The art deco style Co Op building on Powis Street in Woolwich was built as a department store in 1938 by the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. The company began life in 1868 as a supplier of cheap food solely for the workers at the nearby Royal Woolwich Arsenal, operating on the democratic principal of one member one vote. Every penny spent by it's members buying goods from the society attracted a dividend which could be cashed in once it had reached a certain amount. The society was originally named "The Woolwich Supply Association" but in 1872 it renamed itself "The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society".
In the century that followed the society, which had originally sold only food items out of a single room in a house in Plumstead, progressively expanded it's horizons and began to open more shops. In order to be able to do this the society changed it's rules to allow people other than from the Woolwich Arsenal to join and enjoy the same benefits in addition to the original arsenal workers. At the same time they expanded their range of goods on offer from food only to include other items, and they began to establish other kinds of shops too such as book sellers and chemists.
Soon a range of services began to be offered until eventually the society was able to provide for it's members funeral arrangements, laundries, household insurance, and operate a savings stamps club. The original goods supply side of the business had by now blossomed into several department stores and by 1975 there were outlets all over the south of London and in parts of Hampshire, Berkshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Membership rose to 500,000 and total sales at the peak exceeded £60million. But just ten years later problems had beset the company to the point where it had to merge with the well known national Co-operative Wholesale Society.
Eventually even the mighty Co Op was struggling against newly emerging supermarket giants like Asda and Tesco to the point where it begin to scale down it's operation all over the country, closing branches which did not attract sufficient custom. Inevitably the Woolwich building, as large as it is, became a casualty of the cutbacks and in the early part of this century it closed it's doors. The local council had plans to demolish the building but with it's unusual and appealing art deco styling locals have protested volubly at the plans and to date nothing has been done. The future however remains decidedly uncertain .
At this time the building has at least one "resident" living on the second floor, so on the day we explored we worked our way to the roof bypassing his "home" entirely on the way up. The interior is very badly vandalised and entry was extremely easy due to the fact that someone has comprehensively bent the perimeter fence up at the back of the building and forced the doors. The ground floor is in total darkness and it is necessary to proceed with the utmost care as there are several rather smelly "booby traps" scattered about to catch the unwary! Once clear of the ground floor there is far more light and progress then is only hampered by an occasional rotten section of the floor. Just short of the roof there is a gloriously appointed room with wood panelling, a carved wooden door, and a great big open fireplace. It is likely that it was a boardroom or the like as the adjacent rooms on this floor all appear to be offices and social rooms for the staff such as a bar. The boardroom opens out through a south facing window wall onto a large balcony which overlooks the rear of the building and across towards the Thames, though sadly the construction of several tall buildings around the Co Op in the intervening years since 1938 must have impaired the original view drastically. The roof is accessed by a couple of different routes and the only consideration we had was that of finding the best way up consummate with remaining unseen through the stairwell windows overlooked by contractors working on the building directly across the road. the ascent is well worth the effort as it is possible to see practically unimpeded through almost 360 degrees. To the south you can watch planes approaching the Docklands Airport on finals about a mile away and the famous Spillers Millennium Mills is just across the river.
So did we enjoy the explore?
Well not all that much to be perfectly honest. The whole building is so badly vandalised that it is all a bit of a depressing mess. That said, it is another one we can tick off our urb-ex site list!
And a big thank you to the guys who went before and showed us the way! You know who you are...