Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society
Initially established in 1868 as the Royal Arsenal Supply Association by 20 workers from the Royal Arsenal, the society renamed itself Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society in 1872. In the century that followed, the society's activities expanded from food retail into a huge range of commercial, social & political activities. Having begun operations from a room of a house in Plumstead, by its height (circa 1975) the society had outlets across most of South London and parts of Hampshire, Berkshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Membership rose to 500,000 and sales exceeded £60million. Yet by 1985 its commercial problems were such that it merged into the national Co-operative Wholesale Society.
Retail & services
The RACS ran not just food shops (a founding aim of the UK consumer co-operative movement being the provision of cheap unadulterated food) but also milk, bread & fuel deliveries, department stores, a bookshop, jewellery department, shoe shops and chemists. Other services included removals, catering, undertakers (customers included Herbert Morrison), hairdressers, laundry, a travel agency, insurance & savings clubs. As was usual for such co-operative societies, members were paid a dividend in proportion to their spending with the society – at one point in embossed tin tokens, later by the quoting of a "Divi Number", towards the end by stamps.
Production & distribution
To support its retail activities the RACS established bakeries, bought farms & piggeries and built food processing factories. It owned stables & railway wagons, an abbatoir, dairy, a frozen food plant, a fleet of coaches and two hotels on the Isle of Wight.
From 1878 onwards 2.5% of the society's profits were spent on education. The RACS had an Education Department, ran classes and sports days, opened reading rooms, supported the Woodcraft Folk & the Co-operative Women's Guild, youth clubs at Falconwood and Coldharbour, a cricket club, orchestras and at one point two choirs conducted by (Sir) Michael Tippett. The society opened its first library in Woolwich in 1879 some 20 years before the local authority provided such a facility.
Perhaps surprisingly, in 1900 the RACS became a large-scale housing developer by building the Bostall Estate on its farmland in Abbey Wood – its Works Department led by architect Frank Bethell constructing over a thousand homes. The streets still bear co-operative-theme names, such as Owenite (after Robert Owen), Commonwealth, Rochdale (after the 'Rochdale Pioneers'), McLeod and WillRose (after founder-members Alexander McCloud and William Rose). In 1925 the RACS bought the 1250-home Royal Arsenal workers estate at Well Hall in Eltham from the Government, which it then renamed the Progress Estate.
The RACS was always one of the more political co-operative societies. Its motto was "Each for All and All for Each", it employed a Political Secretary, published magazines and newspapers (such as Comradeship and The Wheatsheaf) and housed Basque refugees from the Spanish Civil War (see also Milk for Spain). The RACS supported the campaign for working-class political representation (see Labour Representation Committee) and the election of Will Crooks as MP for Woolwich. It chose to affiliate directly to the Labour Party rather than to the Co-operative Party as was more usual for such societies. As well as the usual co-op dividend to its customer-members, the RACS also paid a "bonus to labour" – for instance paying the tradesmen building the Bostall Estate a halfpenny an hour above the Trade Union rate. Overall control of the RACS rested with a full-time Management Committee elected by society members under proportional representation.
Decline and fall
By the late 1970s the RACS was in trouble. Greater customer affluence and competition from supermarket chains such as Sainsbury's were changing the society's market – its size & democratic ownership structure made it slow to adapt. Membership numbers declined, weakening the society's democratic basis. Reserves dwindled and dividend payments – for many, the Co-op's unique selling point – all but ceased. In 1985, after a century of expansion in size & scope the RACS avoided collapse by 'transferring its engagements' to the national Co-operative Wholesale Society. Many of the former RACS supermarkets and funeral homes remain as Co-op outlets.
Other London-area consumer co-operative societies
- South Suburban Co-operative Society
- London Co-operative Society
- Enfield Highway Co-operative Society
- Invicta Co-operative Society
- Rita Rhodes An Arsenal for Labour: the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society and Politics 1896-1996, Holyoake Books, 1999,ISBN 0-85195-253-4
- Walter T. Davis & William B. Neville The history of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, Ltd. 1868-1918,Pioneer Press, 1921
- Minute books and papers of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, 1868-1986, Adam Matthew Pubs., 1994, ISBN B0000EEZ1F
- Alex. Mcleod & T. Geo. Arnold, The origin and progress of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, Co-operative Printing Society, 1896
- Ron Roffey, The Co-operative Way, Membership Services of South East Co-op, 40 Orchard Street, Dartford, Kent, DA1 2DG, ISBN 0-85195-256-9
- John Attfield, With Light of Knowledge: Hundred Years of Education in the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society, 1877-1977, Journeyman, 1981, ISBN 0-904526-67-4
- "Periodicals". Cooperative Heritage Trust. National Cooperative Archives. Retrieved 15 April 2015.
- RACS Minutes Books & Papers, Adam Matthew Pubs.
- Bert A. French Boyhood memories of Eltham
- Rod Le Gear/Kent Archaeological Society The Building of the Bostall Estate
- Ideal homes - Progress Estate
- "Good service in life and death", This is Local London, 9 July 2003
- E.F.E. Jefferson, The Woolwich Story, Woolwich & District Archeological Society, Jan 1970
- South East Retail Group (CWS) at Archives Hub