The English Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), established in 1863, emerged in the nineteenth century as a key component of the British co-operative movement, selling to retail societies many of the commodities they sold on to their members and customers. But the CWS had to compete with private wholesalers in supplying retail societies, a situation which made the CWS’ relationship with the wider movement quite problematic. This article explores the establishment and development of the CWS during the first quarter century of its existence, and the strategies it employed to maximise its trade with societies, which included major involvement in manufacturing, and the development of global commercial activity. It is argued that in contrast with the picture of British enterprise offered by such commentators as Chandler, the CWS was in many respects a highly efficient organisation for its time, which successfully developed its role in the quite dysfunctional federation which was the co-operative movement. Indeed, it is argued that the CWS achieved a level of organisational and managerial sophistication which would not be seen in most British non-co-operative business until well into the twentieth century.