Lynn Pearson, Independent scholar
Early 20th Century Co-op Store Architecture: Design by Committee?
Modern Co-op food stores are a familiar part of our townscape, with their blue (formerly green) logo, but their predecessors – especially those built in the early twentieth century – have an intriguing design history. The local co-operative societies which owned those stores had full responsibility for deciding on their design, so how can we find out what was actually happening during this design process over a century ago? And indeed, should a co-operatively owned shop look just like any other shop (figure 1)?
First, a little bit of background: the retail or consumer co-operative movement really got going after 1844, when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers opened their original shop. It wasn’t the first co-operative store, and theirs certainly wasn’t the first co-operative society, but Rochdale were first to set up a membership system which functioned well and was copied by thousands of societies elsewhere. It ensured that all profits went to the membership, in the form of a dividend – the famous ‘divi’ – paid twice or more a year as a percentage of purchases made at the store. This template was so successful that by the end of the 1880s there were around 2,000 co-op stores in England, the number rising to about 4,500 in 1914.
Some societies remained small, with just the one shop, others grew to have over a hundred branches as well as large central premises, sited close to where the majority of the society’s members lived. One significant difference between these shops and those of commercial traders was the frequent inclusion of a community space in the design, usually a hall above the store. Education formed part of the remit of co-operative societies, and the halls could be used for all sorts of educational purposes as well as entertainment venues. Externally the hall was often recognisable by its double-height windows. The early stores had no universal brand identity, but often exhibited a degree of co-operative symbolism, usually reliefs of a wheatsheaf, beehive or clasped hands, all indications of strength through unity and working together (figure 2).
The shops were owned by the generally working class members who, through their society’s democratically elected committee structure, had responsibility for financing, commissioning, design and construction. Societies usually had a range of committees for specific purposes, and the Building Committee is the one which interests us most in terms of shop design. In my research on the architecture of the co-op movement, I haven’t yet come across any female Building Committee members prior to the First World War. We know that by 1910, when 1,561 societies were operating, there were 49 women on main management committees, although over 300 women then served on education committees.1 Many skilled tradesmen were co-op members, and it is highly likely that several from the building trades found themselves on Building Committees, where at that time, before large stores became much more complex in regard to service systems, they could keep a well-trained eye on the details of construction work.
As to design, the committee could choose to use the services of their own building departments or find a professional architect. Occasionally societies ran architectural competitions, but more often they simply chose a local architect; several societies maintained a long-term relationship with a particular architectural practice. Another option was to use the Architects’ Department established by the federal body, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, in 1897.
The difficulty for any researcher concerned with the minutiae of the shop design process is finding reliable evidence. Opening day reports in the local or co-operative press, while verbose, tend to be uniformly positive and reveal little. The same may be said for the published histories of societies. This leaves the minutes (where surviving) of co-operative societies as the main source; they vary from simple lists of actions to be taken to an occasional – and very welcome – blow-by-blow account of proceedings.
I think we can be reasonably confident that members of Building Committees generally took their duties seriously; a few examples of the evidence follow. Back in 1888, a Scunthorpe committee member is recorded as discussing excavation of foundations for the new central stores with the building contractor.2 When considering shop modifications in 1904, Droylsden’s Building Committee ‘went thoroughly into the question of altering and enlarging No 2 Branch Grocery Department’ and gave highly detailed recommendations as to changes in plan and flooring.3 In 1910, during construction of a branch of the Annfield Plain society in nearby Chopwell ‘The committee endeavoured to keep themselves well informed on the progress made in the erection of the premises, and insisted on the architect visiting the place every other day and render a monthly report of the progress of the work’.4 In fact these committees were acting as what we would now call project managers.
But when it comes to the actual design of premises, evidence is even harder to come by, and at present I can only offer a single example: the design of Birmingham Co-operative Society’s new city centre store, which was overseen by their New Central Premises Committee from 1912.5 The minutes record that in February 1912 they considered holding an architectural competition, contacted the Leeds and Bradford societies who had run similar contests, and also asked a London architect for advice. He said ‘Competitive work frequently looks well on paper but is generally not equal to non-competitive work, which may not look quite so well.’ So they abandoned the idea of a competition, and instead asked the Birmingham Society of Architects (the local professional body) to nominate some of their members who might be interested in the commission.
Ten were recommended, which the committee reduced to five before adding two of their own suggestions including local co-operator and arts-and-crafts architect Francis Andrews, who had already designed a branch for another Birmingham society. The committee then looked at plans of recent central premises elsewhere, and made visits to some of these as well as inspecting buildings designed by some of the recommended architects. In addition, they paid a visit to the office of Francis Andrews. The exhaustive process continued until Andrews was appointed in July 1912. Somehow this does not come as a surprise, but perhaps the committee wished to be seen as thorough.
In January 1913 Andrews submitted plans for the new store, which the committee considered and altered, the first of many alterations they made. By October they were considering building materials; Andrews suggested they should inspect local buildings featuring elevations in three materials. These were stone (the Boots store), terracotta (the Society of Artists gallery) and carrara (the Picture House cinema); carrara was a relatively new marble-like ceramic facing. The discussion of elevations is the nearest the committee came to talking about the style of the new building. The three structures they inspected were very different: solid, respectable, establishment stone; the local arts-and-crafts favourite terracotta and the more excitingly modern carrara.
When Andrews submitted designs for the elevation in January 1914, it transpired that the committee had chosen a blend of respectability and modernity, the Portland stone and granite elevation having a dynamic appearance akin to the Picture House facade. The plans were approved by the local authority in April 1914 and after many delays the store opened in September 1916.6 The committee had spent well over two years finding an architect, then discussing and modifying the plans. We must, I think, view the final design as a joint effort, and in this case – where the architect was a co-op member – a co-operative collaboration.
More evidence for the evolution of co-op store design must lie in the as yet unseen minutes of other societies. However, it is clear that unusually for a working class group, the co-op members were able to exert some influence over the appearance of the built environment in which they lived.
1 Co-operative News, 16 July 1910, p. 919.
2 Arthur Ginns, Jubilee History of the Scunthorpe Mutual Co-operative and Industrial Society Limited (Manchester, 1924), p. 33.
3 Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre, DD264/68, Droylsden Industrial Co-operative Society.
4 Thomas Ross and Andrew Stoddart, Jubilee History of the Annfield Plain Industrial Co-operative Society Ltd, 1870 to 1920 (Manchester, 1921), p. 71.
5 National Co-operative Archive, MID/1/1/2/1/24/1-2, Birmingham Co-operative Society, New Central Premises Committee Minutes.
6 It was demolished during post-Second Word War redevelopment of Birmingham’s city centre.
Dr Lynn Pearson, an independent architectural historian, is currently completing a book on the architecture of the English co-operative movement (for publication by Historic England in 2020). Her book on breweries, published by English Heritage, won the Association for Industrial Archaeology’s 2015 award for outstanding scholarship. Amongst her other books are works on modern public art, and Tyneside’s sporting architecture.