Before supermarkets, co-operative stores were the place to grocery shop

Thirroul Co Op
The west side of Thirroul. Shops from the right are C. &​ A. Paine (butchers), The Thirroul branch of the Co-operative Store and Webb’s Red House, C1910. Picture: Wollongong City Library
Inside the Thirroul Co-op when Bill Roberts was manager. From left is: Unknown women, - Beggs, Gussy Hamilton, unknown women, Jenny Thirlaway (later Cracknell), Jeff Vardy, manager Bill Roberts and Vince Tobin.
Inside the Thirroul Co-op when Bill Roberts was manager.
From left is: Unknown women, – Beggs, Gussy Hamilton, unknown women,
Jenny Thirlaway (later Cracknell), Jeff Vardy, manager Bill Roberts and Vince Tobin. Picture: Supplied


THE Roberts’ family home was in the midst of the hive of activity that surrounded the Woonona Co-operative Society’s extensive warehouse facilities, bakery, stables, shops and offices.  It’s no surprise that a young Bill Roberts [no relation] got his first job there in the 1920s.

Long before supermarkets and 24 hour convenience stores, shoppers depended on local co-ops for their grocery needs.

The idea of co-operative stores was inherited from Britain during the 1890s. They hit their peak in popularity during the 1930s and 40s before the rise of supermarkets in the 1950s.

Co-ops were a way to protect the interests of society’s less financially powerful – workers, consumers, farmers, producers and miners.

The concept was first adopted by Illawarra coal miners when the Helensburgh and Lilydale Cooperative Society was formed in 1892.

Woonona Co Operative Store 1
The Woonona Industrial Co-Operative Society store, Woonona, C.1913. Picture: Wollongong City Library
Woonona Co Op women
Women employees of the Woonona Co-Op C.1920. Barbara McGoldrick is seated at the far right. Picture: Wollongong City Library

The principle was simple; members of the co-op bought shares entitling them to a dividend on fortnightly purchases. Every six months the dividend was paid by a credit purchase and a record kept in a pass book.

The co-op’s directors were closely linked to the union movement and members were expected to have a union ticket. In times of hardship or strikes the co-op assisted through credit or extended payment periods.

The Illawarra’s most successful co-op was the Woonona Industrial Co-operative Society, established in 1897, and, which employed thousand of people during its 60 odd years of existence.

With a head office in Woonona, branches operated in Scarborough, Coledale, Thirroul, Corrimal, Balgownie, Wollongong and Port Kembla. The Woonona store was located a little north of the BP Petrol Station, on the Prince’s Highway, about where the medical centre is today (2020).

Bill Roberts’ maternal grandfather had been killed in the 1887 Bulli mine disaster and his parents were thankful the teenager had gained safer employment at the co-op.

Bill began as delivery boy taking small orders by horseback around the district or larger orders by horse and cart.

Thirroul Co Op inside
J. Nicholson, Anastasia Sweeney, Jenny Thirlaway and Vince Tobin in the Thirroul Co op store. Picture: Wollongong City Library

Besides food, the Woonona Co-op sold everything from hardware to clothing and Manchester. About the only things they didn’t sell were liquor, meat and milk.

I interviewed 75-year-old Ken Roberts, Bill’s son, who still lived in Balls Street Woonona in 2003, and says working at the co-op was not just a job, but a way of life.

The Woonona headquarters included a tea-room and large hall where members and employees held monthly dance socials. An annual Boxing Day sports carnival was held at Slacky Flat and Ken said his dad’s life revolved around the co-op.

With the advent of the motor vehicle Bill’s delivery duties were made from a Harley Davidson with butter-box side car.

Ken said he had fond memories of his dad picking him up from school on the Harley.

“I would sit in the side box that held the groceries,” Ken recalled.

“Dad would be always giving someone a lift if he passed them on the street.

“He always told us about the time he picked up this bloke to give him a ride and told him to sit on top of the box. When he stopped all of a sudden and asked the bloke to jump-off, the passenger asked why.”

Bill already had a passenger inside the delivery box waiting to jump out!

Bill became manager of the Thirroul Co-op branch store before his retirement in the 1960s.

The co-op had been good to Bill. He had worked his way up from delivery boy in the 1920s to manager in the 1960s.

First published 2014, updated 2020

 © Copyright Mick Roberts 2020

Do you have memories of Illawarra’s co-op stores? Scroll down to share your memories in the comments section

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3 thoughts on “Before supermarkets, co-operative stores were the place to grocery shop

  1. Thanks for posting these stories. They bring alive the past and give a real sense of life then. My great great grand parents were Thomas & Hanna Ball who I believe owned the buildings the Woonona Co-op was originally in.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Woonona Industrial Co-operative Society Stores – Allowrie Chronicles

  3. I remember the Co-Op. my mum shopped there sometimes when I was small in the 1950s to early 1960s. I was fascinated by the money system, using overhead wires to send payments to the cashier. Change and the docket would return the same way. Dad was a miner, so that would have been our union connection. I remember the staff being friendly, but all I remember about the building was the dark wooden floor. And of course the bakery in the lane behind the store itself.

    Liked by 1 person

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