What is the World’s Oldest Housing Co-operative?
How has an idea over 175 years old, been applied to housing co-operatives and more interestingly (to us at least), when was this idea of co-operating in line with the Rochdale Pioneers seven co-operative principles applied to housing, and what has it meant for how people around the world view housing?
There is much debate about co-operatives and their history, with the idea being one which comes natural to many people, and countless examples of it being applied across the world to address different social and economic challenges. A great example of this is the Shore Porters Society in Aberdeen which was founded just 6 years after Christopher Colombus sailed across the atlantic (1498).
When we look at the application of this idea with regards to housing, we can see a much more recent history. Albany in Picaddily, London is perhaps the world’s oldest example of people living co-operatively (under one member, one vote rules). Founded in 1804 and continue to be occupied until today, Albany is a beautiful Georgian building in the heart of London that has a history (and historical members) who are as interesting as the application of the idea itself. Moving from the hands of royalty into being converted into 69 different living “sets” a unique approach to organising what was once a palatial mansion house. It was however, not would we would think as true co-operative living, the house excluded women from living there until 1880, and was a place for wealthy bachelors, not necessarily a way to overcome social and economic barriers.
However, the people who’ve darkened Albany’s doors reads like a who’s who of British social, cultural and political life over the years, Lord Byron, William Ewart Gladstone (PM) and Thomas Babington Macaulay (historian). It the 20th century, Edward Heath (PM), Sir Thomas Beecham (conductor), Graham Greene (novelist), Sir A.M. Carr-Saunders (co-op historian), Aldous Huxley (writer) and JB Priestley (writer and co-founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) all called it home. And its 21st century members (now open also to women, but not to any child under 14) have included Terence Stamp (actor), Fleur Cowles (US writer & editor), Sir Simon Jenkins (writer), Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowden (society photographer), Margaret Thatcher, for just a few days (PM), and David and Evangeline Bruce (US ambassador to UK).
It’s prominence in the social and cultural life in Britain has led to it being well referenced in fiction, even Ireland’s own Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” references several scenes which take place in the apartment of the protagonist in Albany.
But what makes it a co-operative if it’s just filled with wealthy bachelors and bachelorettes (children under 14 are not allowed), well, the owner of a set is called a Proprietor. The Proprietors elect a board of trustees which governs Albany and vets prospective proprietors prior to completion of the purchase and taking up of residence.
So whilst the idea may not be one in which we’d typically associate with (or expect from) co-operatives today, it does indeed stand as an example of co-operative living going back more than 215 years.