The design and layout along with the abstract mosaic mural on front of the former Scunthorpe Co-operative pharmacy building on the High Street is often a topic which is talked about by townsfolk and visitors.
The building today is used by Cafe INDIEpendent – an employability project which works with disadvantaged young people on a program of work experience offering formal and non-formal training. The venue hosts gigs, exhibitions, film screenings and plentiful artistic occurrences. Prior to this the building was SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) stationary stores holding a huge range of items for the office, it also offered services including copying, faxing, laminating etc, with a dedicated machines area – printers, faxes, laminators and shredders.
The building was under construction in 1961 (see pic below) and was designed by local architect Derek W Brown. Prior to this the Co-operative housed a pharmacy in their Emporium further up the High Street on the opposite side of the road – this was itself extended in 1966 and renamed Ashton House.
Construction of the Scunthorpe Co-operative Pharmacy building in 1961
Brown & Buttrick had worked for Scunthorpe Mutual Co-operative and Industrial Society (founded 1874) in the early twentieth century. The society’s membership had increased alongside the town’s rapidly expanding iron and steelworks, Mwmbweship reaching 24,000 in 1924 and 60,000 at the start of the 1970s. The society built a series of branch stores in Scunthorpe and surrounding villages, sometimes using the architectural services of the Co-operative Wholesale Society, the movement’s main federal body. But Scunthorpe co-operative demonstrated its robust independence of the centre by commissioning young local architect Walter H Buttrick (1882–1961) to design a branch in 1907; this was the start of an association between the society and the practice that was to continue for over half a century. Architects working with co-ops had to pilot their plans through lengthy and detailed discussions with building committees. Once an architect or practice established a positive working relationship, interesting designs might result. A financially successful society like that in Scunthorpe could afford to back the newfangled ideas of their architects
The practice eventually developed into Buttrick & Buttrick, and by the late 1950s Brown & Buttrick, when Derek W Brown became a partner.
Brown took on the company’s Co-op commissions, firstly designing the society’s petrol station on Station Road opposite the railway station in 1957, it featured and up-to-the-minute broad, flat canopy. Next came an equally fashionable blank-walled supermarket – the town’s first – in the newly created Ashby Broadway (seen below) its interior tricked out with a steel staircase, a sophisticated American lighting system and a red plastic mural. It cost £80,000 in all, but Scunthorpe co-op was willing to support Brown’s extravagant plans, which featured several more murals. The facade of the society’s remodelled bookshop (1959) in the town centre was dominated by a large photo mural (particularly effective at night), while the society’s hair salon (1961) boasted a large external mosaic panel and an internal, full height photo mural.
When the new High Street pharmacy opened on 1st November 1963 it was hailed as a ‘new landmark’ for the town, it was the largest co-operative pharmacy in Britain, stocking high-end cosmetic brands and boasting slimming and hearing aid departments, as well as a camera/photographic centre equipped with a film library. All this was occupied on a split-level interior comprising lower ground and ground floors, with a mezzanine gallery above. After a serious fire in 1967 the basic layout was retained, fortunately the mural was undamaged as too a large ‘panorama showcase’ in the right-hand window.
The whole upper facade is covered by the pharmacy-themed abstract mosaic, measuring 52ft (16m) by 14ft (4m). It was designed by well-known shopfitters Harris & Sheldon in conjunction with Brown, and executed by mosaic specialists O Toffolo & Son of Hull. Harris & Sheldon worked on numerous co-ops, and like most sizeable shopfitting firms, employed their own artists and architects. The Scunthorpe mural is one of only four surviving large-scale English co-op murals from the 1950s and 1960s, along with those at Stevenage (1957–8), Hull’ Three Ships (1961–3) and Ipswich (1963–4). All share a co-operative movement theme, while also relating to local industries and communities. These tile and mosaic murals represent a significant but potentially endangered public display of co-operation’s ethos and heritage (for Stevenage, Ipswich and Hull. Given the uncertain future of Hull’s Three Ships mural, the continued survival of Scunthorpe’s pharmacy mural becomes even more significant.
Another example of their work is the Church of the Holy Spirit (1960–2) on the Riddings Estate, known for its 120ft (37m) high openwork blue steel spire.