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When Oxford University Came to Hebden Bridge
Report of talk given by Andrew Bibby on 23 September 2015

Hebden Bridge was a star name in the world of co-operation when, in 1891, a great banquet was organised to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of the Hebden Bridge Fustian Manufacturing Co-operative Society. The 'Nutclough Pioneers' were seen as a shining example of how a producer co-operative could be established and by the end of the nineteenth century a fully integrated fustian producing business from weaving to garments was prospering.

Nutclough Mill

But co-operation was about much more than production; it had a strong commitment to education, and it was this aspect of its story that Andrew Bibby revealed to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society.

At a time when the mass of people had access to only the most basic education, the co-operators of Hebden Bridge were keen to open up an intellectual life for working people. To this end, what was described as 'an almost romantic attachment' was established between the fustian society and the University of Oxford. The Universities, which for the working man may as well have been at the north pole, as one of the co-operators put it, had woken up to a responsibility to 'bring the great boon of cultivation' to those who had for so long been excluded. Working men and women couldn't get to Oxford, but by the means of the University Extension movement, Oxford could come to them.

So the Fustian Society hosted an annual series of lectures, given by young idealistic dons who travelled the country opening up history, politics, literature and science to anyone who wished to attend. In Hebden Bridge, the talks, held in the newly extended Co-operative Hall, were hugely successful, regularly attracting between 300 and 700 people, who delighted the lecturers with their intelligent questions and animated discussions. Alongside the public lectures, there was the chance to engage in closer study through tutorials and essay writing, and some successfully took examinations. Later, there were summer schools held at Oxford and Cambridge which allowed those who could attend to get a stronger taste of the stimulation of University education.

What emerged strongly from Andrew's talk was the huge contribution made by those fired by co-operative principles to the civic life of Hebden Bridge. One of the most successful participants in the extension movement was Robert Halstead, a weaver at the Nutclough mill. He strongly believed that 'those who are poor in material goods need not succumb to the greater curse of poverty of ideas'. Eventually he helped to form the Workers' Educational Association, to bring a wealth of intellectual life within the grasp of the working class.

Another of the alumni of the Oxford University's links with Hebden Bridge was Crossley Greenwood, son of the Nutclough's founder Joseph Greenwood. He was instrumental in setting up the Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society, of which the Hebden Bridge Local History Society is an off-shoot, thriving and still contributing to the intellectual life of the town.  

Andrew Bibby's book about this nationally important Hebden Bridge co-operative 'All Our Own Work' is available now.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

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