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….).
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 – 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.
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.
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’……
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.
Spent most of last week taking photos of assorted old co-op buildings west of the Pennines, and enjoying incredibly sunny days; wonderful for photography. Saw some really splendid old co-ops, from Carlisle through Lancaster and Preston, Blackburn and Burnley, Hayfield and New Mills, and lots more. On the way back stopped in Todmorden, where many thanks to the lovely people at the Old Co-op Café, who let me in to take pics even though they were busy with rearranging their beautiful interior. Highly recommended! My favourite photo of the whole trip is this one from east Manchester, the Droylsden Co-op’s tenth branch, built in 1908. A passer-by stopped to tell me his auntie used to live in the building (unlisted), which seemingly is currently being renovated; let’s hope so.
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.