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ROYAL ARSENAL CO-OPERATIVE SOCIETY, The history and the origins of the Woolwich

Series Two: Minute Books and Papers of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, 1868-1994

Part 1: Political Purposes Committee Minutes, 1922-1994

The Co-operative movement merits an important place in the Social History of Modern Britain and the history of the British working class. Numerous pioneering ventures - where groups of workers joined together to create shops, businesses, housing and welfare with a view to a common benefit - eventually merged into a vast trading concern owned and run by the people it served. It reached into all aspects of working class life, literally from the cradle to the grave.

Woolwich features significantly in the history of co-operative action. The first Co-operative corn mill was founded there in 1760 (well before the births of Robert Owen (1771-1858) and George Holyoake (1817-1906), the founding fathers of the British Co-operative movement) and traded successfully for over 80 years. Less successful ventures included a Co-operative butcher's shop (1805-1811); the Woolwich Bakery Society (1842); a Co-operative Coal Society (1845); the Woolwich Co-operative Provident Society (1851); and the Woolwich and Plumstead Co-operative Society (1860). But these all showed that the idea of co-operative action was alive in Woolwich and paved the way for the establishment of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society [henceforth RACS] (founded in 1868 as the Royal Arsenal Supply Association, renamed as the RACS in 1872).

The RACS was based on the practices and principles of the Rochdale Pioneers (1844ff) and was an immediate success. 20 people enrolled at their first meeting in November 1868, pledging to pay their £1 share. Alexander McLeod (1832-1902) was their first Chairman and William Rose (1843-?) - who worked in the Tool Room of the Shell Foundry at the Arsenal and had come up with the idea - was their first Secretary. Their first shop was based in a room in Rose's house and stocked tea, sugar, butter, and - later - bacon, coffee, spices and other goods. Rent and labour were given freely and the store soon showed a profit which was divided (the 'divi') between members in proportion to the amount which each had purchased. In 1869 the Government closed or moved many of the businesses in the area, prompting Rose to emigrate to Michigan, USA, surrendering his share. McLeod took over as Secretary and George H Bevan (1835-1909), another founder member, became Treasurer. The shop moved into rented space and expanded through the creation of a Christmas Club, a blanket club (both based on the idea of thrift - regular savings being set aside to pay for goods) and increased goods on offer. In 1873 the shop moved again to Powis Street (where it remains today, much enlarged) and commenced opening 4 evenings a week through the employment of a full-time shopman. By 1878 McLeod was able to give up his job at the Arsenal to become the Society's full-time Secretary and he continued in that role until his death in 1902.

As Ron Roffey, historian and archivist of the RACS, notes: "At its coming of age in 1889, the RACS was the largest Society in the Southern section of the Co-operative Union with nearly 7,000 members and an annual turnover of £126,000. "
writing in Looking back at.......WOOLWICH (South East Co-op, 1994)

From the earliest days it was remembered that Co-operation was not just about trading - there was a broader social dimension. They became an employer and job creator, establishing a bakery in 1876 and a milk delivery service from 1887. And from 1878 onwards the RACS allocated 2.5% of the trading profit for the education of members, by means of lectures, evening courses and the establishment of reading rooms and libraries above branch shops.

Expansion continued with new branches in Plumstead (1880 and 1888), Erith (1882), Charlton (1887) and Lakedale Road (1896); and in 1896 the RACS was honoured by being asked to host the Co-operative Congress. A branch of the Women's Co-operative League was founded in Woolwich in 1883 and the first Congress of the Co-operative Women's Guild was held there in 1901.

Another function of the RACS was the provision of good quality, affordable local housing. About 170 acres of land were acquired in 1886 and 1899 (the Bostall and Suffolk Place farms) and through the employment of c500 men the RACS created 420 homes by 1903 and nearly 1,000 by 1914. New employees and residents increased shop sales and the RACS continued to grow both through new branches and through the amalgamation of the East Greenwich, Walworth, Lambeth, Tooting, Wimbledon and Raynes Park Societies (all added in the period 1904-14). This extended the range of the Society through South-East and South-West London, and greatly increased its purchasing and employment power.

Whilst the Co-operative movement was in many respects apolitical, the rise of the Labour Party at the beginning of the Twentieth Century drew it into the political arena. Woolwich was one of the first Parliamentary seats to fall to the Labour Representation Committee in March 1903 when Will Crooks, a popular cockney working man, won a straight fight against the incumbent Unionist candidate and the RACS adopted a pro-Labour stance. In 1908 local Conservatives showed their distaste for what they saw as the spread of socialism by setting up a rival society (the short-lived Imperial Co-operative Society, Woolwich, 1908-1921). In 1913 Henry J May (1867-1939), born in Woolwich, an engineer at the Arsenal, and an officer for the RACS had the distinction of being made Secretary of the International Co-operative Alliance in Geneva (a position he held until his death). May was also the first candidate chosen to stand for the Co-operative Party (founded 1917) although he was unsuccessful at the by-election in Prestwich in 1918. In 1922 the Political Purposes Committee was established to enable the Society to play an active role in the political life of the community. The minutes of this Committee (1922-1986) were filmed as Part 1 of this project and provide a detailed account of the political and educational work of the RACS.

In 1919 the RACS had over 68,500 members and annual sales were over £23.5 million. Involvement in social housing continued with the acquisition of the 96 acre Well Hall Estate in Eltham in 1925 (c1,200 houses and flats) and 15 acres in the former Woolwich Royal Dockyard in 1926. A further 87 branches were established during the 1920's and 30's and a farm, an abbatoir, a dairy, new bakeries, a laundry, pharmaceutical stores, hairdressers and a funeral business were established. The RACS was also responsible for life insurance, benevolent funds, convalescent funds, benefit, thrift & savings clubs, a travel service, fuel delivery, removals, catering, and many other schemes and services.

Despite this growth the 1920's and 30's were difficult years for working men and the RACS had an important role to play in making available cheap food and clothing. What is more, during the General Strike of 1926 they raised £12,000 for the relief of miners and their families. Their work in education also continued. The branch library in Eltham, for instance, was loaning out more than 500 books a month before its closure in 1929 (it was replaced by local authority libraries) and adult classes were being offered in Arts & Crafts and Social History. The local branches of the RACS also offered entertainment and social gatherings such as rambles, plays, talks, choral groups and dances.

South East London was hit heavily during World War II, suffering considerable damage during the Blitz and beyond. But the RACS continued to grow and played a key role in rationing and educating the public about food production and consumption. In 1935 annual sales had reached £8.3 million, by 1945 they stood at £10 million.

After the war the RACS followed retailing and shopping trends by moving towards larger stores operating on a self-service basis. Brand names and advertising became more important and competition from other supermarket chains increased. Substantial capital investment was made available to build and develop modern stores and a programme of rationalisation was started, leading to the closure of over 100 small shops.

The 1960's and 70's saw a further wave of amalgamations with the addition of the Woking (1962), Godalming & District (1963), Haslemere & District (1965), Slough & District, Addlestone & District, Gravesend (all 1968), Faversham & Thanet (1969), Sheerness & District (1970), and Guildford & District (1971) societies. This further extended the range of the RACS into Hampshire, Berkshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. In 1970 the RACS had over 500,000 members and annual sales of £43 million. By 1975 sales had risen further to £62 million making the RACS the second largest Co-operative society in the UK. Yet this was a turbulent period for trading. The introduction of a new decimal currency in Britain in 1971 and a new sales tax (Value Added Tax) in 1973 imposed new burdens on retailers who were also having to cope with rampant inflation (26% in 1975) and the abolition of Re-Sale Price Maintenance. Profit margins were severely eroded and it became clear that other retail chains were benefitting from the development of national networks and the economies of scale that ensued. As a result, the RACS merged with the Co-operative Wholesale Society [henceforth CWS] based in Manchester in 1985 (it retained its identity by becoming the South-East section, together with the Croydon Society). At this point, membership (which had become less attractive as the stores were open to all and the 'divi' had almost vanished) had fallen to 296,000, although annual sales had risen to £156 million. At a stroke the CWS became Britain's largest farmer and large food manufacturer, supplying goods to Britain's largest retailer, the Co-op.

Political Purposes Committee Minutes

Part 1 of this project contains the Minutes of the Political Purposes Committee from its first meeting on 18 March 1922 (proclaiming that it would "enable the Society to take a definite part in the political life of the community" ) to 7 November 1986.

Until the 1970's the RACS was the only Co-operative Society to be affiliated to the Labour Party nationally. Furthermore, it provided a succession of distinguished representatives to the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) including J E Williams (1931-1947); Walter Green (1935-1947); Joseph Reeves (1947-1953); Arthur Skeffington (1953-1971) and John Cartwright (1971-1975 and 1976-1978).

The RACS was also closely linked with the Labour Party at local and regional levels and helped to promote the discussion of political issues and the analysis of socialist principles by organising conferences and meetings. It also played a prominent part in education.

Particular interest in the RACS Political Purposes Committee is due to the fact that Joseph Reeves, acting as Education Secretary from 1918 to 1938, was a pioneer of "Education for Social Change." This was a wide-ranging programme of working-class education promoting the adoption of a socialist approach to many issues.

To quote Reeves: "Education has been used for all manner of purposes, some social, some anti-social. Education has been used to preserve social systems, as it has been used to overthrow them .... (We) must press forward with the work of preparing the minds of children, young people, grown-up men and women for vast social and economic changes, which the application of the principles of Co-operation to human affairs involves." (JOSEPH REEVES, Education for Social Change, RACS, 1936).

Such educational schemes have been credited with increasing the profile of socialist policies to deal with issues such as unemployment and welfare benefit in the 1930's and 40's; they helped to put the provision of a National Health Service and Social Security benefits high on the agenda; and helped to create the climate which made possible the Labour Party's 1945 landslide victory.

The Political Purposes Committee Minutes provide a clear picture of the strategies and policies of the RACS and its success in providing libraries, reading rooms and education classes. Subjects covered include: deputations to the Labour Party at all levels; local education and schooling; London County Council and Borough Council elections; national elections and political affiliations; political campaigns such as the "People's March for Jobs" with the TUC and the Labour Party; the Sunday Trading Debate; the banning of South African goods in Co-op stores; the banning of hunting on Co-op land; the promotion of Co-operative principles; maintaining or increasing Co-op membership; working with the local community.

Other prominent political figures who have served on the Committee include Herbert Morrison, MP, Kate Hoey, MP, and Richard Balfe, MEP. The Committee changed its name in 1985 to become, simply, the Political Committee.


With kind permission for this article from: Adam Matthew Publications.

Copyright Adam Matthew Publications


1 February 2011

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