The 1920s style CWS building with stormy sky in Manchester city centre.
From its beginnings in 1863, the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) became one of the largest co-operative organisations in the UK, changing its name in to The Co-operative Group in 2001. The CWS began in small premises in Manchester and grew to occupy a large part of the city centre, which housed its offices, warehouses and salerooms. It produced the famous CWS Brand goods for co-operative societies throughout the UK. These included food, furniture, clothing and household products.
A Co-operative Wholesale Society, or CWS, is a form of Co-operative Federation (that is, a Co-operative in which all the members are Co-operatives), in this case, the members are usually Consumers' Co-operatives.
According to Co-operative economist Charles Gide, the aim of a Co-operative Wholesale Society is to arrange “bulk purchases, and, if possible, organise production.” In other words, a Co-operative Wholesale Society is a form of Federal Co-operative through which Consumers' Co-operatives can collectively purchase goods at wholesale prices, and in some cases collectively own factories or farms.
CWS flour mill in Silvertown, London, c. 1915
The best historical examples of this are the (English) CWS and the Scottish CWS, which are the predecessors of the 21st century Co-operative Group. Indeed, in Britain, the terms Co-operative Wholesale Society or CWS are used to refer to this specific organisation rather than the organisational form.
However, the English CWS has inspired many imitations around the world (including, for example, the New South Wales Co-operative Wholesale Society who have also described themselves as Co-operative Wholesale Societies or 'CWS'.