Tuesday 5 November 2019

Co-operative Society Archives in the South East


One of the most important of Greenwich Institutions and employers was the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society.  Last year Greenwich Industrial History Society heard Ron Roffey talk about the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society and his work in collecting their archives and memorabilia.  Ron also concentrated on the work which the Society did as a productive unit – not just as a series of retail outlets – and he talked at length about their factory in what was then known as Commonwealth Buildings on the old Woolwich Dockyard site.  The following article is by Peter Collier, Assistant to Honorary Archivist

The former Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society’s premises in Powis Street, Woolwich, are well known to many who live in South East London. Until the end of 1999 they housed amongst other things the Co-operative Archive that was founded and built up by Ron Roffey, the former Secretary of the RACS. At that date the collection comprised over 10,000 objects and documents and an estimated 10,000 unlisted pictures and photographs.

In addition to the RACS records and artefacts, the collection included material from the societies that at various dates had merged with the RACS, from Faversham & Thanet in the East to Slough in the West. Today it additionally includes other societies that merged directly with the CWS SE, as it then was, namely South Suburban, Brighton, Invicta and Sittingbourne Co-operative Societies. Altogether, the Archive comprises an extremely important record of local, commercial and working class history.

At the end of 1999 when the office closed, Greenwich Council agreed to provide temporary accommodation for the material, in order to keep it in the Borough.

However, also at the end of 1999, a decision was taken to create a National Co-operative Archive at the Co-operative College. As a result a selection of approximately 3500 records and documents were dispatched to the College in February 2001.

While the development of a Co-operative Archive Centre at the national level is most welcome, the future of the local archive is still uncertain. The National Centre does not meet the need for archival resources relating to past co-operative societies in London and the South East and a good case can still be made for a regional co-operative archive and study centre.

For, while the Archive was in Co-operative premises, Ron Roffey, as Honorary Archivist, was able to show visitors the museum part of the collection, and also to welcome individuals who wished to carry out research. He was, in addition, able to obtain funds from South East Co-op to develop a number of databases. This enabled a catalogue of the collection to be completed, and also his own research into the Royal Arsenal and South Suburban Societies, which was published in the book ‘The Co-operative Way’ a year ago. 

Since leaving Powis Street, these activities have ceased due to the material being held in storage conditions. Since then, we have had only a trickle of funds to enable caretaking functions to continue, to allow, for example, the reception of new items and the loan of parts of the collection for exhibition. Yet still today we receive requests from people wishing to carry out research (which we have to refuse) and records and objects continue to be donated.

At the time of writing, the Archive is again being moved, now to smaller and more basic premises in Eltham owned by Greenwich Council. We hope it will be adequate for the essential functions of maintaining the collection.

If the immediate goal of preserving the collection can be achieved, we shall then need to develop a strategy of long term development. Suitable accommodation will be needed, as also will funds for conservation, for database work, and to enable the public to have access. An encyclopedia of local co-operation on CD-ROM or the internet could be produced; and digital recording is increasingly significant as a means of giving access to old and delicate documents.

This article first appeared in the GIHS Newsletter for March 2001

No comments: