking at the history of the Co-operative Society, at some point you will read about the dividend, or ‘divi’. If you are talking to someone from a certain generation, they might even reel off a four- or five-digit number, which might have been their parents’ or grandparents’ number. But what is the dividend and why did it matter so much to Co-operative Societies and their customers?

The dividend means a share of the profits for all members. It was a fundamental part of the founding principles of the Co-operative movement, beginning with the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. The more a member spent, the greater the share they would receive from the profits.

As the Co-operative movement spread, societies were formed across the UK. The West Midlands, for example, included Birmingham, Ten Acres and Stirchley, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Dudley and a smaller society, the Halesowen & Hasbury Industrial Co-operative Society, founded in 1871.

Halesowen & Hasbury Industrial Co-operative Society later merged with the Birmingham Cooperative Society, which itself later became part of Central Co-op. Today, Central Co-op specialises in food and funeralcare, with 440 trading outlets, a family of around 7,700 colleagues, and more than 330,000 regular trading members – and is one of over 4,000 co-operative businesses in the UK and one of 3 million worldwide. Co-operatives today still adhere to a set of values and principles and share surplus profit with their members – just as Halesowen & Hasbury Co-op did.

But, how did early Co-operatives keep track of which member was owed what?

A historical image of Branch No 11, Halesowen and Hasbury, of the Co-operative Society.

A historic image of Branch No 11, Halesowen & Hasbury, of the Co-operative Society.

Tracking transactions

Anyone could shop at a Co-operative (Co-op) shop but to be part of the dividend scheme you had to sign up as a member, which gave you your own unique ‘divi’ number. Each family member would be expected to know the divi number, from a child running an errand down to the shop, to someone answering the door to the Co-op milkman. It wasn’t unheard of for the divi number to be written on a wall by the back door, just to be sure it was always quoted.

Each Society had to keep track of all customer transactions, in order to work out what each member’s share of the profits should be. The first way they did this was through using metal tokens or ‘checks’. A customer would receive tokens equal to the amount they had spent in store. They would then keep these tokens until the Society paid out the dividend. A member could then take all their tokens to the Society office and exchange them for money. A typical dividend might be 2 shillings in the pound, so for £5 in purchases, a member could receive 10 shillings back.

In the middle of the 20th century, most Co-operative Societies were using the ‘Climax Check System’. Clive Etherington, who worked for the Halesowen and Hasbury Co-operative Society, recalled that the divi was recorded in a book that had a carbon copy.

Clive had to record the total cost of the order, the divi number and give the customer the top copy. Calculating each member’s share of the profits was a huge task, involving a vast number of clerical staff, usually female, to sort out the checks, the duplicate copies of customer receipts. By the mid-20th century, some Societies provided mechanical adding machines to add up the figures from the sorted, which would have helped speed up the process.

‘Dividend Day’ was when a Society paid out to members, often quarterly to six monthly, based on the profits the Society had accumulated over that period. It was often eagerly anticipated by members. Posters would be displayed in shops, so people knew when their dividend could be collected and from where.

Wendy Crampton, a former Co-op employee remembers “queues a mile long” to collect the dividend. She recalled that her mother would use the money to pay bills or perhaps to buy things for her. Phyllis Taylor, from Wollescote, recalled, as a child, that dividend day meant a new pair of shoes.

A historical image of a Co-op shop in 1949 demonstrating the self-service element of the shop.

A historic image in black and white shows self-service shopping in a Co-op shop in 1949.

Dividend stamps

The ‘divi’ was phased out by Societies and replaced, in the late 1960s with the Co-op stamp. These stamps carried the Co-op logo and were handed to customers after making purchases. These are not to be confused with the Green Shield Stamps, a similar scheme that was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, as the Co-op stamps could only be redeemed at a Co-op shop. In 1967, a full coupon book of dividend stamps could be exchanged for 10 shillings of goods at the Co-op.

An innovation in 1949 was the introduction of national membership. Previously, a person was a member of a particular society, for example, the Halesowen & Hasbury Co-operative Society. This meant that if they went on holiday to North Devon and shopped in the Barnstaple Co-op, they would not receive any dividend credit for those purchases.

With a strapline, “She shall have “divi” wherever she goes”, this new scheme allowed Co-op members to shop in any Co-operative Society shop and qualify for the dividend. It also meant that if they moved out of the area of their Society, they could transfer the share that they had accumulated, to the new Society.

Today, we are more familiar with ‘loyalty cards’, which shops utilise to encourage shoppers to spend with them and keep returning. The Co-operative dividend was similar, in that it encouraged members to spend in their shops. In its earlier history, however, the difference was that it gave all members a share of the profits, so there was an investment from each member to ensure the Society thrived.

Images courtesy of Co-operative Heritage Trust.

To find out more about Co-operatives, visit:

Researcher Clare Weston asks if you remember your ‘divi’ number and talks through what that phrase means.