The communitarian ideals behind the co-operative trading movement – joint purchasing, reduced prices, and unadulterated goods of decent quality – resulted in the formation of some 700 mutual societies in the early 1800s. Most were short-lived ventures, foundering on the rocks of poor management, lack of capital, and wrangles over ways to distribute any profit. It was not until 1844 that a group of textile workers with previous experience of running co-operative ventures got together in Rochdale to learn from past mistakes and establish a modus operandi that would lead to long-term success.
Members contributed three old pence a week to a collective pot, which was used to pay the rent on a small shop and to purchase an initial stock of flour, butter, and oatmeal. The grandly titled Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society began trading on 21 December 1844, initially opening for just two evenings a week. Within 12 months, there were 74 members, the store was open five evenings per week, and it had begun to generate a small profit. Lynn Pearson, author of England’s Co-operative Movement: an architectural history (see ‘Further reading’), attributes the success of what became known as the Rochdale System to cash-only trading (no credit), good management, and trustworthy bookkeeping, combined with a loyal band of customers who had a stake in the society through their subscriptions. A novel feature was to pay dividends every three months, calculated as a percentage of the amount spent at the store, rather than as a percentage of share capital. This incentivised members to use the store and it meant that the shares would have little appeal to wealthy individuals only interested in the return on their invested capital.
Birth of a movement
From such small beginnings, England’s co-operative movement was born. By the mid-1860s there were some 500 retail co-op stores in England. The first shops operated out of rented premises: the Rochdale shop, for example, was based on the ground floor of an 18th-century former wool warehouse in Toad Lane – today it is home to the Rochdale Pioneers Museum (see CA 374). By 1865, the Rochdale Pioneers had generated sufficient surplus to be able to purchase land and build the second branch at 7-11 Oldham Road. That building has also survived (it is no longer operating as a co-op) and is the focal point of the Co-operative Connections Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) programme launched in May 2018. This partnership between Historic England, Rochdale Borough Council, and a variety of local organisations is designed to revitalise one of the key gateways to the town centre.
The Pioneers wanted their shops to be ‘of the plainest kind’ and they resolved ‘not to spend a farthing on finery’. Co-ops were for the use of members only at this stage, so no thought was given to street appeal or outward display. Advertising was seen as a ‘useless expense’, and there were no plate-glass windows at ground level to tempt passers-by with displays of the attractive goods for sale within. At first-floor level, however, this first purpose-built shop does have a row of five large and distinctive windows outlined in stone and in blue-and-white brick, contrasting with the red brick used for the rest of the building. The central circular window and the two Venetian Gothic windows to either side provide light to a multipurpose hall above the shop, a distinctive feature that reflected the emphasis on educational activity that was at the core of many early co-operative ventures.
Each of the co-operative societies set up during this period was a robustly independent self-governing body, and this led to a free-for-all in shop design and a diverse range of architectural styles. But ideas were shared through the pages of The Co-operator journal, which published drawings of newly opened stores. Committee members would visit neighbouring societies to gather ideas, and Lynn Pearson believes this fostered a certain degree of competitive building. Increasingly grand façades with large central pediments began to be preferred to the formerly modest frontages, and the notion of using symbols to emphasise co-operative endeavour began to take root.
Beehives and branding
By way of branding, the Rochdale Pioneers had adopted a beehive, carved in stone in the form of a coiled straw skep, to symbolise the benefits of working for a common cause. This was widely adopted elsewhere, though the wheatsheaf also appears on later 19th-century buildings to signify the power of standing together. In Burnley, unity and trust were symbolised by a pair of clasped hands, and elsewhere transport motifs were used – especially a galleon in full sail – to represent trade.
Many societies spent substantial sums on educational activities and a large first-floor hall, lit by double-height windows and often with its own separate entrance, was seen as an essential element for prestigious co-op premises. Many offered library and newspaper reading rooms for the use of members, and a multipurpose co-operative hall capable of seating 800 to 1,200 people, which made them a focal point for communities for political meetings, youth clubs, Women’s Guild meetings, lectures, recitals, and dramatic performances.
Well over 2,000 stores had been built by the end of the 1880s. The Leeds society, England’s largest, had 18,000 members and opened 50 new stores during the 1870s and 1880s, aiming to provide a branch within half a mile of every home. Such was the pace of growth that some societies, like Leeds, employed their own building team led by a clerk of works. Yet few societies employed their own architects at this stage, and those professional architects who were sympathetic to the co-operative cause and able to endure the building committees’ often rigorous scrutiny were assured of a long-term series of commissions – not just for shops but, as the movement grew, for warehouses, factories, bakeries, dairies, stables, flour mills, and even housing estates.
The co-operative ethos remained hostile to ostentation and superfluous ornamentation but, like the banking institutions of the era and the many non-conformist chapels being built at this time, they wanted to convey a sense of solidity and authority, and to demonstrate good taste as well as fitting in with the existing street scene. Each society typically had a prominent town-centre store with a variety of departments (grocery, butchery, womenswear, household textiles, boots and shoes, men’s and boys’ outfitting, hardware, and furnishings) and subsidiary branch stores selling only groceries.
A federal body
Just as they employed their own architects, so early societies sourced their own supplies, but, from the 1860s, a number of societies joined forces to establish a federal body that was to become the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) by 1872. This set about building a network of buyers, suppliers, and depots, operating originally from Manchester (still the location of the CWS headquarters) but soon spreading to Newcastle upon Tyne, London, Leeds, and many other regional capitals. Very few original buildings survive, though many were illustrated in contemporary publications, such as the CWS Annual, published from 1880, and are reproduced in Lynn Pearson’s book.
These illustrate the sheer scale and ambition of the co-operative movement in the decades before the First World War, when no longer simply selling basic food commodities, the CWS and individual societies offered a ‘cradle to grave’ service for its members, from baby food to funeral services. The CWS rapidly diversified into flour-milling, biscuit- and bread-making, butchery, bacon-curing and sausage-making, dairying and milk delivery (based on a nationwide network of stables), mineral water manufacture, tobacco-, tea- and coffee-processing, soap manufacturing, weaving, corset-making, and hosiery and shirt-making, all of which required the infrastructure of docks, transport, warehouses, and massive industrial complexes.
It was perhaps inevitable that the CWS would eventually develop its own in-house architects’ department, which it did in 1896, when it appointed Francis Harris as Chief Architect. As well as designing warehouses, offices, and factories for the CWS, Harris began to solicit commissions from the independent societies. But substantial differences remained between local and federal aims within the co-op movement. The independent societies had already proved reluctant to move all their purchasing to the CWS, and many of them had continued their relationships with local suppliers. They proved equally resistant to central control over building design. The main advantage that the CWS board enjoyed was its ability to grant building loans, and these came with conditions.
The CWS began to promote better design – internal as well as external – in the nick of time. The co-ops began to face increasing competition at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries from smart new shops with stylish fittings that threatened to make the earlier co-operative shops look shabby and poorly stocked. Architectural homogeneity remained an unrealised ambition, but the no-frills approach gave way to a variety of attractive buildings in Arts and Crafts style (Worcester), timber framing (Lewes and Plumstead), and Art Nouveau (Todmorden), and with such pleasing decorative details as clocktowers, corner turrets, cupolas, and domes.
The Hartlepool store (1913-1915) could, says Lynn Pearson, have been mistaken for a town hall, with its Portland stone cladding, its domed ‘Wrenaissance’ lantern, and its pairs of Ionic pilasters separating the massive windows that owed much in their design to those of Oxford Street’s Selfridges, which opened in 1909. The innovations continued inside in the form of lifts and statement staircases, oak-panelled walls, and a first-floor café.
The First World War saw the co-ops turn their premises over to the war effort – that splendid new Hartlepool store was requisitioned within weeks of opening – but the post-war retail boom of the 1920s saw co-op membership reach 4 million for the first time (10 per cent of the 40 million population of the UK in 1920) and a building boom: about 1,000 new branches and central stores were being built annually by the end of the decade, and the central architects’ department was gaining a greater proportion of these as the local societies lost their connections with local architectural practices as a result of death, retirement, and the war’s disruption.
A simple template emerged for branch premises, in the form of a single-storey neo-Georgian structure with a distinctive parapet hiding the shallow hipped roof; a flat-roofed version was commonly known as the ‘bungalow store’. The brick parapet is pierced by three groups of six balustrades reflecting the tripartite division of the shop façade, with left, right, and central display windows separated by recessed doors. The overall impression is of a continuous wall of glass set within a frame of cast stone or faience, with the name of the co-operative society running across the upper part of the frame, between windows and parapet. This basic format, and the remains of lettering, are what enables co-op stores of the period to be identified today. The design was adaptable: in Peckham, for example, the rectilinear façade was reimagined in Moderne style, with a graceful and gently curving white frame to the three display windows.
International socialist ideals
As befits a society based on communitarian values, the staff of the architects’ department tended to be left-leaning in their political complexion: one of the ways in which they promoted their services was to emphasise that ‘we have our own architects… no need to entrust professional work to folks with capitalist associations and individualistic notions’. Study trips were made to the Netherlands and Germany to study the new housing estates, schools, hospitals, factories, and welfare facilities being designed in radical new ways by architects with socialist ideals.
As CWS factories reached peak production in the 1930s, employing many thousands, its architects brought what they learned from Continental architects to the design of industrial buildings with an emphasis on safe and healthy, well-ventilated, and sunlit workplaces with generous catering facilities, gardens, and communal areas. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner – an acerbic critic of poor design – complimented the CWS after visiting some of their factories, saying:
I was struck with the rational layout and the modern hygienic equipment of almost all the co-operative works to which I had access. They were in most gratifying contrast to the majority of factories in this country.
Lynn Pearson observes that only one of the major interwar factories, mills, and works has survived – the Abington boot and shoe works – but office blocks have fared better, including the elegant Northampton CWS depot, now converted to residential use, and the London Co-operative Society’s head office in Prescot Street, a stylish composition inspired by the expressionist brickwork typical of the Amsterdam School.
The co-op movement continued its strong growth, with 6 million members in 1936 (out of a total UK population at the time of 46 million); one in 30 shops in the UK was now co-operatively owned. Increasingly, major stores adopted ‘bazaar’ trading, with goods attractively laid out on open counters to tempt customers to buy, in contrast to the old approach where customers were served at a counter by staff who fetched the items they wished to purchase. Cafés were becoming an essential fixture, often taking the place of the old meeting halls. Pneumatic cash-carrier systems were becoming universal, with a central cash office linked to serving stations. Stores were built in the new housing estates that were being constructed across the country, many of which included a shopping parade.
The dream of uniformity was never achieved for exterior designs. Instead, co-op architects opted for fitting in harmoniously with the surroundings – hence neo-Georgian, neo-classical, and neo-Tudor were especially popular, along with what Lynn Pearson calls a ‘mild form of Art Deco’. But interiors became much more standardised, not least because the CWS shop-fitting department had cornered 85 per cent of society business in this area by 1939. Gone, according to one commentator, ‘is the frowsiness, the untidiness, the greasiness, the flies and the odours’; in came hygienic surfaces of glass and chrome, Vitrolite (coloured glass), Ruboleum (lino flooring), and Marmorite (artificial marble). The future looked bright!
Surprisingly, the future continued to be bright once the country began to recover from the war, with many older stores having suffered damage, thus providing the opportunity to build smart new shops. The arts magazine Lilliput regularly published CWS advertisements showing co-op buildings with illustrations by the eminent artist Rowland Hilder, and texts that stressed the co-op’s combination of tradition and modernity. The buildings of this era are remarkable for their public art – murals, ceramics, mosaic and frieze, painted panels, and carved reliefs, often depicting a rather romantic view of labour and trade, and co-operative endeavour, such as the family group on bronze designed for the co-op in Crawley New Town, or the colourful mosaic of a woman holding a wheatsheaf designed for the Ipswich store.
Yet what is most striking about the many pictures of former co-op buildings that fill the pages of Lynn Pearson’s book is how few of them are still functioning as co-ops. Too many have now become discount stores, fast-food takeaways, betting shops, off-licences, cheap supermarkets, and convenience stores, their upper storeys impressively designed but betrayed by garish fascias at street level. Many co-operative societies simply failed in the period 1966 to 1972, unable to compete with aggressive new supermarkets. What were originally planned as neighbourhood stores now lost out because they were located in back streets rather than town-centre locations, and some were so unsophisticated and drab that they tarnished the reputation of the whole movement. The year 1961 was a watershed moment when the number of shops reached a peak, and then decline set in. Some 77 superstores, 1,397 supermarkets, and 102 department stores have since been closed or sold.
Even so, the Co-op remains the sixth largest food retailer in the UK, with a 6.4 per cent share of the market, just ahead of Lidl (6.2 per cent) and Waitrose (5.1 per cent); it also commands the largest share of the fast-growing convenience store market, which accounts for 14.7 per cent of all UK grocery sales. The many mergers that have taken place over the last 50 years between previously independent co-operative societies mean that the Co-op Group has a high degree of central management, and its latest architectural expression is the futuristic office complex in north Manchester, known as the ‘Co-op Quarter’. Adopting the beehive motif as an inspiration, the curvaceous 16-storey headquarters building is shaped like a skep, and the hundreds of people working in the building can be viewed through the glass walls, working at their tasks like bees in a hive. The head office has won many architectural awards, not least for its high degree of environmental sustainability as well as its low energy demands.
Lynn Pearson’s book concludes with recommendations for conserving the co-op architectural legacy. She would like to see protection for any remaining co-operative halls, naming Wakefield’s Unity Hall (built 1901-1904), with its beehive images in stained glass, as the least altered. The CWS depot in Newcastle (1895-1899) is the least altered CWS warehouse, despite its change of use as the Discovery Museum. The four major co-op murals of the 1950s and 1960s (Stevenage, Ipswich, Hull, and Scunthorpe) are significant as public displays of co-operative values, as is the Bostall Estate, Abbey Wood, and Plumstead, where the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society built over 1,000 homes for members between 1901 and 1914.
There are seven purpose-built co-operative buildings that pre-date the First World War that still function as co-ops, including at Drighlington (1886), Chapel Stile (1896), Tamworth (1897), Coniston (1898), and Reading (1901). Tamworth’s is ‘a reminder of what typical town centres looked like in the co-op’s heyday’, Burnley’s 1862 store, though no longer a co-op, is the earliest purpose-built central shop, and Rochdale (1865) has the earliest purpose-built branch store.
Original shopfronts are very rare, so Todmorden’s Art Nouveau frontage is a gem (the building now houses a bar). Annfield Plain’s early 1900s co-op was moved to Beamish Museum in 1984, and is a popular component of the museum’s recreation of an early 20th-century town, especially for its working cash railway. All told, there are perhaps 2,000-3,000 purpose-built co-ops left, many of them changed beyond recognition, and recalled only by those who shopped in them – remembering always to quote their membership number when paying the bill so as to register their purchases and claim their dividend or ‘divi’.
Lynn Pearson (2020) England’s Co-operative Movement: an architectural history (Historic England, £40; ISBN 978-1789622393).
All images: Lynn Pearson.