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In a corner of South East London is Plumstead Common once the site of “disgraceful riots” that generated the headline in the Kentish Independent:
“Can this be England?”
Well, it very much was England as commoners had ancient rights to cut furze, graze cattle and cut turf for fuel on common land. It looked different in those days a more rugged terrain with gravel and sand pits. In 1871 the military, based in Woolwich, had rights to exercise on the common. The nearer Woolwich Common was thought to be too soft and swampy. Over time the furze and brambles disappeared. To top this the developers moved in.
In the C17th Queen’s College, Oxford inherited the rights to the land. Over a period of time there had been encroachment of the common land and areas had been enclosed sometimes for the benefit of the poor or for individual gain. A local builder Mr Tongue was responsible for many of the encroachments as was Edwin Hughes who later became the first Member of Parliament for Woolwich. The building of Central and Slade schools on the common were done with the permission of the College.
The real threat to the common came in 1876 when Queen’s College wanted to develop a new housing estate. The people of Plumstead took direct action to protect their common and began to rip down and burn the fences of the enclosed land. The properties of Hughes and Tongue were a particular focus. They were led by John de Morgan who called himself a Champion for the Common Rights. He also boasted that he was “an irishman, a rebel and had been in prison several times”. He was obviously a persuasive speaker as 700 men from The Royal Arsenal lost pay and took the afternoon off work to hear him speak.
Local opinion, of the time, including the liberal Woolwich Gazette, was in favour of the preservation of the common. The rioters included family groups, women and children and the “respectable working classes”. The more critical Kentish Independent described the rioters as “roughs and hobble-de-hoys.” The riots started on Sunday 1st July and went on well into Monday evening. The demonstrations did have an impact and in 1878 The Plumstead Common Act ensured that about one hundred acres of land remained as public open space.
Today the Common is effectively divided into two as roads were built before the Act. Along Plumstead Common Road still stands The Ship public house, now painted a Germoline pink. Some two hundred metres along the road is the historic Prince of Wales where, in October 1886, the Arsenal Football Team was formed. It’s now flats.
Mill Pond Road dissects the common and the original mill can still be seen. At the time of the riots it was a public house and remains one.
The original common was much larger and extended along Plum Lane to Shrewsbury Park and Shooters Hill. There is still an amazing amount of green space at the top of the hill and well worth the climb as the views are remarkable, overlooking London to the West, Dartford to the East and Essex to the North.
A Bronze Age Tumulus still survives and hidden in Shrewsbury House is a Cold War bunker: though not open to the public. The original manor house is now a community centre.
The houses around the common and the streets leading to Shrewsbury park tell you that this was not a place for the hoi polloi, there are some seriously posh houses. Large “tea caddy” houses, enormous three storey Victorian mansions overlooking the common. It may have lost some of its sparkle but with the advent of Crossrail this could well be a place on the up.
Note: I first published this post two years ago but decided to re-post at the time of the anniversary of the riots. It remains one of the most popular posts I have done.
A walk along the Darent to the Thames isn’t everyone’s idea of an idyllic landscape but will take you through an historic market town in transition, wetlands now teeming with wildlife and remnants of both war and industry. This is a marginal place not only topographically but socially as it was here that hospitals were built to exclude, from the London metropolis, the infectious sick, the insane and “imbecile children”.
Dartford is an historic market town and was on the original London to Dover Road. The Darent Path can be picked up close to the railway station. The town’s historic high street is struggling against the competition from its own town centre mall and the nearby mother of all malls, Bluewater. If that wasn’t sufficient there are plans for a new Tesco. The heritage buildings in Lowfield Street have been blighted by that behmoth and their plans that have taken, so far, eleven years.
The river flows through the town and is flanked by reeds and marshland eventually leading to open country. The wetland area sustains a small farm with cultivated fields and cattle roaming freely. An array of anti-aircraft structures still stand but now with vegetation rising look like hidden walled gardens. From the raised path there is a 360 degree panorama. The view north is to the river and the massive structure of Littlebrook Power Station.
The bright yellow ship’s funnels skimming across the horizon between the trees let’s you know that you are close to the Thames. The rivers Cray and Darent merge here before flowing into the Thames.
Turn east at the Thames and walk under the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. At this point the river is still a working area and was fascinating watching the German tanker Seacod of Bremen being pushed, pulled and turned by a couple of tough tugs. On the northern bank there is still the industrial presence of Proctor and Gamble. The conversion of brownfield land is never far away and once through the shadow of the bridge the uninspiring riverside apartments at Greenhithe can be seen.
In 1999 the RACs department store featured in a television movie The Greatest Store in the World. Up until the 1980s it certainly would have been the greatest store in South East London but in 1999 it was closed with no future prospects.
Membership of the RAC had been steadily increasing since its formation in 1868 and at the outbreak of the Second World War 1939 it was 382,000. In 1937 they planned a second large emporium in Woolwich. It was opened in stages 1939 and 1940 but it was not brought into full use until after the war. The streamlined building with horizontal lines and faience tiles makes an interesting architectural contrast to its sibling across the street.
Throughout the 1960s membership of the RACs increased. This transformative period saw a major re-fit of the store to make it up-to-the minute and reflect changing cultural values. On the third floor was a large bar and restaurant area plus a roof terrace
A travel bureau was a new feature reflecting the increased accessibility of foreign travel.
By the 1970s the membership of RACs reached half million but from this highpoint they began to suffer from the competition from the supermarkets. It was forced to merge with the Co-operative Wholesale Society in 1985. They used the upper floors as regional offices up until 1999 when it finally closed. In 2006 it was again used as a film set, this time for the dystopian science fiction film Children of Men. The abandoned store helping to conjure up an urban landscape of despair. After a period of uncertainty and threat of demolition there are plans to convert this important historic building into new residential accommodation.
A stranger arriving in Woolwich may look aghast at the brash and over sized Tesco that now dominates General Gordon Square but just over a century ago it was a different retail store, with a very different business ethic, that dominated the town. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative (RACs) was formed in 1868 and moved to the store at the end of Powis Street in 1873 rebuilt in 1903. This building and the later department store opened in 1939 are still standing. Plans have been agreed to convert the Art Deco building into flats with retail on the ground floor. The older building is now a Travel Lodge and with its proximity to London City Airport is a favourite resting place for cabin crew.
The society was formed by workers from the Royal Arsenal and began trading in the home of William Rose at 11 Eleanor Road (renamed Castile). By 1934 they had 275,000 members and 200 shops across South London and beyond. RAC boundary stones can still be seen in the pavements of Greenwich.
The shop in Powis Street became known as the Central Stores. It had a turnover of £7m of which £6m was distributed to its members. The cost of joining was 1/- ( five pence) towards a share in the capital and 6d (two and half pence) for a copy of the rule book.
One of its values was to sell cheap unadulterated food. In 1900 George Arnold addressed the annual conference celebrating the fact that bakeries across south London had gone out of business because they could not compete with the quality of RACs unadulterated bread.
To support its retail activities it bought Woodlands Farm on Shooters Hill. There was an abattoir on site and close by a preserving factory. The farm still exists and is now the Woodlands Farm Trust. It could teach Tesco a thing or two about provenance in the food chain. It diversified into housing, fuel supply and food production.
It built the Bostall Estate in Abbey Wood paying a “bonus to labour” by paying tradesmen a halfpenny an hour above the Trade Union rate. In 1925 it purchased,from the Government, the estate built for munitions workers in Eltham Well Hall and renamed it The Progress Estate. Living up to its ideals for world wide co-operation it housed Basque refugees during the Spanish Civil War.
The society had an extensive educational programme and 2.5% of its surplus went into this and social activities. Comrade Circles were available for young people 15-24 and Women’s Co-operative guilds extended to Southwark, Lewisham, Bexley, Bermondsey and Earlsfield in SW London. Student lead learning underpinned each study circle with each student selecting their own tutor with whom they would jointly plan the syllabus. In 1879 RACs opened the first library in Woolwich. It had two choirs conducted by Sir Michael Tippett. Joseph Reeves the Education Secretary 1934 said this in his introductory pamphlet for new members,
“Without co-operation no progress can be made in human affairs. Working together for the good for all is the keynote and meaning of co-operation. Mutual aid in the home, in the workshop, in the municipality and in the state will lead to world wide co-operation.”
There are echoes of the RACs in abundance in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. They helped the co-operative movement to develop in the South of England. Last year was the United Nation’s Year of the co-operatives confirming the lasting legacy of the movement.
More about the department store in my next post.