South East Retail Group (CWS)

Scope and Content

The collection includes records for the following bodies and Societies:

  • Minutes, papers, accounts and balance sheets of the South East Regional Group (CWS).
  • Minutes, papers, accounts and balance sheets of Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society and South Suburban Co-operative Societies.
  • Papers relating to the co-operative youth movement.
  • Papers of the Kent Joint Co-operative Council.
  • Minutes of the Surrey and District Education Committee.

Papers for co-operative auxiliaries:

  • Co-operative Womens Guild.
  • Co-operative Mens Guild

Minutes, papers, accounts and balance sheets of the following local societies:

  • Brighton Equitable Co-operative Society
  • Woking Co-operative Society
  • Invicta Co-operative Society
  • Sunningdale and District Co-operative Society
  • Slough and District Co-operative Society
  • Sheerness Co-operative Society
  • Addlestone and District Co-operative Society
  • Rainham and District Co-operative Society
  • Gravesend Co-operative Society
  • Faversham Co-operative Industrial Society
  • Cobham and District Industrial Co-operative Society
  • Cliffe-at-Hoo Co-operative Society
  • Reading Industrial Co-operative Society
  • Godalming and District Co-operative Society
  • Guildford and District Co-operative Society
  • Gillingham Co-operative Society
  • Dartford Industrial Co-operative Society
  • Ashford Co-operative Society
  • Chatham and District Co-operative Society
  • Dorking and District Co-operative Society
  • Haselmere and District Industrial Co-operative Society
  • Sittingbourne Co-operative Society
  • Faversham and Thanet Co-operative Society

Administrative / Biographical History

The South East Retail Group (CWS) was formed in 1985 following the merger of Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (RACS, see below for administrative history) in 1985 and South Suburban Co-operative Society (SSCS, see below for administrative history) in 1984 into the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS).

The purpose of the Retail Group was to administer retail operations of the CWS in the South East region. Following 1985 further societies in the region merged with CWS and these localities joined the retail group; Brighton in 1984; Sittingbourne in 1988; and Invicta in 1994. The regions functions were operated at a regional level, by a General Board whose members were appointed out of the localities.

The Royal Arsenal Supply Association (in Woolwich, South London) was registered in 1868 and renamed RACS in 1872, as a co-operative set up by workers at the royal arsenal in Woolwich. The society was associated with business and trade, their activities being greatly influenced by Alexander Mcleod (1832-1902) one of the founders of RACS and a co-operative thinker who believed in consumer co-operatives. He was the first full-time secretary from 1882 until his death in 1902. Mcleod also believed in looking after staff of co-operatives at all levels and in 1922 this was put into practice when death benefits for staff and their widowers and staff training schemes were introduced.

RACS began to expand from the 1870s for example, branches quickly opened through Woolwich. They also spread outside of Woolwich. Just before the First World War, RACS had opened branches at New Cross, Catford, Abbey Wood and Peckham. RACS began merging with well-established smaller societies (see merger list below) resulting in the opening of new shops, resulting in an increase in their operative areas. Several farm and land purchases were made in the 1880s and these continued to be of importance for producing goods to sell in their retail outlets, RACS therefore was a producer and consumer co-operative. From 1962 the Society embarked upon a major retailing revolution, in which it continuously converted its grocery shops from counter service to self-service.

Subsidiary companies such as pharmacies were established in 1928, this was particularly strong in the 1940s-1960s. RACS was interested in travel as a business from 1920 when they participated in the travel and coach business venture and the purchasing of two hotels on the Isle of Wight in 1945. Subsidiaries were also acquired in tourism, one major one being Balkan Travel. However, they were also interested in travel as a member service. By 1919, the Education Department of the RACS had set up the Co-operative Travel Guild.

From 1901 RACS became involved in a housing scheme having purchased Bostall Farm and Suffolk Place Estate in 1887 and 1899 respectively. Alongside this venture, RACS began acting as an insurer, providing cover for society members as well as acting as an agent for various insurance companies. The driving force behind these moves was to provide their members with quality products that would enhance their lives and environment. Education was always key to member services and RACS sought to develop the skills of their members so as to ultimately enhance educational levels in South London. The Society provided libraries and reading rooms, namely in Powis Street, for staff and members.After the Annual Education Conference in 1961, the Education Committee started to launch Co-operative Youth Clubs, initially at Falconwood and Coldharbour, Eltham. Greater emphasis was placed on consumer education, to educate customers to buy products with more careful consideration. In 1960 the reorganisation of the Education Department into the Eastern and Western areas took place, ensuring that local variations were considered.

Political activity was also of import to the Society and they worked with other London based Societies, on occasion, in order to secure the aims of the co-operative movement.

RACS continued functions up to the time of its merger into the CWS.

SSCS was established by the amalgamation of the Bromley & Crays, Croyden, and Penge & Beckenham societies in July 1918.

SSCS was an expansionist society and part of the reason for the amalgamations which formed it was to join-up co-operative operations across different towns/areas so to have a greater impact. From 1918 SSCS opened; twenty-eight grocery shops were opened, with twelve drapery and footwear units; dairies; butchery shops; and coal depots. The increasing population at the time led to the building of new housing estates in Bellingham, Carshalton, Downham and Morden and SSCS invested in these. The Society’s members were encouraged to participate in schemes. In 1928 they decided to set up the Hall Building Fund in order to provide for more halls and rooms for meetings. Alongside this, a committee was formed in 1921 to decide on the location and plans for the new halls. Members were always of import, both to the philosophy of co-operatives and to generate business and a growing sense emerged that member benefits should be felt across the co-operative movement. This led to a National Membership Scheme, January 1949, to encourage trade and promote a sense of belonging to a national movement. The Scheme was replaced in the 1960s by dividend stamps.

SSCS was interested in members not only as consumers but as members of society. The South Suburban Education Committee was actively involved in educational work for members, particularly from 1920-39. From the 1930s classes were being held for various subjects, including Co-operation and Citizenship. In November 1962, the Education Committee changed its name to the Education and Member Relations Committee.SSCS saw youth education as key, holding the view that education into the co-operative movement produced the best results if done young. In 1920, there were nine Junior Guilds for children aged 7-14 years of age and there were other activities such as children’s festivals and sports days, as well as performing choirs.

Care of employees was also of import to the Society. In 1929, the non-contributory Pension Fund was introduced for its employees. In 1939 the Employee Benevolent Fund was set up in order to provide help during sickness, death (Death Benefit Scheme) and other circumstances. As well as these, the Co-operative Funeral Furnishing Scheme (CWS) was formed for members, employees and the general public. In 1950 this was linked to the Death Benefit Scheme. In 1946, a Staff Training Council was formed, which consisted of members of the Management and Education Committees.

Political activity was also of import to SSCS. The formation of the Central Co-operative Party Council, which consisted of members of the Management and Education Committees, the Guilds, local councils and some elected members in 1917 led SSCS to establish its own political committees and by 1920 there were six local committees.

SSCS continued functions up to the time of its merger into the CWS.

Family tree of records contained in the collection:

The date of registration is given on the left, the date of merger is given on the right, Reading (registered 1860) is not listed as it merged with Co-operative Retail Services (1965), who then merged with CWS (2000) to form the Co-operative Group and so Reading’s administrative district was incorporated with the South East Retail Group (CWS) in 2001. Dates in brackets are those which cannot be confirmed:

South East Retail Group (CWS)

  • 1888 Brighton 1994
  • 1968 Invicta 1994
  • 1874 Sittingbourne 1988
  • 1868 Royal Arsenal 1985
  • 1918 South Suburban 1984

1868 Royal Arsenal

  • 1849 Sheerness 1970
  • 1891 Guildford 1970
  • 1933 Faversham and Thanet 1969
  • 1892 Slough 1968
  • 1902 Addlestone 1968
  • 1884 Gravesend 1968
  • 1903 Haselmere 1965
  • 1897 Godalming 1963
  • 1899 Woking 1962

1899 Woking

  • 1899 Sunningdale 1921

1968 Invicta

  • 1890 Chatham 1979
  • 1887 Ashford 1975
  • 1896 Rainham 1969
  • 1888 Dartford 1968

1902 Addlestone

  • 1903 Cobham (1914-16)

1884 Gravesend

  • 1888 Cliffe-at-Hoo (1916-22)

1888 Dartford

  • 1913 Gillingham 1968

1891 Guildford

  • 1921 Dorking 1925

1933 Faversham and Thanet

  • 1874 Faversham 1933
  • (1880) Thanet 1933


The records contained in this collection were bought together when the South East Retail Group (CWS) was formed in 1985. The Group was made up of a number of societies, each made up by a number of further societies. Therefore, the records have been catalogued according to who the creating society was. A series (SEC/1) has also been created for items covering the region.

Access Information

The collection is still being catalogued to ISAD (G) standard and so uncatalogued items may be subject to closures. Please contact the Archive for details. Open records can be viewed by previous arrangement, Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm. Contact the Archivist at: National Co-operative Archive Co-operative College Holyoake House Hanover Street Manchester M60 0AS

Acquisition Information

The collection was legally deposited with the National Co-operative Archive by the The South East Retail Group (CWS) in 2001.

Other Finding Aids

The collection is currently being catalogued to ISAD (G) archival standards. A list of items held is available. Please contact the Archive for details.

Alternative Form Available

Greenwich Heritage Centre holds the following microfilm/fiche copies for Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society:General Committee Meetings 1876-1985Political Purposes Committee 1922-1986

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

Some delicate paper and photographic items.

Archivist's Note

Description compiled Oct 2007 by Karyn Stuckey, Assistant Archivist, National Co-operative Archive.

Conditions Governing Use

Reproduction can be carried out in accordance with our Reproduction Policy. Please contact the Archive for details.

Custodial History


It is anticipated that a further (estimated) 100 linear meters will be deposited in 2007-2008.

Related Material

The Archive holds Society histories and journals produced by Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, these are currently being listed. Please contact the Archive for details.