I’ve seen quite a few architectural representations of wheatsheaves – one of several symbols of co-operation – lately, mostly on Victorian and Edwardian co-op stores. So when I came across this version, on a 1935 co-op emporium in Long Eaton, Derbyshire (now functioning as a carpet warehouse, and still with a 1963 co-op open staircase inside), I thought it was simply an art deco wheatsheaf. But now I see similar items on other co-op stores referred to as a lotus, an iconic symbol used in art deco architecture. Seems to me it could be either; maybe the architect was keeping up with the times and art deco-ing the wheatsheaf, or perhaps indeed it is a lotus, and thus nothing to do with the co-op movement’s symbolism. Other examples welcome! And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter!
Recently checked through a few old copies of Architectural Review to see what they threw up in terms of co-op related adverts and so on. This rather lovely specimen from October 1959 encapsulates the sheer awesomeness of the new self-service stores (or perhaps it was just singles night….). We forget how totally different shopping was pre-supermarkets, and it must have taken shop managements some time to adjust to the ‘browsing’ aspect of the new ways. The illustration shows very well the things shop designers were doing in the late 1950s – brightness, good lighting, colourful floors and walls – and the colour aside, it’s not too different from today’s (blander) supermarkets. The advert, by the way, was for the flooring system, in use at one of the London Co-operative Society’s stores. Anyway, the dog looks pretty happy about it all!
As ever, the sun shone in Lewes, and the former Co-op store – now an auctioneer’s, and remarkably unchanged aside from the fascia – was easy to photograph from a handy spiral staircase running up a tall warehouse-cum-workshop across the road. Plans for the building were produced in 1905 by the architects Denman & Matthews of Brighton, best known for their public houses, and the new store opened in October 1906; 70 people celebrated with luncheon in the Town Hall. Co-operative News commented that ‘something of the old English style of the sixteenth century [had] been reproduced’ by the architects (the list description settles for ‘Arts and Crafts’), and the striking tower was paid for by the local co-operative society’s president. Inside the shop, customers could buy groceries on the ground floor or ascend to the first floor for clothing and hardwares. A photo of the opening day shows a street crammed with people, many women in wide-brimmed hats and boys in caps, all keen to see inside the new store. A splendid survivor indeed.
To London again this week for the British Library and yet more issues of Co-operative News, an invaluable source both for shop openings and general discussions – about advertising for instance – in the co-op movement. For a bit of light relief I went along to the Bow Road in Poplar, to photograph a 1919 Stratford Co-operative and Industrial Society store; it still functions as a supermarket, although not a co-op. It has a rather splendid beehive on its pediment, so well detailed that the individual bees and the hive’s structure are clearly visible. It’s near the Bow Church DLR station (and not far from Bow Road tube). If you happen to visit, don’t miss the former Poplar Town Hall (1937-8) just across the road, a smashing modernist building with sculptures in socialist realist style of various building labourers, and also mosaics above the councillors’ entrance. But you must cross the road to see the best bit, as there is a lovely mosaic design of the Thames and docklands beneath the entrance canopy, presumably to inspire the members as they looked up when entering the building!
Towards the end of the 1950s and into the early 1960s the CWS Architects’ Department was very keen on incorporating public artworks, often large-scale murals, into their buildings. Several examples are shown in their book Co-operative Architecture 1945-1959, including the surviving ceramic tile mural in the town square at Stevenage (it now fronts Primark), a figurative work representing the spirit of co-operation by the CWS’ own designer, G Bajo. Into the 1960s and mosaics came to the fore; still with us are the colourful semi-abstract on the Ipswich co-op buildings (1962, unknown artist) and the massive graphic abstract glass mosaic on the former Hull emporium (1963, commissioned from Alan Boyson) which hopefully will be retained in future developments. There were many more, but I thought rebuilding and weathering had seen the end of all the others. But no! Just rediscovered in the north of England is this large (three plate glass windows wide) mosaic abstract, part of the 1963 building which was then the largest co-op pharmacy department store in the country (I’m not sure whether that’s England or the UK), presumably rivalling Boots and suchlike. Inside, the store is rather grand, a broad central stair descending to a large lower ground area, and twin side stairs reaching up to a gallery-cum-mezzanine, all very spacious; it’s not a co-op, but is still a functioning shop and almost exactly as it was originally laid out. The mosaic faces north, and is best seen in midsummer rather than winter when the light is from the rear, but it has survived amazingly well – a little conservation/restoration work and it would look terrific. Again, the artist is unknown. Overall, the shop is an absolute gem. How many more of these are out there I wonder?
One of the many curious things about the relationship between the CWS and the (at one time) thousands of local co-operative societies relates to the CWS Architects’ Department. Local co-op societies could use it rather than the array of (normally) locally-based architects and the societies’ own building departments to provide plans for new stores and whatever else was required. But even though the CWS architects were available from the very late 19th century onward, by no means all local societies used them, much (one guesses from editorials in some of the CWS publications) to the annoyance of the central department. But look, for instance, at this photo of the Doncaster co-op emporium and offices, built 1938-40 right in the town centre and still in use (partly at least) as a shop today, although not as a co-op. The design, all curvy modernist streamlined lines, moderne even, was by the local architectural practice T H Johnson & Son. Why look further afield when you can get something this good locally? In addition, local architects, especially earlier in the 20th century, were often members of the local co-operative society themselves. The Derby central emporium, designed by Sidney Bailey in 1938 but only completed after the war, is another good modernist example produced locally. The CWS architects did some great stuff too, but it is easy to see why a specific local society would want to keep up its long-term relationship with its ‘own’ (as they were often referred to) architect.
No reindeer on the Christmas photo this year, instead a shot of 1 Angel Square, the Co-operative Group’s HQ in Manchester, all seasonally lit up. Not posted much recently as knee-deep in archival notes for the co-operative architecture book, many taken at the National Co-operative Archive, just round the corner from Angel Square. Although it seems a long way hence, spring 2019 is actually not so far when thinking in research and writing terms. I look forward to the longer days of spring and summer when I can take more photos for the book, as well as staring at volumes of Co-operative News and the like! So a Merry Co-op Christmas to those who have chanced upon this page, and the happiest of New Years.