Co-op Group to preserve historic signage revealed during store refit

The signage is a relic of the Royal Arsenal Co-op, a large consumer co-op founded in the 1870s

The Co-op Group has confirmed that it will restore some historic co-op signage discovered during a refit at a London store.

Workmen at the Wimbledon Chase Co-op uncovered a mosaic sign for the Royal Arsenal Co-op, a consumer co-op formed in 1872 and named after the nearby munitions works in Woolwich. The society was merged into the CWS in 1985.

Local campaigners – including the Lib Dem group on Merton Council, and their leader Cllr Anthony Fairclough – called on the Group to protect the signage, collecting a 750-name petition.

This week, Cllr Fairclough received a letter from the Group confirming that the sign will be restored and that work will start as soon as possible.

Cllr Fairclough told the Wimbledon Times: “I am really grateful to the Co-op for agreeing to restore the old mosaic signage that was uncovered as they started a re-fit.

“Thank you also to the 540 plus residents who signed our petition to them on this, in less than a week!

“Together we’ve helped saved a piece of local heritage and created an opportunity to enhance a local shopping parade.”

The Royal Arsenal Co-operative was founded by 20 workers from the arsenal, who had been involved in the he Royal Arsenal Supply Association, formed four years earlier in 1868.

By 1889 it was the biggest co-op in the capital, with nearly 7,000 members, and in the following decades it opened new shops and expanded from food retail into a wide range of commercial, social and political activities. These included education, reading rooms and libraries, support for the Woodcraft Folk and Women’s Guild, choirs, sports clubs, housebuilding, bakeries, pharmacies, hotels, food processing and farms.

It was a politically engaged co-op, with the motto Each for All and All for Each; it supported the Labour Party and sponsored parliamentary candidates; employed a political secretary; published magazines and newspapers; housed Basque refugees from the Spanish Civil War; and paid a ‘bonus to labour’ alongside its member dividends.

At its mid 1970s peak, membership hit the half-million mark and sales exceeded £60m, but it struggled against competition from the growing supermarket sector and a decline in reserves and membership led to a transfer of engagements to the CWS (now the Co-op Group).

The signage at Wimbledon Chase isn’t the only surviving monument to the Royal Arsenal Co-op. Its neo-Victorian RACS Central Stores and art deco department store buildings, both on Powls Street, Woolwich, and its art deco store facade on Lewisham High Street, have been preserved and are now home to apartments and a mix of businesses.

The Bostall Estate in Abbey Wood still has street names linked to the co-op movement – including Owenite Street, Commonwealth Street and Rochdale Road, and the local primary school is named after one of the Royal Arsenal Co-op’s founders, Alexander McLeod. 

The society’s old farm in Shooters Hill is now run by a community trust, Woodlands Farm Trust.

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