THE R.A.C.S./C.W.S. ABATTOIR 1937-1994
By Kathleen Barr
The new R.A.C.S. Abattoir opened in 1937 replacing the old Abattoir, which was in Belvedere. The new Abattoir was state of the art for its time and the first of its type in Britain. It was based upon an American design which incorporated the idea of housing the Slaughter Hall on an upper level which gave the great advantage of using gravity instead of manpower to move such things as hides, sheepskins, gut, hooves and condemned meat - they were simply dropped down the appropriate chute into waiting bins outside or on to work surfaces in the Gut House below.
THE WAR YEARS
After the outbreak of World War Two the Abattoir was taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture which controlled every aspect of the day to day running of the building. At some point during the war years, probably 1943, killing was ceased and the building was used for storing and distributing foodstuffs. Killing was resumed around 1946 but the Ministry remained in full control of the Abattoir until the end of rationing in 1954. During the war years the Abattoir was in great danger from German bombs not only because of its own logistical importance but also because only a few hundred yards from it, in Garland Road, stood the "Optical Buildings" which was a Ministry of Defence research facility for improving weapon sighting and ranging. However, a battery of anti-aircraft guns, sited on what are now the Golf Links and a barrage balloon unit, sited where the houses in Highgrove now stand, protected the area. One of the Balloon teams suffered a direct hit from a German bomb and not one piece of the team was ever found. An Abattoir worker would be detailed at all times to stand on the flat roof of the building on watch for German aircraft and sound the alarm if any were spotted. One of the older staff, Bill Hills, told me that one afternoon when he was on watch he saw a Messershmit 110 fighter-bomber, which banked around the building at the same height as his position on the roof. He said he could clearly see the both the pilot and navigator and waved to them as he sounded the alarm!
THE 1950's AND 1960's
During the 1950's and 60's the Abattoir was very busy. It employed two slaughter gangs - one for beef and one for "smalls" (Sheep and Pigs). During the busiest periods, around Christmas and during the Lamb Season, killing would start at five in the morning and go on until midnight. The beef gang was known to be the quickest in Britain, being able to kill and fully dress fifteen cattle per hour.
In 1970 the "factory" (meat processing plant) was built and opened. The factory produced sausages and beef burgers for the Co-op shops and packing meat for the new "Freezer Centre" which was situated at the Co-op Links store at Plumstead Common. In 1974 another large outside cattle pen was added to the building. However, by the later 1970's work at the Abattoir was starting to slow down. This was largely a result of a decline in the fortunes of the R.A.C.S. Due to the increasing affluence of people throughout this period (and many argued due to the discontinuation of the tin cheque and the later Co-op stamps) the old working class image of the Society was failing to inspire the modern consumer. Many of the small Co-op butchers shops, such as the one on the parade in Swingate Lane, Plumstead, were closed and sold off. Due to this trend, and totally against the ethics of the CO OP at that time, the Abattoir began to take on killing for private butchers in order to keep up the "head rate" of the building. In late July 1979 the killing and distribution operations (the factory was not affected) at the Abattoir were halted for a period of two months for the building to be brought up to the new E.E.C. standard. This work included the plastic cladding of walls as tiles were no longer legal and shot blasting of the roller-rails to remove all rust. The killing was put out to Coveney's at Charing and F.M.C Canterbury and the distribution staff were re-located to the R.A.C.S. Commonwealth Buildings at Woolwich.
During the first half of the 1980's the workload of the building continued to drop off. Even though one whole day's work (Tuesdays) was largely taken up with private killing on many Thursdays there was no kill. But the Abattoir was a status symbol for the R.A.C.S. and was kept open despite many rumours of its imminent closure. Indeed, in 1984, a hide-puller system and new trap were added to the beef kill system due to new E.E.C. regulations, which stated that cattle could no longer be flayed on the ground with the old Pritch-Plate system. However, by the mid-eighties the whole of the R.A.C.S. was in serious financial difficulties and a "merger" was negotiated with the C.W.S. The management of the Abattoir in meetings with the heads of the C.W.S. Meat Group was led to believe that the Abattoir would gain much work when the C.W.S. took control. The "merger" took place in February 1985. On March 15th 1985, on arrival for work, the Slaughtermen, Stockman and Gutmen were told that "this is the last day of killing, come in tomorrow morning at ten to collect your settlements". From then until its total closure the building was entitled the C.W.S. Meat Depot, Garland Road. Meat was delivered to the depot and then distributed to the Co-op shops. The factory continued to perform its normal function for a further three months until June 1985 when it too was closed down and its staff made redundant. At its busiest the Abattoir had employed about eighty plus people but now the staff numbered only around ten.
On July 9th 1987 the Abattoir made national headlines when an attempted-armed robbery of a security van, which was delivering wages to the building, was ambushed by armed police. Two of the robbers were shot dead and one was seriously wounded but survived. Thus, the Abattoir holds the record not only for the quickest beef gang in Britain but also for the most people killed and wounded by the police on mainland Britain in a non-terrorist related gun battle. The Abattoir continued to function as a meat depot until October 1989 when the decision was taken by the bosses of the C.W.S. Meat group to close the building and put the work out to a private company which operated from a cold store at Riverhead in Kent. The building stood empty but with round-the-clock security officers until its demolition in May and June 1994. A sad end to what had once been a thriving workplace.
this article appeared in the July 2003 GIHS Newsletter