Heritage and Landscape

England’s Ten Best Co-op Buildings: A Selection by Lynn Pearson

England’s Co-operative Movement is the first book to tell the intriguing story of England’s co-op architecture, from much-loved corner shops through huge department stores to the factories and warehouses that supplied them. To celebrate the publication of this book, author Lynn Pearson has selected ten of the best co-op buildings from across the country to tell us a little more about.

1. Rochdale Pioneers Museum

Rochdale Pioneers Museum. Image credit: Lynn Pearson.

It all began in Rochdale, in a former wool warehouse. Earlier co-ops had attempted to run shops, but none so successfully as the Equitable Pioneers Society, whose store opened on 21 December 1844. Rochdale’s brand of co-operation entailed shoppers paying a subscription, shopping at the store, then drawing a dividend – the ‘divi’ – based on the total amount spent. By 1939 there were over 10,000 co-op stores in England alone. Rochdale Pioneers Museum now occupies the original store; opened as a museum in 1931, it was restored in the late 1970s and extended in 2010–12.

2. Unity House, Wakefield

Unity House, Wakefield. Image credit: Lynn Pearson.

Co-op stores were much more than simply shops. Integrated educational facilities like libraries, newsrooms and halls made them a focal point for communities. Meeting halls were often double height spaces occupying upper floors, tall windows making them easily identifiable. Unity Hall, in Wakefield’s magnificent central store Unity House (1901–4), is one of our best preserved co-op halls; 1,200 people could originally sit beneath its hammerbeam roof. The hall’s decoration includes images of beehives (a co-op symbol of working together) and local industries. The building, refurbished in 2013–14, is now an events venue.

3. Co-op Drapery, Todmorden

Co-op Drapery, Todmorden. Image credit: Lynn Pearson.

Art nouveau co-op stores were unusual, so the survival of Todmorden’s beautiful 1909–10 drapery should be celebrated. Not a purpose-built co-op, it was refronted for the local society, which needed more room for sales of fashions and household textiles. The store, on the prestigious Strand (now Rochdale Road), was refitted – including glazing with sinuous timber mouldings – during 1909, and the grand opening took place on 26 January 1910. The store is now in use as a bar and restaurant; many original interior fittings, including a fine wooden staircase, remain.

4. The 1902 Arcade, Newcastle upon Tyne

The 1902 Arcade, Newcastle upon Tyne. Image credit: Lynn Pearson.

A rooftop car park may seem an odd choice, but this is a very special rooftop. It lies at the rear of Newcastle’s 1930s art deco co-op (right). The society’s original store was erected in 1886, and extended in 1902; the 1886 and 1902 sections were linked by a pair of three-storey ironwork arcades, meeting at right-angles. When the art deco block replaced the 1886 building, it completely concealed the 1902 arcade, which only came to light in 2014–16 during conversion work. It is a rare, possibly unique, example of a co-op arcade.

5. CWS Depot, Newcastle upon Tyne

CWS Depot, Newcastle upon Tyne. Image credit: Lynn Pearson.

Finding reliable sources of high-quality produce was a problem for early co-ops, so the Manchester-based Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was set up in 1863 to provide a solution. Newcastle was one of several regional CWS centres. Its elaborate depot (1893–9) operated as a warehouse, showroom and multi-functional factory; bacon processing, pickle making and coffee roasting were three of the many trades undertaken. Its stunning top-floor assembly room rivals Wakefield’s Unity Hall. The depot, now the city’s Discovery Museum, is probably the least altered of the remaining CWS warehouses.

6. CWS Depot, 1 Prescot Street, Whitechapel

CWS Depot, 1 Prescot Street, Whitechapel. Image credit: Lynn Pearson.

Several CWS buildings survive at its London base in Whitechapel, notably 1 Prescot Street (mostly 1930–3). The seven-storey bank and administrative block is a massive but very stylish composition in Dutch expressionist brickwork, designed by the CWS chief architect in London, L G Ekins. It was hailed by the architectural press as ‘one of the most interesting and beautiful buildings erected in England in recent years’; the bricklayers, supplied by the CWS building department, were also commended. Perhaps a lack of skilled labourers deterred most other British architects from following this stylistic path.

7. The Three Ships Mural, Hull

The Three Ships Mural, Hull. Image credit: Lynn Pearson.

Hull’s co-op emporium was destroyed by fire and bombing in May 1941. Construction of its replacement eventually began in 1954. One end of the store formed a concave curve, covered with a community-themed mural designed by artist Alan Boyson (1930–2018). His massive Three Ships mosaic (1963) celebrates the city and its fishing industry; it is the largest of England’s four surviving 1950s–60s external co-op store murals (others are at Ipswich, Stevenage and Scunthorpe). However, Hull’s store is due for demolition. The mural itself, although listed Grade II, faces an uncertain future.

8. Co-op Department Store, Sheffield

Co-op Department Store, Sheffield. Image credit: Historic England Archive (DP137992).

England’s co-op store numbers eventually peaked at around 28,000 in the early 1960s, when several impressive department stores were erected. Sheffield’s CWS-designed Castle House (1960–4) was one of the most unusual, with its near-windowless black granite elevation. Internal design was luxurious and up-to-the-minute, with much terrazzo and abstract patterned ceramic tiling. Excitement was provided by three full-height staircases, particularly the stunning, free-standing spiral stair; the ‘fish and fowl’ sculpture at its head indicated the presence of the top floor restaurant. This was equipped with a suspended ceiling, only the second in Europe at the time.

9. CIS Tower, Manchester

CIS Tower, Manchester. Image credit: Lynn Pearson.

The Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS) merged with the CWS in 1913, and by the 1950s had grown impressively. From 1953 the CIS began to look for better office accommodation, eventually joining the CWS in a development north of its Manchester headquarters. Excavations for a 25-storey tower began in August 1959. The CIS Tower, then the tallest occupied building in the UK, opened in August 1962. Its 400ft (122m) concrete service block (left) was originally faced with grey ceramic mosaic, but was overclad in 2004–5 with photovoltaic panels. Beyond the CIS Tower is the Co-op Group’s headquarters, One Angel Square (2010–13).

10. Drighlington Co-op Store

Drighlington Co-op Store. Image credit: Lynn Pearson.

By 2019 around 3,600 co-op stores were trading in England, run by a combination of the Co-op Group and the remaining independent societies. The oldest purpose-built co-op store still functioning as a co-op is Drighlington’s 1886 premises in the former West Riding, between Leeds and Bradford. Three finials have disappeared from its typical Yorkshire-style pediment, but otherwise little has changed externally aside from the plate glass frontage. It is one of perhaps 3,000 or so purpose-built old co-op store buildings still surviving in England, now with all sorts of uses. Co-op architecture remains a significant presence in our townscapes.

Find out more about Lynn Pearson’s new publication England’s Co-operative Movement on the Liverpool University Press website.


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