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.