The Middle Way: Part 3

One of the high points of the speech given by Erskine Holmes O.B.E., Chair of the Co-operative Forum, at their Conference held in Trinity College, Dublin on Friday 30th and Saturday 31st July, 2010, From Plunkett to the Credit Crunch, was his allusion to Harold Barbour, Plunkett’s man in the North. Erskine is a trustee of Ulster Garden Villages, of which I hold one share, as I do of the Co-operative Society.

Born in 1874, Harold Adrian Milne Barbour was the grandson of the founder of the great linen manufacturing firm of William Barbour of Lisburn. Barbour studied at Harrow School and the University of Oxford before becoming a company director. In 1897 he developed a most outstanding admiration for Horace Plunkett and his co-operative business approach. Over the next forty years he provided a great service to the movement in every aspect of its organisational and business activity.

In 1881, Harold’s father, John D. Barbour, in the face of much opposition from the merchants of Lisburn, provided a meeting place for a group of workers who were attempting to develop a consumer co-operative model based on that of the Rochdale pioneers. This Lisburn Society grew to be one of the largest and best co-operatives in Ireland with a substantial agricultural trade as well as its urban consumer business.

The Society’s minutes of 2nd May,1882 read:-

Resolved that the warmest and best thanks be given to J.D. Barbour Esquire D.L. for his kindness, encouragement and generosity in granting the use of a room in Castle Street, free of charge, for the meetings of the Society when in a state of infant helplessness, which act has assisted in a great measure of the success and prosperity it at present enjoys.

Harold Barbour himself became the President of the Lisburn Co-op in 1900. Within twelve years it had 1450 members and had the biggest average share capital for a member of any Co-op in Ireland. Keeping in close touch with the Co-operative Union in Manchester and the Co-operative Wholesale Societies in Britain at large, Harold Barbour was the important link man between the consumer and agricultural sides of the movement and was elected to the Boards of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) in 1906 and the Irish Agricultural Wholesale Society (IAWS) in 1907. His appointment as Chairman of IAWS in 1910 led to a great upswing in the style and pace of the wholesale arm of the movement. A Banking Service was established with current and deposit accounts, the cheque-books of which were in both Irish and English. This laid the foundation for a National Co-operative Bank which lasted until 1912.

Only Barbour could have persuaded the IAWS to take up the grocery trade in opposition to the shop-keepers. Even Plunkett himself had serious doubts about this. In fact, a full scale grocery department was operational by 1912. Barbour believed there was no substitute for hard work; he was a man of the people who met the Committees on the ground. He was the only man to be a full-time Co-operative organiser as well as a full-time Managing Director of a major industrial concern.

Barbour and his wife were noted for their generosity. When all of the Dublin banks were closed during Easter Week 1916, Harold, without being asked, came to the rescue of IAWS by placing £3000 to the credit of this society in the Ulster Bank, Belfast. In January, 1917 both presented their personal cheques of £5500 to complete the refurbishment of the IAWS premises in Thomas Street, Dublin. This gift was made on condition that the building should be dedicated to the perpetuation of the life work of three great pioneers, Horace Plunkett, Rev Tom Finlay and Robert A. Anderson. He was elected as an Irish Unionist Party county councillor, then served in the Senate of Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1929.

On resigning his chairmanship of IAWS in 1922 and taking over as President of the Ulster Agricultural Organisation Society (UAOS), he remained on its Board for a further 2 years. During the “Hungry Twenties” he was responsible for holding the Northern Ireland Co-ops together and helped them to a good measure of business success. He died unexpectedly of pneumonia in Zurich on a business trip to the Far East on 23rd December,1938. His gravestone inscription in Lambeg reads:-

“He was the friend of the farmer”. His photographs of rural north and west Ireland in the early years of the 20th-century have been widely exhibited.

His friend and colleague R. A. Anderson once said of him,

“Harold Barbour is the youngest of our leaders and the most enthusiastic and energetic”.

Anderson’s own private life was unfortunately marked by tragedy and grief. He was estranged from his wife, the beautiful Mary Teresa Leahy. A few weeks before Christmas 1914, his son Alan, 23, an Oxford graduate and sports star was killed in the Great War, at Le Pelly near Lille; shortly afterwards his second son Philip was badly wounded and died 22nd February, 1915 on the Western Front. Anderson, old and lonely, died in a nursing home in Clontarf on Christmas Day 1942, with no record of any family member at his funeral. His grave in Mount Jerome Cemetery lay unattended until recently restored by the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society. But Erskine Holmes did not forget him or his sons, or indeed Harold Barbour. Through a life-time’s work with the Co-operative movement Harold Barbour has become for us the Plunkett of the North.

Ed: I can’t find an online photo of Harold Barbour, although there is a brief Wikipedia entry. Yet Barbour was clearly an enthusiastic photographer and his photographic colledction is held in the archives of University College, Dublin – see here.

The text of Ian Adamson’s address to the conference appears in –

The Middle Way: Part 1, by  Dr Ian Adamson (Friday, July 30. 2010); and

The Middle Way: Part 2, by  Dr Ian Adamson (Saturday, July 31. 2010).


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