This week: Co-op architecture

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society rented their first premises at 31 Toad Lane. They moved out in 1867, but the co-operative movement later purchased it. It opened in 1931 as a museum. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Tim Green.

Today, the Co-op group has 65,000 employees, £11bn in revenues, an award-winning hi-tech Manchester HQ, and thousands of shops around the country. With 6.4% of the market, it remains Britain’s sixth largest food retailer – just ahead of the likes of Lidl and Waitrose.

Yes, there have been some high-profile hiccups in recent decades – notably the £1.5bn black hole discovered in its banking business in 2013 and the very public scandal that engulfed the division’s former chairman, Methodist minister Paul Flowers, shortly thereafter.

But as we learn this week on The Past, the co-operative trading movement has come a long way since 21 December 1844, when a group of textile workers, banded together as the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, pooled their savings to open a store selling basic commodities at fair prices from the ground floor of an 18th-century former wool warehouse on the town’s unpromisingly named Toad Lane.

From these humble beginnings, the co-operative trading movement was born, spreading its message of common cause and collective endeavour quickly across Britain. Within a decade, it boasted more than 1,000 shops ‘of the plainest kind’. By 1917, its members had even spawned their own political party, later to become affiliated to Labour.

The Co-op’s early success has rightly been celebrated as an example of ‘people power’ – but as Chris Catling explains in the new issue of Current Archaeology, a fascinating part of the story has often been overlooked: that of the extraordinary architectural and design heritage the movement left behind. To mark the publication of a new book on its heyday, we delve into the history of England’s co-operative and commercial architecture, from simple neo-Georgian premises to striking Art Nouveau shopfronts.

We’ve also been exploring the archives in search of further insight into the way we used to shop: we visited Cirencester to report on the discovery of an important Roman shopping centre; we celebrated the many findings made by archaeologists during the excavation of Spitalfields Market, one of London’s biggest-ever digs; and we travelled to Yorkshire to see the remains of an entire village, includings shops and an early 20th-century cinema, abandoned following the construction of the nearby Scar House Reservoir.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we are also celebrating the archaeologists nominated as Archaeologist of the Year in the 14th annual CA awards. On the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, Calum Henderson and Carly Hilts meet the three contenders – Professor Martin Bell, Raksha Dave, and Dr Peter Halkon – and hear about their work and first forays into archaeology.

And finally, if all that leaves you in need of more retail therapy, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of great British shops. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

The Past is powered by Current Publishing’s unique stable of accessible specialist magazines, each of which is a leader in its field, and by our global network of writers and editors.

Our aim is simple: to create a new essential destination for anyone interested in any aspect of the past – authoritative, easy to read and navigate, beautifully designed and illustrated, and with no annoying adverts, pop-ups and clickbait.

Whether you’re an armchair historian, a budding archaeologist or a heritage enthusiast, we hope that you like what you find on The Past – and if you do, we hope very much that you might also consider taking out a subscription. Subscriptions cost £7.99 per month, or £79.99 for the whole year. But early visitors to the website can save £30 – subscribe by the end of December 2021 and pay just £49.99 by entering the code December21 at the checkout.