Famous Belfast Stores: The Co-Op

The Belfast Co-Operative Society was established in 1888 by 200 people

The Belfast Co-Operative Society was established in 1888 by 200 people. A small shop opened at the Shankill Road, quickly followed by new premises at North Street. In 1910, the society also bought and converted Gallaher’s tobacco factory at York Street. The main offices were built in 1932.The 1966 expansion brought an additional 30,000 square feet to each of the four floors. More space was added in the following four years, and full air-conditioning was installed.

By 1969, the Belfast Co-Operative Society had 192,000 members. It had the country’s largest single dairy, and was also one of the largest coal distributors.

The Orpheus restaurant and ballroom was the focal point of ‘the Co’, where shoppers could enjoy afternoon tea or top bands playing at dances.

The Co-Operative Society also ran an innovative share scheme, whereby regular customers received a dividend for their purchases. Household members memorised their Co-number and quoted it faithfully every time a purchase was made. The amount was logged in a passbook, and ‘the divvy’ was paid at the end of the quarter.

On May 10, 1972, a massive bomb explosion and subsequent fire injured 25 people, and caused around £10m worth of damage. The ladies and menswear, drapery, carpets, soft furniture, hardware, and electrical departments were totally destroyed, while the Orpheus Block, containing the grocery, butchery, pharmacy and furniture departments, remained undamaged. This was the third and most serious fire at the York Street premises since the beginning of the Troubles.

In November the following year, the foundations of the new store were laid. It was to have a multistorey car park, a hairdressing and beauty salon, an air-conditioned coffee lounge, a centrally located credit transactions office, and first aid room with a full time nurse on duty, and a public address system. It was projected to be ‘the most modern store in Ireland.’ However, on January 21, 1977, a week before its official opening, three bombs went off in the new building.

In 1983, the Manchester based Co-operative Wholesale Society took over the store. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that the York Street shop was losing business, being too remote from the main shopping area in the centre. Even a bus service to bring shoppers from the City Hall to York Street failed to attract sufficient business.

A further combination of high interest rates, the reduction of car parking space, and the prospect of competition from the newly built Castle Court shopping complex sealed the Co’s fate, and in June 1990 the York street store closed down. 130 members of staff lost their jobs.

At the end of the month, however, the CWS announced its biggest ever single investment in Belfast, with the launch of an £11m plan to build two major stores on York Street. The stores, a superstore and a home furnishings store at Yorkgate shopping centre, provided 300 jobs. After eight years, however, the Co-Op superstore at Yorkgate was sold to Tesco.

Further reading:
Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914 (1985) by CEB Brett.