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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, Woolwich

The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, Woolwich.

In marked contrast to the affluent commencement of the Civil Service Co-operative Society of this city, the Woolwich society had a very humble beginning, notwithstanding the powerful body of Government employees to which the promoters belonged. It was started in 1869 "in a little back room, a bench covered with American cloth for a counter, a small desk for the secretary, and a chest of tea for the principal stock." The whole thing was only a few shillings over £7 in value. So stated Dr. William Anderson, Director-General of the Ordnance Factories, in an address given at the opening of an exhibition connected with the Co-operative Congress for 1896, which met at Woolwich. By that date the society had been worked up to possess a capital of £86,000. The trade for the year was £166,000, 10 per cent. of which, or £16,600, was available for dividends upon members' purchases. In September of the following year (1897) the members were called together to inaugurate the opening of a fifth branch store. On such occasions statistics are page 37 produced, so "that all may learn and all may be comforted" by the progress made. In this year the society had 10,000 members, with a share capital of £115,000—being £29,000 more than on the previous year—and the year's trade was over £200,000. From first to last the society had distributed £250,000 amongst members on their purchases, and £45,000 had been advanced upon members' dwellings, and "not one bad debt made."

Co-operative capital and savings increase so fast that new uses have to be found for them, so that the interest charge may not press too heavily upon what otherwise would be an over-capitalised business. This is what Lord Rosebery alluded to when he said, in his presidential address to the delegates which formed the Annual Co-operative Congress, which met at Glasgow in 1890:—" You have got hold of a good live principle that will lead you on, that will push you along the path of progress . . . and I say this, that it is perfectly clear that, as you have realised certain theories, they will carry you on whether you like it or not; having accumulated certain capital, you will have to face its employment sooner or later."

Under pressure of this nature the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society had purchased 175 acres of land, upon which it was decided to build a model town of 4000 to 5000 houses. On the 25th May, 1900, the first brick of the first house was laid, and on the 17th October of the 6ame year the members were called together to inaugurate the scheme. By that later date—that is, in less than five months from the time of laying the first brick—twenty houses were ready for occupation, another twenty had the roofs on, and thirty more were well advanced.

The delegates who attended the Annual Co-operative Congress which met at Stratford in 1904 were conducted over this property, the area of which had apparently been added to, and to which reference is made in the "Co-operative News" of 4th June of that year under the heading:—