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England’s Co-operative Movement

An Architectural History


Lynn Pearson


Liverpool: University Press and Historic England, 2020

Hardback 252 p. ISBN 978-1789622393. £40


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London




This beautifully illustrated, handsome volume tells two stories: the history of the co-operative movement in England (with occasional excursions into Scotland and Wales), and the progressive creation of an important architectural legacy in many towns and cities. Organising her account in ten chronological chapters, arranged in three parts, architectural historian Lynn Pearson amply demonstrates that ‘the co-operative store is an enduring presence in our townscape [and] an eloquent architectural expression of the long and complex history of co-operation, with its roots in utopian thought’ of the eighteenth century [3].

With varied specific aims, as many as 700 co-operative societies were established in the early nineteenth century, encompassing communal property and living, industrial and agricultural production, and co-operative trading. Through joint purchasing, members of retail or consumer co-operatives enjoyed reduced prices and unadulterated goods of decent quality. Because they lacked a legal framework, these early ventures were open to fraud and many stores failed, only to be replaced by others. Established in 1844, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society was a model institution that operated a shop selling staple goods such as flour, oatmeal, butter and sugar, and gradually extended its range. Passage in 1852 of the first Industrial and Provident Societies Act gave co-operative organisations proper legal status, with legislation of 1862 granting limited liability. By 1865, co-operative societies existed in most counties and operated about 500 retail stores. Varied in size and architectural style, many premises displayed co-operative symbolism, such as the beehive (representing work for a common cause), the wheatsheaf (strength through standing together), and the galleon (collective trading). In addition to shops, some societies erected grand meeting halls and ran libraries. By the late 1880s, there were more than 2,000 co-operative stores in England, especially in northern counties and London. With over 18,000 members, the Leeds society was the largest; it opened fifty new shops during the preceding two decades.

This array of retail stores was supported by centralised agencies for wholesale co-operative trading, with the North of England Co-operative Wholesale and Provident Society dating from 1863, and the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) being established nine years later. Initially based in Liverpool and focused on the Irish butter trade, the CWS subsequently moved its headquarters to Manchester. In addition to constructing offices and warehouses in that city, it built a range of factories which manufactured biscuits and confectionery (Manchester), boots and shoes at Leicester, and clothing at Leeds. An impressive, large depot was constructed by the CWS in Newcastle and a six-storey depot was built at Leman Street in London, comprising offices, committee rooms, salerooms and an assembly hall, in addition to retail outlets.

This burst of construction was orchestrated by the architectural department of the CWS that indulged in something of a ‘stylistic free-for-all’ [31] in the decades preceding World War I. Membership of co-operative societies exceeded two million by 1911 but consolidation led to a reduction in the number of organisations.

Drawing on a rich archive of contemporary images, Lynn Pearson explores the architectural legacy of this period. For example, the co-operative store at Carlisle comprised a spacious galleried arcade, with art nouveau ironwork railings, as well as a 600-seat meeting hall, and an elegant, long arcade was a distinctive feature of the store at Sheffield. Large co-operative meeting halls in many northern cities provided ‘an alternative public arena to the local town hall [that was] non-conformist, pro-temperance space’ [45]. Built of concrete, brick and stone, and embracing a multitude of styles, co-operative society premises were often decorated with terracotta, tiles and mosaic. The beehive and wheatsheaf symbols were especially popular. The co-operative store at Lewes (Sussex) was a rare arts and crafts example, while magnificent premises at Hartlepool, comprising a ferro-concrete frame clad in Portland stone, were so grand that they could be ‘easily mistaken for a town hall’ [77].

In this way, the ‘co-operative state’ [102] was built during the first decade of the twentieth century, with the number of CWS factories growing from 24 to 42. These included massive flour mills at Avonmouth (Bristol) and Silvertown (London), the Pelaw factory at Gateshead that made products ranging from shirts to furniture, and new manufacturing premises in Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle. Growth continued apace during the interwar years, with membership of co-operative societies doubling from 4 million in 1919 to 8.5 million in 1939. Northern societies were particularly vigorous, as were the Royal Arsenal, South Suburban and London Co-operative Society in the capital. Light, bright, modern stores were constructed to compete with other companies in the retail market. In the 1930s, shopping in a co-operative department store could be likened to ‘buying goods in a fairy palace’ [145]. Cash-carrier systems became universal in larger CWS shops, ‘generally the patent pneumatic variety’ [151] that whizzed payments to a central cashier and returned the necessary change and receipts. Occasionally these systems comprised overhead wires that sent cash carriages above the heads of purchasers and sales staff alike.

During World War II, the CWS estate of shops, warehouses and factories suffered serious damage and destruction, but the organisation still managed to produce ‘huge quantities of military equipment (including rifle and aircraft parts) and uniforms, while remaining the largest single supplier of food in the country’ [172]. Throughout hostilities, the architect’s department worked hard to produce designs for premises undergoing repair and for completely new operations, incorporating new ideas from the USA such as self-service shopping. Post-war activity gave rise to new CWS shops and department stores in reconstructed cities such as Coventry and Plymouth, and in the new towns of Crawley, Harlow and Stevenage. Impressive architectural murals were installed at Ipswich, Stratford and other new CWS premises. During the first ten years after the war, co-operative stores ‘did relatively well and just about managed to maintain their share of trade’ [181], but competition from other retailers was fierce and unrelenting. The CWS introduced a range of innovations, including ‘Operation Facelift’ that aimed to refurbish stores and give ‘the whole movement a unified modern image’ [206]. Despite these efforts, the share of retail trade embraced by CWS shops declined and the number of societies fell as mergers sought to keep the organisation financially viable. Starting in 2016, the CWS introduced its ‘clover-leaf’ branding image and continued to modernise existing stores as well as opening new, state-of-the-art supermarkets.

Through an abundance of excellent archival images and full colour photographs from her own camera Lynn Pearson shows that ‘the co-operative landscape is still all around us, though clearer in some places than others, and strongly provincial’ [220]. She insists that, by virtue of changes of use, ‘it is difficult to estimate the number of stores, originally built as co-operatives, that survive in England [since] many are altered beyond recognition. Perhaps the total may be 2,000 or 3,000’ [220]. In addition, there were many other outlets that were not purpose-built but housed co-operative shops for varying lengths of time. From my own experience of a south London suburb, I am aware that former co-operative shops have been converted to house new uses such as churches and mosques, and the Portland stone façade of one large department store erected in 1927 remains standing while the space behind it has been demolished and is being rebuilt for residential use. Other CWS retail outlets in my stretch of suburbia occupy renovated or completely new buildings, and, of course, the presence of co-operative funeral premises should not be ignored.

This remarkable book concludes with copious notes, bibliographic references, and three appendices that usefully encapsulate the history of co-operative premises. They show that in 1946 there were 13,000 CWS stores, rising to 28,000 in 1960, but plummeting to 3,100 in 1985. In 1939, when production reached its peak, the CWS operated 98 industrial sites across England, not to mention numerous bakeries and other works owned by member societies. Finally, a timeline traces the work of the CWS architect’s department from its opening in 1896 to its merger with the development division in 1982 when its records were unfortunately lost.



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