Historic England’s latest book is an architectural history of England’s Co-operative Movement, written by Lynn Pearson to coincide with the Co-op’s 175th anniversary. The movement traces its origins to the founding in 1844 of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers by 28 weavers and tradesmen, who pooled their savings to open a store to sell basic commodities at fair prices as an alternative to the overpriced, poor-quality, and often adulterated goods sold elsewhere. That first shop is now the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, run by the Co-operative Heritage Trust.
Like some other national retailers (Woolworths, Burton, J Lyons, and W H Smith), the Co-op set out to stand out in the High Street with distinctive architectural designs, from corner shops bearing the movement’s beehive symbol to huge department stores – including Wakefield’s ornate red-brick Unity House (1867, extended 1901-1904). This building had a first-floor community hall, where up to 1,200 people could attend educational lectures, sat beneath the fine hammerbeam roof, and latterly enjoyed films, wrestling, ballroom dancing, and live music. The Co-operative Hall in Ramsbottom (1876) is another example of the Co-op’s commitment to workers’ education, with its library, newsroom, and lecture hall above the ground-floor grocery and drapery. Newly listed in February 2021, this building is, sadly, on the Heritage at Risk Register.
More recently the Co-op has made its mark on the Manchester skyline with its headquarters complex, regenerating a 22-acre site in what is officially branded NOMA (NOrth MAnchester), but is known locally as the Co-op Quarter because of the eight buildings that make up the Co-op headquarters complex. They include two listed tower blocks: the 14-storey New Century House and its companion, the 400ft, 28-storey CIS Tower, head office of the Co-operative Insurance Society. Both were built between 1959 and 1962 as pioneering examples of curtain-wall buildings. Inspired by Chicago skyscrapers, they have been described as ‘perfectly symbolising the optimism of the 1960s’.
As well as running the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, the Co-operative Heritage Trust exists to preserve the heritage assets of the Co-operative Movement in the UK, looking after collections that include documents, films, photographs, packaging, advertising, and objects that tell the story of how the movement began, the way it grew, and its influence on the social, economic, and political history of the country. Volunteers are always welcome, including those working remotely on cataloguing the collections.
Co-operative Heritage Trust: www.co-operativeheritage.coop
Lynn Pearson (2020) England’s Co-operative Movement: an architectural history (Liverpool University Press, ISBN 978-1789622393 £40).
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IMAGES: Lynn Pearson; Historic England Archive (DP137992).