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….
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.
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!
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!
This is the first of what I hope will be many blogs on the architecture of the co-operative movement; the image is a detail of the Unity Works in Wakefield, as it is known in its newly (mostly, work is ongoing) restored state. It was built by Wakefield Industrial Co-operative Society from 1876 onward as Unity House, and came to include several shops and a splendidly large Great Hall with wonderful stained glass including pics of beehives. The wheatsheaf and the beehive constantly crop up in co-op imagery. Co-op buildings ranged from the better known shops and emporiums through warehouses and many factories to mills and much more. There’s still interest in these buildings now, especially the shops (just look on any photo sharing website), but the loss of most of the factories and warehouses has left the retail premises without the distribution network which supplied them. Fortunately there are many fine buildings still with us, not just in what might be called the co-op’s northern heartlands, but throughout the country. As for the Unity Works, lovely architecture aside it is well worth a visit, with a great café.