LAST week, Jane Laninga asked about the origins of the empty art deco commercial building on the corner of Darlington’s North Road and Askrigg Street.

What a response! Thank-you.

We can say with certainty that it was built in the early 1930s by the Darlington Co-operative Society.

“In 1977 when we moved into North Road, it was occupied by the North Eastern Cooperative Society,” says Richard Stone. “My assumption was that it has been erected by the Co-op in the 1920s/1930s at the same time as the nearby Bussey and Armstrong built houses. To me, the style shrieked of Co-op dependability and reliability.”

Nearby Lansdowne Road was completed in 1934.

As a child, Michael Mullen was sent to the shop to buy items for his grandma with the words “don’t forget the divi” ringing in his ears.

John Raffell said: “I remember passing it many times over many years when it was a large co-op in the days when you could buy anything from a wedding dress to ½lb of butter from the slab.”

Barbara Wilson worked in-store for eight years from 1955. “There was a grocery, next door was the baker’s, next door to that was the fruit shop and at the end was the butcher’s,” she says. “I have very happy memories of working there.”

Peter Curtis said: “From the left, there was a butcher’s, a fishmonger’s and a greengrocer’s.

“The largest part of the building to the right was converted to self-service in the 1960s.

“As a child, my mother would send me to the store for daily provisions. I would have to give our divi number – 13722 – to save up to spend at the main store in town.

“My father worked as a painter and decorator for the Co-op and I remember sitting on a plank (no health and safety in those days) watching him paint the front of that building.

“Above the shops was a dance hall. At Christmastime, my dad would take my mother to the staff dance there.”

Many people, like Tricia Black, mentioned the dance school that was based there from the 1940s through to the early 1970s, and Susan Jaleel remembers that the upstairs in the 1970s was the home of the Co-operative Women’s Guild.

Despite these vivid distant memories, no one can put a precise date on when the Co-op closed – we’ll say right at the end of the 1970s – but people do remember that it then became Roy Smith Motor Factors. “Motor factors” is a curiously old fashioned description of a seller of car parts.

This isn’t just a North Road story, though. It is town-wide.

The Priestgate Co-operative, Industrial & Provident Society was formed in 1868, and quickly grew, opening its first branches in Albert Road, Harrowgate Hill and St John’s Terrace. More distant places like Croft, Fighting Cocks, Heighington and Aycliffe were served by a Co-op cartman on his weekly rounds.

In 1893, the rival Bishop Auckland Co-op sent canvassers into Darlington to pinch trade so the Priestgate co-operators held “propaganda meetings” on the village greens in Barton, Middleton Tyas, Eppleby, Aldbrough St John and Melsonby. In 1895, it employed eight tailors in Priestgate making suits; in 1896, it opened a branch in Newbiggin, Richmond; in 1899, it introduced a line of dentist-designed artificial teeth.

Soon it had branches from Leyburn to Barnard Castle, with many more dotted all over town.

“North Road is typical of all the buildings in the town built by Darlington Co-operative Society,” says David Race. “It had its own works department, employing bricklayers, plasterers, joiners, plumbers, electricians et al, which was situated in Melland Street along with the Co-op coal depot, milk department and stables - they were delivering milk by horse and cart up to the early 1960s.

“The joinery department was at the top of Branksome Terrace where they also made coffins for the funeral department.”

Once you know what to look for, you can spot former co-ops all over town.

“Among those still retaining their original design are the co-ops on the corner of Neasham Road and Thirlmere Road, in Stockton Road, in Corporation Road (now a Sainsbury’s), and in Victoria Road, above which used to be The Co-op Club but is now The Old Vic Pub,” says David.

“Some co-ops have had their facias altered, like what is now Glenwood Paints on Yarm Road, and the East Road branch at Bank Top has been re-built for Bellwood Harris letting agents.

“Of similar design to North Road were the former offices on Crosby Street where all the finances and wages along with the twice-yearly dividends were administered.

“Behind it on Lowson Street was the slaughterhouse and meat factory where pies, sausages and cooked meats were prepared.”

In 1958, membership of the Darlington Co-op topped 50,000 for the first time and in 1968, after its Priestgate headquarters had been rebuilt to occupy what is now the Cornmill Centre, Darlington amalgamated with Bishop Auckland so they had more than 70,000 members.

The Priestgate departments closed in April and May 1986 as the Co-op concentrated on out-of-town supermarkets, so by then, we guess the scores of corner stores had also gone.

But what memories! Please send any more tales from the days of the divi, and details of any more lost co-op branches wherever they may be, to