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Public Lecture Series: Professor Tony Webster

Northumbria University


Professor Tony Webster, Professor in History, Department of Humanities 

The People’s Colossus? The British Co-operative Wholesale Societies and the World, 1863-1970

Refreshments will be available from 6pm


The lecture explores how the British Co-operative movement, and specifically the Wholesale Societies, developed international supply chains and markets during the period. In so doing, they created probably the most sophisticated supply chain system seen to date; one which managed trade with Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. In many ways they were pioneers in international supply chain development.

Professor Webster will discuss how these supply chains were developed and managed, and how as a result the Wholesale societies came to exercise some leverage over British foreign and imperial policy. What emerges is a picture of formidable and highly sophisticated commercial operators, very much at variance with the modern impression of the ‘co-op’ as a rather old fashioned and inefficient organisation, unable to hold its own in the marketplace.

About the speaker

A native of Wigan in North West England, Tony studied at the University of Birmingham, which in 1985 awarded him the Ashley Prize for best PhD thesis in the Faculty of Commerce and Social Science. He went on to train as an FE teacher, then became a fully qualified tax inspector, before joining Edge Hill University in 1993. He successively became Head of History at Edge Hill, Head of Humanities at UCLAN and Head of History at Liverpool John Moores before joining Northumbria as a Professor in History.

His early interest was in British imperial and business history, his main publications being: Gentleman Capitalists: British Imperialism in South East Asia 1770-1890 (Tauris 1998), The Debate on the Rise of the British Empire (Manchester University Press 2006), The Richest East India Merchant: The Life and Business of John Palmer of Calcutta 1767-1836 (Boydell 2007) and The Twilight of the East India Company: The Evolution of Anglo-Asian Commerce and Politics 1790-1860 (Boydell 2009) and he has jointly edited several volumes in the field, The Empire in One City? Liverpool’s Inconvenient Imperial Past 1700-1970 (Manchester University Press 2008) and Commodities, Ports and Asian Maritime Trade since 1750 (Palgrave Macmillan 2015).

Tony won the 2005 Newcomen Prize for best article in the US Business history journal, Enterprise & Society. In 2010 he began work on the business history of the Co-operative group with Professor John F. Wilson (now of Newcastle University) and Rachel Vorberg-Rugh, jointly publishing with them Building Co-operation: A Business History of the Co-operative Group 1863 to 2013 (Oxford University Press October 2013). This formed the principal historical source used by the Kelly Report into the failings of the Co-operative Bank (Spring 2014). He has also jointly edited two volumes on the co-operative movement: The Hidden Alternative: Co-operative Values, Past, Present and Future (Manchester University Press and United Nations University Press December 2011) and Mainstreaming Co-operation: An Alternative for the Twenty-first Century? (Manchester University Press 2016). He has published in a wide variety of journals (including Economic History Review, The Historical Journal, Modern Asian Studies, Enterprise & Society, Business History and the Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History).

Tony is a former Governor of the Co-operative College in Manchester, and Chairs the Heritage Advisory Committee of the National Co-operative Archive. He is currently working closely with the WEA and Building Futures East on a project promoting social enterprise education in Walker, Newcastle.

To book a space, please complete the form below or email

Event Details

Northumbria University
Room CCE 002, Business & Law Building
City Campus East
Newcastle Upon Tyne


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