9 Prescot Street

1939 as the Co-operative Wholesale Society's Furnishing and Hardware Warehouse, converted to offices | Part of Co-operative Wholesale Society buildings

Co-operative Wholesale Society Furnishing and Hardware Warehouse, 9 Prescot Street
Contributed by Rebecca Preston on March 29, 2019

The seven-storey Furnishing and Hardware Warehouse and Showrooms at 9 Prescot Street (and 78 Chamber Street) were designed for the Co-operative Wholesale Society by its architect, L. G. Ekins, at around the same time as the Tea Office and Coffee Works in Prescot Street from 1934. When the furnishing showrooms opened in May 1939, they were billed as evidence of the ‘further stage of peaceful penetration into the Metropolis by the CWS’ and the ‘fourth large contribution of the Wholesale Society in eight years to the changing face of East London’.1 The staff of the London Architects’ Department now numbered seventy, which together with the building, engineering, shopfitting and allied departments, completed not just the landmark buildings on Leman Street and Prescot Street but the warehouses, discussed above, on both sides of Leman Street.2

The Furniture Warehouse is built in the same distinctive brickwork as the administrative offices above a Cornish (rather than artificial) granite base but without the green-tiled roof of its more striking neighbour. Inside, the building handled products from the six CWS furniture factories, displaying carpets, mattresses and pianos on the ground floor and, above these, toys, cycles and prams, hardware and electrical goods. The fifth-floor radio and television showroom walls were ‘treated in a novel way with corrugated asbestos blended with sycamore veneered fixtures’, and the sixth displayed wallpaper, paint and brushes. 10,000 square yards of Scottish CWS Falkland linoleum covered the three acres of floor space. In the sub-basement an electricity substation was designed to serve all the new premises and a 600ft borehole producing 10,000 gallons of water per hour was intended to feed the second portion of Ekins’s administrative offices, which had yet to be built. Together with a similar tank in the drapery department, the aim was to supply all the water for CWS premises locally.3 In 1949 there were still two functioning CWS wells for drinking water in Leman Street, out of only five still working in the borough, and these were checked regularly for quality by the Metropolitan Water Board.4 Assuming one was still within the Furnishing Warehouse, the other was presumably the artesian well sunk beneath the London Tea Department in the 1890s. The present single-storey extension at 74–78 Chamber Street was added to the furnishing warehouse in about 1953, built on a vacant site on the south side of the Princess of Prussia public house (which leased an adjoining portion of the furnishing warehouse’s ground floor5) and the former county court, which the CWS had owned since at least 1948.6 The furnishing warehouse remained in use by the CWS until around 2011 and was acquired, together with 16 Prescot Street, by Derwent London in 2012 but was let to the Co-op Bank until 2015.7 Part of the building is currently used as offices of the Barts Health NHS Trust.

Towards the end of 1939 Ekins drew up plans for a first-aid post and air-raid wardens’ headquarters in the basement beneath the ‘old drapery’ at 99 Leman Street. In September 1941 he also signed the plans for adjustments to the public air-raid shelters created beneath the tea department at 100 Leman Street, which may represent some of his last work on site before his retirement in September 1942.8 During the Blitz, these were used by homeless employees, by air-raid personnel and policemen from Leman Street Police Station, whose sleeping quarters were on the top floor of the station.9 The CWS fire brigade took care of its own and neighbouring property during raids.10 During the First World War, when CWS cellars in Leman Street reportedly served as the official shelters for the area, the Tea Department had suffered £820 worth of damage in October 1915 and in 1917 one of the clock faces at 99 Leman Street was cracked by the blast from the accidental munitions-factory explosion at Silvertown, but otherwise its property was relatively unscathed.11 Unlike the CWS Silvertown works which were themselves destroyed in 1940, the Whitechapel premises again survived major devastation during the Second World War; there was some general non- structural blast damage to the Administrative Block at 1 Prescot Street and, to a lesser degree, the coffee works building on Prescot Street, but given its proximity to the railway, the City and the docks the CWS Whitechapel estate suffered remarkably little damage.12 The many incendiaries which fell on ‘most of the CWS properties’ during 1940 were said to have been extinguished by CWS firemen.13

  1. Plan showing proposed furniture warehouse and showrooms, August 1934, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), GLC/AR/BR/17/077326/02; ‘CWS Extensions in London’, The Producer, May 1939, p. 137. 

  2. New History of the C.W.S., 1938, p. 423. 

  3. ‘CWS Extensions in London’, The Producer, May 1939, pp. 137–8. 

  4. Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Stepney, 1947, p. 37 and 1949, p. 14. 

  5. Plan showing portion of the ground floor of Furnishing and hardware warehouse to be leased to Truman, Hanbury and Buxton, Ltd, 1937, LMA, GLC/AR/BR/17/077326/02. 

  6. CWS property plan, c.1948, LMA, GLC/AR/BR/17/077204; Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), Building Control file, 23214. 

  7. https://www.buildington.co.uk/london-e1/9-prescot-street/9-prescot- street/id/1309[accessed 1 March 2019]. 

  8. Leman Street drainage plans, 1941, THLHA, L/THL/D/2/30/88. 

  9. William Richardson, The CWS in War and Peace, 1938–1976, 1977, pp. 116, 117. 

  10. Building Co-operation, p. 211. 

  11. New History of the C.W.S., 1938, pp. 120–1. 

  12. London County Council Bomb Damage Map, LMA, RM22/63. 

  13. Richardson, _CWS in War and Peace, _p. 115. 

Social, political and cultural activity in the Co-operative Wholesale Society's premises in and around Leman Street
Contributed by Rebecca Preston on March 29, 2019

From its early days the Co-operative Wholesale Society organised social and educational activities for its staff and hosted meetings and other events, and later on leased property to co-operative and other organisations with whom it shared interests and values. At the suggestion of Mrs Benjamin Jones, wife of the London Branch manager, the first meeting of the Women’s Co-operative Guild took place at Hooper Square on 15 April 1886, attended by over seventy women and chaired by co-operative worker Catherine Webb.1 Representatives from Toynbee Hall had been present at the opening of the new headquarters building in 1887 and from at least 1885 the settlement had put on lectures for CWS workers at Hooper Square and also held classes for co-operators at Toynbee Hall.2 A library for employees was formed at the London Branch, not long after the fire had destroyed the premises in late 1885, when board meetings were transferred temporarily to Toynbee Hall.3 When Prof Sedley Taylor started a class in economics at Toynbee Hall, CWS staff were said to have formed the nucleus of his students.4 The Wholesale considered itself a beacon in the East End, its architectural presence drawing attention to its work in the promotion of co-operation, and provided office space for kindred organisations. Thus in the late 1880s and 1890s, 99 Leman Street was the address of the Co-operative Aid Association, the Tenant Co-operators Society, and the People’s Co-operative Society. No. 99 Leman Street also hosted public lectures on co-operative and related themes. A course of twenty university extension lectures was offered on the life and duties of the citizen on Saturday afternoons in 1893, held after the working week had finished at 4 o’clock on Saturdays in the Conference Hall. These were free to co-operators and 5s (or 2s 6d for the half course of ten) to the general public.5 In 1901, the Countess of Warwick presided at a conference at London Branch headquarters on London School Board Evening Continuation Classes.6

During the Co-operative Wholesale ‘tea girls’ strike’ over piecework at the tea department in 1904, Canon Barnett offered the women a room at Toynbee Hall while he opened negotiations between the CWS and the Women’s Trade Union League.7 In the 1930s, Toynbee Hall organised for parties of undergraduates and public school children to be taken around CWS premises locally.8 By the 1920s, in addition to the various departments and bank, 99 Leman Street was also home to the CWS Financial Propaganda Department, CWS Social Club, the Co- operative Press Agency and the Russo-British Co-operative Information Bureau.9 London Branch employees’ activities on site included a fine art club, with ‘notable exhibits of painting and sculpture from Leman Street’ being shown in the 1930s at the East End Academy in the Whitechapel Art Gallery.10 An Ethiopian Exhibition organised by Sylvia Pankhurst on behalf of the Princess Tsahai Memorial Hospital Fund, of which Pankhurst was the honorary secretary, was displayed during 1948 in the Boot and Shoe Showrooms at 99 Leman Street. Ancient Ethiopian traditional dress, embroidery, leather- work and illuminated books appeared alongside examples of modern textiles. This formed part of a project to form closer relations with ‘the brave Ethiopian people whose struggle against the aggression of Mussolini aroused sympathy and interest in this country’. A film, ‘This is Ethiopia’, was shown in the CWS film theatre at the Tea Office across the road in Prescot Street.11

  1. Catherine Webb, The Woman with the Basket: The History of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, 1883–1927, 1927, p. 28. 

  2. ‘Opening of new Co-operative Premises in Whitechapel’, East London Advertiser, 5 November 1887, p. 7; Asa Briggs and Anne Macartney, Toynbee Hall: The First Hundred Years, 1984, p. 45. 

  3. National Co-operative Archive (NCA), CWS Minutes, 29 February 1886. 

  4. London Branch of the CWS, 1933, p. 30. 

  5. Co-operative Union Southern Section, A Course of Twenty University Extension Lectures…, 1893, [p. 1]. 

  6. ‘Knowledge or Ignorance’, Sunday Times, 24 March 1901, p. 8. 

  7. ‘Co-operative Wholesale Girls’ Strike’, London Daily News, 12 October 1904, p. 8. 

  8. Correspondence with the Co-operative Wholesale Society, Leman Street, re visit by Toynbee Hall students, November 1937, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), A/TOY/015/002/047–048. 

  9. Daily Herald, 1 January 1921, p. 6; CWS Annual, 1918, p. 289; People’s Yearbook, 1921, p. 377; The Producer, July 1925, p. 266. 

  10. New History of the C.W.S., 1938, p. 506. 

  11. ‘Ethiopian Exhibition’, The British Journal of Nursing, July 1948, p. 85. 

The Co-operative Wholesale Society around Leman Street and its beginnings in London
Contributed by Rebecca Preston on March 29, 2019

The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) opened its first warehouse in Whitechapel in 1881, on a plot on the north side of the present Hooper Street, just to the east of Leman Street. Very quickly, as CWS business expanded, the organisation bought up and built on neighbouring plots and by the 1930s this corner of Whitechapel was home to a series of impressive warehouses, offices, factories, showrooms and a bank, which flanked Leman Street and surrounding roads. Designed by CWS architects and engineers, many of the buildings in what became a Co-operative Wholesale colony have now gone and what remains has mostly been converted to apartments. Of the original warehouse built in 1879–1881, only the stair tower survives, a yellow-brick column to the rear of the CWS London Branch headquarters building at 99 Leman Street, which opened in 1887. That and some of its CWS successors still dominate the vicinity, not without a degree of architectural spectacle.

The Co-operative Wholesale Society – now The Co-operative Group – was founded in Manchester in 1863, to supply basic foodstuffs and daily necessities wholesale to Co-operative retailers. The wholesale society was a federal organisation, owned by the retail societies it traded with, and sought to integrate production and distribution in order to lower costs. As is well known, the co-operative principle of mutual benefit was established in 1844 by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society, many of whose members had backgrounds in earlier co-operative, communitarian and socialist ventures.1 From around the mid-century, efforts were made to set up a central wholesale agency, culminating in what became the CWS.2 It began as the North of England Co-operative & Wholesale Industrial Society Ltd and expanded rapidly to serve the growing number of retail societies in England and Wales. When it became impossible to serve these from Manchester alone, subsidiary wholesale branches were set up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1871 and in London in 1874. 3 London was considered difficult terrain, a ‘co-operative desert’ in need of irrigation and the story of the struggle to gain a foothold in the capital was characterised in 1913 as ‘the attack on London’.4

The CWS aimed to procure unadulterated goods at low prices, by ‘eliminating the middle-man and his profits’ rather than economising on labour.5 Beginning with butter, which accounted for a third of sales in the first decade, the CWS built a network of buyers, suppliers and, crucially, depots, which facilitated bulk purchasing and centralised processing in order to secure the best prices and quality.6 The co-operative principle of avoiding middlemen also underlay the Society’s policy in London of, wherever possible, purchasing the freeholds of its premises, ‘for co-operators, being prudent men, have a righteous horror of the short leasehold system’.7 Thus the CWS and a little later the English & Scottish Joint CWS (E&SCWS) became significant landowners in Whitechapel.

The first London Branch premises opened in 1874 at 118 Minories, a warehouse backing onto America Square on the eastern edge of the City of London. This was convenient for the docks and for markets, in particular Mincing Lane in the City, which was the centre of the international tea trade from the 1830s. The London Public Tea Auction, held in the London Commercial Sale Rooms at Mincing Lane, was established in 1834 after the dismantling of the East India Company monopoly.8 Tea fit with the temperance beliefs of many early co- operators and from the foundation of the Wholesale Society formed an important CWS commodity; it remained so as consumption of tea increased nationally, only levelling off in the 1940s.9 Within a few years of opening in London the business had outgrown the space available and the CWS began to look for larger premises. ‘Great difficulty was found in selecting a freehold site which would be at once convenient for the various markets and the railways’ but by the end of the 1870s a site in Whitechapel had been decided upon and in 1881 new London Branch premises were opened near Leman Street, less than half a mile east of the Minories.10 As the Society consistently pointed out to its members, Leman Street was both the highway to the docks and ‘conveniently adjacent’ to bonded tea warehouses.11 The premises were also keenly positioned within the railway network and bordered on the site of the future London, Tilbury & Southend Railway (Commercial Road) goods depot and its vast warehouses, which, when it opened in 1886, provided a link to the East & West India Dock Company’s new dock at Tilbury.12

  1. Lynn Pearson, Architecture of the Co-operative Movement, draft Chapter 1: Laying the Foundations: Retail Societies, 1844–1890, 2018, p. 2. We are grateful to Lynn for help with this account. 

  2. Pearson, Architecture of the Co-operative Movement, draft Chapter 2: Pioneering Production: CWS Depots and Factories, 1863–1897, p. 2. 

  3. Anthony Webster, ‘Building the Wholesale: The Development of the English CWS and British Co-operative Business 1863–90’, Business History, 54(6), 2012, pp. 883–904, p. 894. 

  4. Co-operative Wholesale Society Limited, London Branch, Opening of the New Premises and Cocoa Works, 1887, p.54; Percy Redfern, The Story of the C.W.S. The Jubilee History of the Co-operative Wholesale Society Limited, 1913, p.83; Webster, ‘Building the Wholesale’, p. 885. 

  5. A. D. Harrison, ‘Review of The Story of the C.W.S. by Percy Redfern’, Charity Organisation Review, New Series, Vol. 35, No. 205 (January 1914), pp. 46–8, p. 46. 

  6. Pearson, draft Chapter 2, p.1. 

  7. Opening of the New Premises and Cocoa Works, p. 70. 

  8. Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger, Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World, 2015, p.249. 

  9. Bishnupriya Gupta, ‘The History of the International Tea Market, 1850–1945’, EH.Net Encyclopedia, ed. Robert Whaples, 16 March 2008: https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-the-international-tea- market-1850-1945/

  10. Opening of the New Premises and Cocoa Works, 1887, p. 9 

  11. ‘CWS: Tea Growers, Blenders, and Packers II’, The Wheatsheaf, February 1908, p. 120. 

  12. Tim Smith,‘Commercial Road Goods Depot, Whitechapel’, Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society, 1979,re-typed with annotations, January 2000: http://www.glias.org.uk/journals/2-a.html