Co-operative forms of organisation have proliferated in the UK during the pandemic, with self-organising networks of mutual aid groups forming and thriving at street and neighbourhood level to meet people’s needs in a collective way. These kinds of relationships feel novel, but co-operative organisation has a long history in Britain.
Throughout much of the last 170 or so years, the co-operative consumer movement has comprised a vast national system of mutual enterprise, giving rise to the Co-operative Wholesale Society (now known as the Co-op) which has been a stalwart institution on the Left. Its influence and prominence in the daily life of large sections of the working class has waned in recent decades, but the legacy of the CWS and the co-operative movement more generally is still clearly visible in the buildings that remain in so many of our towns and cities, and in the material traces of those which have been demolished.
By thinking closely about these buildings – where they are, what they look like and how they relate to the street – we can gain a valuable insight into the strengths and the internal antagonisms of the co-operative project. As the historian J. Mordaunt Crook said, ‘the institution made the building as the turtle makes it shell.’
The origin of the co-operative movement is well known. In response to widespread adulteration of foodstuffs, a now fabled group of weavers based in Rochdale, Lancashire, created a society where members would pool resources in order to purchase quality wholesale goods which they would otherwise be unable to afford.
This group, later known as the Rochdale Pioneers, established a small store where these were sold to local workers. The society was run democratically, and membership was open to all, including women. This was radical, given that it was three quarters of a century until some women were given the vote. Profits were ploughed back into the society and shared amongst all members in what was known as a ‘divi,’ which became an important method of saving for poor families. This organised, democratic opposition by working people against exploitation and poverty was an explicit anti-capitalist endeavour, albeit one which sought to operate within existing capitalist frameworks.
In the wake of what had been achieved at Rochdale, thousands of similar societies sprang up across the north of England in particular during the following decades, but the geographical spread was widening. Co-operative premises were initially humble, but the quick growth of the movement can be charted through their incremental expansion – many shops, such as the original co-operative store in Aylesbury, began as a single storefront, but grew along the street in a series of adjoining buildings, each dedicated to the sale of different and increasingly diverse goods.
Buildings were not limited to retail outlets – one of the founding principles had been education, and the types of built space that co-operatives provided with their profits was surprisingly diverse. The Royal Arsenal Society, an early powerhouse of the co-operative movement in London built youth clubs and the first local library in Woolwich in 1879. But it was not uncommon for smaller societies with less resources to dedicate space above or alongside their stores for meetings of auxiliary groups like the Co-operative Women’s Guild, or for recreation.
By the turn of the century, federal bodies which provided goods to member societies had been established in both England and Scotland, and were owned by the societies which traded with them. The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was based in England with headquarters in Manchester and London, but it supplied Welsh co-ops as well.
Many but not all co-operative societies became members – the Royal Arsenal was one notable example which remained independent until 1985, and many others continue to remain independent to this day. The CWS began to centralise a large range of services (banking, insurance, funeral care) and manufacturing enterprises, and became a mass employer in the process. Given the scale of co-operative activities and the amount of built premises that these required, the society established an architect’s department to produce the design work, with offices based in Manchester, Newcastle and London by 1916.
These architects were responsible for all CWS buildings, and although member societies were free to commission any architects they liked, many opted for the in-house team as well. As a result, the architecture of the co-operative movement in England and Wales post-1916 became grander and more coherent as the federal body advanced on a programme of modernisation and expansion.
Co-operation had a proud northern heritage, but nevertheless the mass growth of activity in London during the inter-war years was considered a triumph, lending the movement new strength and prestige. The CWS purchased 19,000 square yards at Leman Street in Whitechapel and built what could only be described as a citadel of co-operation. Existing co-operative shops, houses and refineries were swept away for an enclave of grand new warehouses, and the assemblage was completed in 1932 with a huge administrative building by the CWS architect L.G. Ekins, freshly arrived from a deputation to northern Europe.
Its textured façade of brown bricks, bronze panels and a bold granite pediment were an expressionist celebration of the CWS’s role in what was now an international co-operative movement, within which it positioned itself as leader. The building was a clear symbol of success and the ambition of co-operative enterprise.
Described as a ‘war room where preparations for a great advance in retail and wholesale co-operation will be made from the topmost storeys,’ it is located right on the doorstep of the City of London, the geographic centre of British capitalism – a throwing down of the gauntlet. It was notable too for being a total CWS creation, built by CWS engineers, craftsmen and builders. It still stands on Leman Street today.
Perhaps the clearest expression of CWS activities from this period are the department stores, many of which also remain standing in city centres. These marked a distinct break with the older type of general store and provided luxury commodities and a glamorous shopping experience to the aspirational working and lower middle classes – an affordable and inclusive alternative to high end stores.
A CWS promotional publication from 1932 celebrated their design: ‘Through our walls of glass daylight and sunlight will pour. New metals and new materials will transform our buildings from prisons of stone into bright and glittering fabrics, responsive to modern needs … A new era is advancing!’
This new breed of co-operative store, exemplified at flagship buildings in Bradford, Huddersfield and Newcastle, made use of steel frames in order to create open plan interiors, where items could be laid out on large-scale displays. They tended to have long and brightly lit windows or recessed arcades that ran the gamut of their frontages. These created an interstitial zone, somewhere between inside and outside, with the overall effect being one that persuaded pedestrians into consumers and enticed them into the shop proper.
Women were a particular target, with adverts peopled with glamorous depictions of elegant female shoppers in expensive clothes, poised next to display cabinets in marble lined halls. Shop fronts were emblazoned with the name of the locale, and embodied a huge amount of pride in place. Many department stores continued to provide space for communal activities like restaurants, and even ballrooms.
But there were tensions in this alignment of consumerism and progress – the inculcation of desire for non-essential goods could not be easily reconciled with the movement’s founding principles and ethos, and its function as a saving institution. There were also questions to be answered around consumer interests running counter to those of an increasingly large CWS workforce.
The society made pains to act as good employers, with an emphasis on the design of hygienic, well ventilated and sunlit workplaces with generous communal areas. For this purpose, the architects tended to adopt the clean, straight lines of modernism, and factory buildings were celebrated in promotional material as much as their more ostentatious retail counterparts.
New department stores were often used as co-operative exhibition centres for a period before they opened for business, in order to demonstrate to the visiting crowds ‘the actual process of manufacture.’ It was an attempt to lift the veil of the commodity fetish, demonstrating the chain of activity that extended back from the shop front, through the transport networks and warehouses to the factories, farms and plantations – to make visible the human labour that lay behind the goods.
Despite an important innovation with the introduction of the first self-service shops, the CWS struggled to find a place for itself in the post-war years. The very low prices of supermarket rivals and the ‘out of town’ shopping model presented a huge challenge, and initially the CWS sought to set itself apart from rivals by carving out even more of a civic role for itself; one which would exemplify its unique business ethic and relationship with the customer and the local area.
To this end, the post-war years saw many of the new CWS-designed stores integrate public art into their designs. Hull’s famous ‘Three Ships’ mosaic mural by artist Alan Boyson, now listed following a passionate local campaign, is raised at the helm of what was originally a large self-service department store. Another large-scale mural by the Hungarian artist G. Bajio in colourful ceramic tiles, depicting the ‘spirit and activities of the co-operative movement’ is emblazoned across Stevenage’s 1958 store on the corner of the town square. Coventry’s store bears no singular work of art, but the stone-clade columns of its arcade are richly decorated with incised motifs by the artist John Skelton.
Nevertheless, between the 1950s and the 1970s, some 18,000 stores were forced to close. The CWS felt bound to compete in earnest with big supermarket chains and out of town shopping centres, and sought to disassociate itself from what were now considered to be the old-fashioned and dowdy connotations of the working class through a rebranding exercise in 1968.
The CWS and its Scottish equivalent merged in 1973 after mismanagement of the Scottish bank, and in 1985 the CWS architect’s department was dissolved. Nothing of distinction has been produced since, and many of the best buildings have been sold to developers and face uncertain futures.
The CWS (the Co-operative Group since 2002) is still a huge national organisation with around 4.6 million members, and is renowned for being an ethical trader. Nevertheless, it has retreated significantly from its role in everyday life – a retreat that has been hastened by major fraud and mismanagement scandals in the 1990s and 2010s.
Perhaps its story was inevitable: consumer co-operatives will always be bound by the same market pressures as capitalist enterprises, and the democratic structures of the Co-op have not been enough to prevent managerialism and the fundamental need to be competitive in order to remain profitable. But at its apex, the Co-op did not just build shops, banks and factories; it was an institution that provided for the working class from ‘cradle to grave’; which fostered a community and gave space to it; which celebrated local pride, and which sought to bring beauty and luxury into the lives of those who might not otherwise be able to experience it.
Consumer co-operatives might still be able to offer a way forward in a post-pandemic world that is steeped in a deepening climate crisis, and where innovation is desperately needed in retail, distribution and consumer practices. But it is hard today to imagine a co-operative organisation, or any institution of the left, having such a significant and impressive presence in our urban landscape.