Exploring The RACS Building

posted by on 08/09/2013

Apologies for the disappearance on here this week, we’ve had a few set backs re:features being signed off and work commitments. Excuses, excuses right? Last Monday, Bank Holiday for many – we decided to get early and head to Woolwich to explore an abandoned site. Not what most people would give in a lie-in to do, especially on Carnival Monday but we were adamant to get out there early to ensure mission success after the trip old Highgate Station ended in failure. Aside from FJ and I, Femi and Matteo joined us – both of whom I’ve met through the internet. The latter I met almost a decade ago through forums, imagine telling your friends that you made friends through the internet back then, you’d be made fun of. Oh how times have changed.

Lord knows it was way too early on a national holiday, the place was a ghost town. FJ picked Matteo and I up from North Greenwich station which is approximately 7 minutes from Woolwich. The Co-Op is on Powis Street, the main High Street of the town along with a few similar looking Art Deco buildings including the Bingo.

Before we parked up, we drove past the buildings back entrance to see if there was still access. Considering how early it was on a Bank Holiday, no one should be around but behind the construct barriers I spotted moving feet. After our last urban exploration mission fail, I was slightly worried about this one going down the same lane.

Boom. We were in, opened the barriers and no one was in sight. I’m pretty sure there were in one of the demolition team’s portable offices on site but we managed to slip through with some ease. According to Google insight, the local council had given the go ahead to a company to come in and renovate the building to turn it into luxury apartments. So there have been demolition workers there since May clearing out all the contents which is a damn shame as they’ve removed a lot of the beautiful Art Deco interior that I was hoping to capture. Alas, the derelict remains of a once booming consumer co-operative movement was exciting to capture.

A bit of background on the location, the Co-operative movement was a key part of this country’s social history. It’s when the working class came together to pioneer ventures where groups of workers came together as a community to pave way for shops, businesses, houses and welfare with a view to benefit everyone which eventually turned it a trading business that served everyone’s needs from all aspects of working class life from cradle to grave. It was a big screw you to the upper class as it was owned and run by the people it served.

Woolwich played a key part in the movement with the first co-operative corn mill over 3 centuries ago, a decade or so before the founding fathers of the movement were even born. The Royal Arsenal Co-Operative Society (RACS) was founded in 1868 through the support of 20 workers from Royal Arsenal. Each of them had pledged to put in a £1 share which is now nothing but back then, that was a hella lot of money. It soon became the number one co-op society in the south with nearly 7,000 members and an annual turnover of £126,000.

Notice the Art Deco style Co-op in the staircase frame? Beautiful.

The whole movement wasn’t just about trading and making money, it was all for the benefit of the social dimension. The British working class was standing up and coming together a s community to become employers and job creators. 2.5% of RACS’ trading profit went to the education of its members through lectures, evening courses and the use of an internal reading rooms and library. Education for social change, a socialist approach to many issues.

“Education has been used for all manner of purposes, some social, some anti-social. Education has been used to preserve social systems, as it has been used to overthrow them…. (We) must press forward with the work of preparing the minds of children, young people, grown-up men and women for vast social and economic changes, which the application of the principles of Co-operation to human affairs involves.”


Right, I’ve started the tale of RACS so I should complete it before letting y’all continue with the photo story. The society continued to grow through the 19th and 20th century with avenues in production, distribution, housing and even political premise with direct support for the working-class representation in Labour Party‘s campaign in Woolwich. By the late 1970′s, RACS was in trouble despite its 500,000+ members that it had built up over the years, the greater competition from supermarket chains like Sainsbury’s were changing the way society shopped. It’s structure made it easier to adapt and expand across the nation whereas the society’s democratic ownership made it slow to adapt which in the end led to its demise.

Membership numbers declined so did the reserves and dividend payments, which was the Co-operative movements major selling point. Helping and providing the working class. To avoid complete collapse, RACS merged with the Co-operative Wholesale Society – many of their supermarkets and funeral homes remain as Co-op outlets to this day.

Sigh. The remains of what is left. By the time we made it to this floor, we started hearing more and more voices down below at the demolition site so we were tip toeing around the place trying to avoid stepping on any of the metal frames that’d result in clanging noises. There’s just something about derelict spaces that make it exciting to photograph, must be the part adrenaline rush you get from being all MGS Snake like with the stealth movements.

Wish we came down a few months earlier, this would have been the wood panelled boardroom.

The Team. Follow their journeys.




Y’all wanted to see a photograph of me for a change. There you go, two photographs above are by Matteo Scaglione. You can check out Femi’s set from the adventure here.

Clean white converses. Risky move.

All that is left. I wonder what’s in the safe.

Portrait posing on the left. The right, beautiful hand-drawn typography – I love it. Nice to see that it’s still intact.

We made it. Started from the bottom now we here! there wasn’t much to shoot on the roof, a few random tower block buildings, no way up to the top of the main tower as it’s all been boarded off. The lift drop was a bit scary, I couldn’t even bring myself to get close to the edge and take a shot.

We headed back down, bumped into a few demolition workers who were confused by why we were there. Explained that we were taking photographs, they were fine with it and just went about minding their own business. On to more mischievous things as we headed down to an empty floor to set off a smoke grenade and guess what? The ring pull came out and it didn’t work. EPIC FAIL. Those photographs would have been the icing on the cake.

As we headed back down, we bumped into another demolition guy at the ground floor stairway. He stood and stared at us for about 30 seconds, completely puzzled and shocked to see us. Eventually followed us out of the building till he informed his mate ‘George‘ about us, who told us never to return. Oh we’ve been done it already, no reason to return. Mission accomplished.

What’s next on the agenda? A Freemason school. Lots of prayer and protection needed for that one. Hold tight folks!

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