Last edited 20 Feb 2022

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England's Co-operative Movement: an architectural history

England's Cooperative Movement.jpg

England’s Co-operative Movement: an architectural history, Lynn Pearson, Liverpool University Press on behalf of Historic England, 2020, 264 pages, 300 colour and black-and-white illustrations, hardback.


In this lavishly illustrated book (there is not a double-page spread without either a black-and-white or colour illustration, and frequently both), the author traces the architectural history of the cooperative movement from its origins in the 1840s to the present day. This includes, despite the book’s title, forays into Wales and more occasionally Scotland, with examples of buildings from each discussed in the text.

The book has 10 chapters, with comprehensive endnotes, three appendices and a selective bibliography. The approach is chronological. The chapters are divided into three parts, the first entitled ‘The Retail Movement Gains Popularity: 1844 to the 1910s’, the second ‘The Boom Years: the 1920s to the mid-1950s’, and the last ‘Decline, Fall and Rise: the mid-1950s onward’.

Within each chapter a series of individual topics is considered. In Chapter 3, for instance, ‘Stylistic Free-for-all: retail societies, 1890 to the 1910s’, the themes discussed range from advertising and the co-op; improving the shopping experience; cooperative halls; managing the construction process; construction materials; architects and architectural style; the Cooperative Wholesale Society Architects’ Department (CWSAD) and store design; boots and baking, hats and housing; and the co-op in wartime. Chapter 9, ‘Art for the People: co-op design from the mid-1950s to the 1960s’, considers new stores and the shopfitter’s art (which includes a brief but diverting account of the opening of new stores by television personalities in the 1960s and 70s); architectural murals for the cooperative movement; and developments in the CWSAD.

The book covers not only the numerous stores built for the cooperative movement, from the town and village shops (many of them corner shops) built in the second half of the 19th century, through department stores, which became increasingly popular after the first world war, to the introduction of supermarkets in the 1950s (initially the co-op movement was a ‘pioneer of the format, owning 20 out of Britain’s 50 in 1956 before the private sector soon began to build more and larger supermarkets’). Convenience stores originated in Middlesbrough in the ‘pantry shopsbuilt by the local society on housing estates in the immediate post-war period. These, which ‘in the main are staffed by girls, but as soon as a pantry shop reaches a trade of around £300 a week, a man is put in charge’, became the co-op movement’s main store type from the 1980s onwards. Indeed, although ‘in 1996, 77 superstores, 1,397 supermarkets and 102 department stores had been trading; all would either be closed or sold off by 2005 as convenience stores were purpose-built and acquired.’

The co-op movement has never been solely about its shops. Pearson also considers the wide range of other buildings, ranging from the enormous warehouses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; flour mills and other factories (‘which employed thousands during the productive peak of the 1930s’); cooperative halls (some of which included dance halls, libraries and reading rooms), ‘normally located above the central store… and which could often be identified externally by their row of double-height windows and helped (from the start) to give co-ops a distinct identity’; garages, central and branch offices, banks, cinemas and funeral parlours. As stated on the book’s back cover, ‘the Co-op eventually offered a “cradle-to-graveservice for its members.’

It is, however, the store (of whatever type) that is the Co-op’s core building type and is the main focus of the book. In this connection it is striking that virtually none of the many shops illustrated by modern photographs remains in Co-op use today (the earliest purpose-built premises still functioning as co-ops, Drighlington near Bradford of 1886 and Chapel Stile in the Lake District of 1896, are the exceptions); and how many have been sadly disfigured by misguided shopfront replacements in their post-Co-op uses.

Pearson’s book provides an eminently readable account, the first of its kind in single book form, of the clear links between architectural and social change expressed in the development of the co-operative movement’s diverse buildings, which still form an everyday and instantly recognisable component of the country’s towns, cities and villages.


This article originally appeared as ‘Building together’ in Context 169, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in September 2021. It was written by Nicholas Doggett, managing director of Oxford-based Asset Heritage Consulting.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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