Carnival time

Just a quick update on the progress of the co-operative architecture book. Having been buried in the various archives for about two years, I’ve now accumulated more than enough material for the book – but no doubt I shall be rushing back to Manchester, London or wherever when I come across some missing link. So organising starts today, and writing shortly after for completion spring next year – hopefully! The weather has been kind lately so most of the photography is done. In fact the weather has been rather like June 1921 when this carnival-related shot was taken, probably in Manchester. It shows a group, mostly children, carrying and wearing all sorts of adverts for CWS own-brand products. They must have been an entry in one of the carnival competitions. Talk about brand loyalty!

Talking Shops at Stirling’s Engine Shed

I’ll be in Stirling on 26 Feb for the Talking Shops seminar on shopfronts, part of the History of Scotland’s Shopfronts exhibition and related events at Historic Environment Scotland’s Engine Shed centre. I’m speaking on Shopping at the Co-op; looking forward to showing off some of my huge number of photos of Co-op shopfronts! This image is of a rather grand branch in Reading, built in 1901, even though the building says it was 1900 (clearly intended to confuse historians….).

Sunny East Ham

All around as I write is permafrost, so here’s a little sunshine from a few months ago to remind us that spring is, er, just around the corner. Maybe. Anyway, what has this urn to do with the co-op? Four of them stand in East Ham Park, a little way from the site of the 1928 London Co-operative Society department store which was quite the latest thing when built, with huge plate glass windows. The design was by the CWS chief London architect, Leonard Ekins, who would go on to design some unusual Dutch-style brick offices in the 1930s. Here, however, he stuck to respectable classical with a tall corner tower looking down on East Ham’s High Street. Possibly a challenge or homage to the stupendous Edwardian East Ham Town Hall which is close by. The four urns were placed near the top of the store’s tower and seem to be the only elements to survive the building’s demolition in the 1990s; really I’m surprised it lasted that long. The store was clad in terracotta or cast stone produced by Shaws of Darwen, who also provided the decorative bits and pieces. It’s good to have the chance to examine the material close up; one can see the combed texture, so it is probably a grey terracotta, but it feels very stone-like. It’s lovely that something survives from what must have been a very popular shop, at least initially. There is even a little plaque in the park to tell you what you are looking at. Delightful in the sunshine….

To Oakengates

To Oakengates – just beyond Telford in Shropshire – to see the old co-op, where the pretty mosaic panel was rediscovered during recent renovations. For anyone venturing further and into the delightful Ironbridge Gorge, the present co-op is housed in a splendid old red brick warehouse beside the Severn, great use for the building.

Hands of Friendship in York

The scaffolding has finally come off the former Co-op central premises in York, after what seems like years. And – once the rain had stopped – the building looked very smart, even down to the somewhat understated display of co-op symbolism. Once you get your eye in, it is easy to spot various hands of friendship and beehives, all high up on what I think must be a sandstone facade. Shortly off to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust Library to delve into the Hathern Terracotta Company archives, to get more details on the many co-op facades the firm was responsible for between the wars.

A Paragon at Beamish

Popped along to Beamish Open Air Museum last week to take a look at the old co-op building, transferred from nearby (fairly) Annfield Plain. Gives you a great feeling of how turn-of-the-century shopping worked, with each shop in its separate section, unlike the generally later department stores. The best part was the drapery, tremendously gloomy and atmospheric – how did anyone see what proper colour things were? – and best of all with an original working cash transfer machine by the Lamson Paragon Company, which came from another co-op. It uses a wooden cash ball and requires the assistant to haul it up on to the railings above using pulleys; it then travels along to the cash office via the rails. The cashier then takes the member number details, sorts out the change, and returns the ball. Cunningly, the wooden balls are different sizes, so each gets back to the correct shop assistant. Brilliant! If you have about ten minutes to wait, which I suppose everyone did then. The system was later replaced with vacuum tubes in most shops. Something of a contrast to ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’……

Trains, boats and trucks

Here in glorious sunny Lewisham the frontage of the recently revamped 1930s Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society building Tower House is looking spiffing. Delightful ceramic details abound, with the little trucks even bearing RACS lettering. The ground floor is not yet complete – the building is going to be apartments – but the upper floors of the exterior show the RACS at its architectural best. Even the little ventilators come in the form of RACS letters.