Anseele dreamed of a society where workers had better living standards, social security, and cultural opportunities. His legacy is still visible in Ghent’s architecture, culture, and identity.
A response to industrial struggles
In the 19th century, Ghent became known as the “Manchester of the Continent” because of its booming textile industry. However, this came at a high cost for the workers, who faced long hours, low wages, child labor, and poor health. They also had little political representation, as voting rights were restricted by income and property.
Edward Anseele’s vision takes shape
In 1880, Edward Anseele, a young journalist and activist, founded the Cooperative Society Vooruit (Forward). He was inspired by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, founded in England in 1844. The Rochdale Society was an early consumers’ co-operative that formed the basis for the modern co-operative movement and became the prototype for societies in Great Britain and elsewhere.
Similarly, Vooruit aimed to offer an alternative to the capitalist system by providing affordable and quality goods and services to its members. It started with a bakery, located in the Zacheus tavern in Sint Gillisstraat. Here, workers could buy bread with special “bread cards”. The price of the bread was slightly higher than elsewhere, but at the end of the year the participating workers received part of the bakery’s profits, the amount depending on their purchases. The bread cards also served as a kind of internal currency which could be exchanged for coffee, blankets, clothes, and coal.
The cooperative expands
The Vooruit cooperative was a success. As it became stronger, more space was needed for its co-operative shops and for its administration. The organisation moved to the Garenmarkt (now the Anseeleplein), near Ghent Railway Station South.
This new property housed a bakery, a coffee shop, a shop selling fabrics and clothes, a library with a reading room, and a conference room – an ideal meeting place for the labourers and the socialist movement of Ghent. Vooruit also started opening co-operative pharmacies and grocery stores all over the city.
Solidarity as the guiding principle
Anseele also established the “Red Factories,” a network of socialist industrial enterprises, such as a weaving mill, a brewery, a sugar factory, and textile spinning mills. These factories aimed to improve the working conditions and wages of the workers, as well as to generate profits for the cooperative.
However, the Vooruit cooperative was more than just a business venture; it was a social movement that cared for the well-being of its members. (By 1913, it had over 10,000 members.) It offered health care, pensions, insurance, education, and cultural activities, long before the state recognized its duty to the poor. The cooperative also developed the “Ghent System.” This describes an arrangement whereby the main responsibility for welfare payments, especially unemployment benefits, is held by trade unions rather than a government agency. The system was first implemented in Ghent, but is the predominant form of unemployment benefit in Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden – and is still being considered elsewhere.
The Vooruit cooperative also expressed its power and pride through its architecture. It built monumental buildings that rivaled the Catholic cathedrals, which had dominated the cityscape for centuries.
In 1893, Vooruit purchased two inns on the Vrijdagmarkt, and transformed them into a building that became known as the Groote Magazijnen.
It functioned as a department store where all kinds of products could be purchased through the cooperative, such as fabrics, shoes and spices. There were also meeting rooms and a banquet hall. The cooperative’s presence on the Vrijdagmarkt gave it a firm foothold at the historically most significant place in the old city of Ghent.
After a fire in 1897, it was rebuilt into an impressive two-part building, based on the Grands Magasins in Paris. The first opened in 1899, where the new Groote Magazijnen was located. The second was Ons Huis, completed in 1902. It consisted of study, meeting and relaxation rooms, a café, a library and a banquet hall where theater performances were held. In 1991, both buildings were restored.
In 1911, construction started on the opulent Feestlokaal Vooruit (Celebration Hall) which opened in 1913. Here, workers could eat, drink and enjoy culture at very democratic prices. It housed a ballroom, cinema, theatre group, and a newspaper publishing company.
It was a masterpiece of Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, with a capacity for 1,500 people. It became the symbol of the socialist culture in Ghent, and housed the administrative seat of the Cooperative, the health insurance services and the workers’ union.
Since 1982, it has been used by the arts group Viernulvier for debates, literature evenings, parties, festivals, concerts, film screenings, dance and theater performances.
The building was restored and recognized as a monument in 1983. In 2000 it received the Flemish monument prize after thorough restoration work. In 2013, the building was 100 years old and a celebration was held with a special programme and various activities.
Facing ideological competition
The socialist movement in Ghent was not without opposition. It faced a fierce rivalry with the Catholic Church, which had a strong influence on the city’s politics and society. The socialists challenged the Church’s authority and doctrine, promoting atheism, secularism, and anti-clericalism. They also appealed to the city’s inhabitants, who were known for their rebellious and hedonistic spirit, with their propaganda and festivities. The socialists and the Catholics competed for the hearts and minds of the people, creating a vibrant and diverse cultural scene.
Surviving the test of time
The socialist movement in Ghent reached its peak in the early 20th century, when it faced many challenges, such as the two world wars, the economic crisis, the rise of fascism, and the decline of the textile industry. However, it managed to survive and adapt to the changing times, preserving its values and institutions. In short, the socialist movement in Ghent is a remarkable example of how one man’s vision transformed a city and its people. I will cover the life and legacy of Edward Anseele in more detail in my Remarkable Belgians series.
Many of the places mentioned above are still standing and can be visited. A good place to start is the Vrijdagmarkt where you can stand in front of Ons Huis and Groote Magazijnen (now Bond Moyson). The Vooruit Arts Center (previously Vooruit Feestlokaal) can be found at Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 23. At the corner of Land Van Waaslaan and the Antwerpsesteenweg you can find the building (below) where the first cooperative pharmacy was located – and its ground floor still houses a pharmacy!
If you have longer to spend in Ghent, you can always follow my tips in How to spend a day in Ghent. I also recommend Derek Blyth’s audio walking guide to Ghent. If art is your passion, here are some tips on the best art that Ghent can offer, while if artisanal beer, bargain vintage, and docklands clubbing is your scene, check out this local’s guide to Ghent.
I am grateful to one of my readers, Gideon, for suggesting the socialist movement of Ghent as a topic for Discovering Belgium. If anyone has further suggestions for articles, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. Thank you. Denzil