On 19th December, 1958 in Llanelli the C.W.S. [a] opened the first purpose-built supermarket in Wales. The co-operative movement in England and Wales had already had a long history. The Co-operative Wholesale Society founded in the north of England in 1863 grew out of the co-operative movement of mid-nineteenth century Victorian England. The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened its first shop in Rochdale in 1844 and the efforts of its members are generally credited with the rapid growth of the co-operative movement in this country and across the world.
The C.W.S. began in modest premises in Manchester but eventually grew to occupy a large part of the city centre which housed its offices, warehouses and salerooms. It produced its own-brand goods for co-op stores throughout the country, including food, furniture, clothing and household items. It had extensive trading arrangements overseas doing regular business with India, Ceylon and South America. True to the aspirations of its founders the C.W.S. took care of its workers, introducing an 8-hour day in its factories and taking a public stance against sweated industries.
The co-operatives were owned by their members, usually small local shopkeepers who came together to maximise their buying power and to provide a more attractive shopping environment for the buying public.
On 7th January, 1896 the Llanelly Co-operative Society Limited was registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, 1893, and the doors of the Castle Buildings store in Murray Street were opened to customers on 1st February, 1896 with Mr. Owen Davies as manager.
C.W.S. TO C.R.S.
By the 1950s, the C.W.S. felt the need to modernise its old-fashioned image, and re-launched in 1957 as Co-operative Retail Services Limited (C.R.S.). The C.R.S. had twenty-seven branches in England and Wales, a combined membership of 185,000 and a turnover of £12 million a year. In South Wales new department stores were opened in Cardiff, Swansea and Merthyr Tydfil.
Considerable impetus was given by Government in the 1950s to the expansion of retail space as part of the post-war re-building programme. The new idea of a "super" market which had been introduced in the United States in the 1930s was taken up enthusiastically by grocery entrepreneurs like Tesco, Sainsbury's, Fine Fare, Victor Value and many others.
The C.R.S. was managed by a board of eleven directors: six members appointed by and from the C.W.S. board and five elected by and from the branch committees. Two of the five C.R.S. directors in 1957 were from Carmarthenshire: Alderman D.J. Williams from the Llanelly branch, and E.C. Williams from Kidwelly representing the Burry Port branch. D.J. Williams was described as "a railway worker ... on the Llanelly branch committee since 1944... a member of Llanelly Borough Council and past member of Carmarthenshire County Council." E.C. Williams was "a civil servant, a member of the Burry Port branch committee for twenty years, chairman of the Kidwelly and District School managers and area chairman of the Civil Service Clerical Association." Two other C.R.S. directors were also from South Wales: I. Jarrett of Blaina and S. Walker of Taff Bargoed.
In 2001 the C.R.S. changed its name to The Co-operative Group.
On 18th and 20th December, 1958 respectively the Llanelly Mercury and the Llanelly Star carried front page advertisements: "C.R.S. have pleasure in announcing that the FIRST SUPER MARKET IN WALES is NOW OPEN at Market Street, Llanelly." It was claimed to be the "most modern and hygienic food store in the Principality". The site was previously occupied by the Stanley Pearce fruit shop (greengrocer) which C.R.S. had demolished to make way for their development. The new "super" market had cost £22,000 to build and equip, and with a selling area of 2000 sq. ft. average sales now reached £3,000 per week.
Not only could Llanelly shoppers indulge their new-found taste for frozen foods, but also buy a barbecued chicken for the price of 10s.6d. from the Rotiss-o-Mat Cooked Chicken Service, an innovation brought in by branch grocery manager, John Faulkner. It was a popular feature - even those who did not buy a chicken stood mesmerised at the spectacle of the birds revolving slowly and effortlessly behind the glass.
Apart from providing the entertainment of chickens roasting, the supermarket carried most of the C.W.S. lines: Gold Seal, Silver Seal and Gala margarines, Shortex pastry shortening, Hilex cooking fat, Cremo breakfast oats, Federation flour, Wheatsheaf bread, Waveney tinned soups, Lutona cocoa, Shieldhall coffee, C.W.S. tea, jam and jelly, Harlequin biscuits, Sedan chocolates, Laundene washing liquid, Solvo soap powder, Spel washing powder, Crysella soap flakes, Pulvo scouring powder, Cream Lavender and White Olive soaps, Miracle washing up liquid, Pelaw polish, Jaycee and Raydex cigarettes.
The town centre store closed in 1997 with the construction of the new St. Elli Centre and the popular "supermarket" store moved to Felinfoel.
A plaque commemorating the opening of the 1958 "supermarket" was unveiled by Llanelli Community Heritage on 19th December, 2019 - the sixtieth anniversary of the opening - and can be seen on the wall of the Principality Building Society on the site of the store.
Notes and Citations
With thanks to Keith J. Evans whose book [b] provided much of the detailed information for this article.
[a] C.W.S. Co-operative Wholesale Society
[b] The Secret History of Llannelli Co-operative 1895-2000 Keith J. Evans, published Carmarthenshire County Council, 2000.