The Woolwich Equitable Building Society was founded in 1847 in the office of local solicitor, Frederick Pearce, at 145 Powis Street.
Meeting with Pearce were local businessmen William Suggitt and Charles Hicks; William Young, a draper; and Samuel Wates, Poor Relief Officer for Woolwich. The Society was formed to receive the savings of Woolwich people and to finance home ownership in the area, and was called the Woolwich Equitable Benefit Building and Investment Association.
Business was initially carried out from Pearce's office, and later from the home of the Secretary, Benjamin Wates, at 153 Powis Street. In November 1862, the Woolwich finally opened its first formal office at 131 Powis Street. In the 1870s, it opened its first agency in Peckham, and then later its first branch on the Old Kent Road. Building on a firm local reputation, the fledgling society survived to remain in the forefront of the 2,000-plus societies at the turn of the century. By 1914 its assets had grown to £1.4 million and its membership to 9,700.
At the beginning, the Woolwich had only employed one full-time permanent member of staff, the Secretary. However, its growth and expansion during the last quarter of the nineteenth century demonstrated the need for more staff. In 1912, the first female member of staff, Ethel Reading, was appointed, and the outbreak of World War One in 1914 with the subsequent loss of male staff to the Armed Forces, saw a sharp increase in the number of female staff. With the return of the men after the War many of the female staff left, although some were allowed to stay on as long as they were unmarried.
In 1923, the first Woolwich branch office was opened in the City of London. The house building boom of the 1920s and 1930s enabled the Society to expand rapidly: 14 branches were opened by the end of the 1920s and a further 24 added by the outbreak of World War Two. This expansion meant that the Woolwich had outgrown its old premises in Powis Street, despite extensions into adjoining buildings. In 1935, it moved to its newly-built headquarters, Equitable House in General Gordon Square.
Equitable House was completed in just fifteen months at a cost of around £120,000. The Directors took great delight in the fact that all the building materials and equipment used in the building were of British origin and manufacture, and were especially proud of the many modern devices installed to promote the efficient operation of the Society. These included pneumatic message tubes, a centralised vacuum cleaning plant, a chute connected to a post box on the lower ground floor from each of the floors above, and clocks throughout the building with numbers which could be made to light up by the switchboard operator to alert one of twelve senior staff that he was needed on the telephone. Notwithstanding the modern technology, there was also an effort to add a little prestige to the building, with counter-grilles made of silver-bronze, banking hall walls of grey Derbyshire marble, and panelling in the board room of English oak.
In the years before World War Two, staff numbers peaked at 575. The outbreak of World War Two saw staff numbers fall, and the Woolwich (like other employers) turned to women once again, and it was decided to relax the unmarried women only rule. For the duration of the War, the Woolwich moved its headquarters from Equitable House (located precariously close to the Arsenal and the docks) to Pilgrim House in Westerham, Kent.
Pilgrim House had originally been a farmhouse, but had been converted in to a boys' school in 1902. The Woolwich added a strongroom for their deeds store 100 feet below the building, installed central heating, an electricity generator, new toilets, a private sewage plant, and built dormitory huts for 140 staff that were moved out to Kent. Ironically, Pilgrim House was located quite close to Biggin Hill aerodrome and suffered 145 air raid alerts between September and November 1939. Meanwhile, Equitable House, although located in an area devastated by bombing, emerged from the War unscathed.
At the time of its centenary in 1947, the Woolwich had 43 branches, assets of over £50 million, and 600 staff. Keen to invest in its staff and to support those returning from the Armed Forces, the Woolwich embarked on a series of new selection and training schemes during the late 1940s and early 1950s. This meant that it was able to fill senior positions by promoting from within, rather than recruiting suitably qualified people from elsewhere. Modern technology, in the shape of Burroughs electrical accounting and calculating machines was beginning to make its presence felt, but generally, the processes involved within the Woolwich's departments remained very labour intensive. The mortgage department alone employed 100 people.
During the 1960s and 1970s, growth was rapid; as home ownership boomed, strong demand for mortgages enabled the Woolwich to establish itself as a truly national building society with high street branches throughout the United Kingdom. In 1965, the arrears, insurance, investment and mortgage departments moved to the Woolwich's new office at Bexleyheath. By 1970, the Woolwich employed 1,500 staff, half of them in its head offices, and the other half throughout its branch network of just over 100 offices. However, newly-appointed General Manager, Alan Cumming believed that the branches were over-staffed, and within a year, the number of branch staff had dropped by 25%.
Public awareness of the Woolwich was heightened in the early 1970s when it became the first building society to advertise on television, and later that decade screened the award-winning 'We're with the Woolwich' campaign. In 1979, the Woolwich led the way with another innovation, computerising its branch network with counter-top terminals online to its central computer, providing customers with updated information about their accounts.
In the 1980s, the Society was amongst the first to expand its operations into the London wholesale money markets with the issue of certificates of deposit, time deposits and floating rate notes. It was also the first building society to raise funds in the Deutsche Mark capital market. The 1970s and 1980s also saw the Woolwich take over or merge with a number of other building societies, including; Grays (1978), New Cross (1984), North Kent (1986), Property Owners (1986), and Gateway (1988).
In 1989, the Woolwich moved to its newly-built corporate headquarters in Bexleyheath. The former head office, Equitable House, became one of three administration centres. A year later, the word 'Equitable' was dropped from the name of the company, making it simply the Woolwich Building Society. In 1991, it offered a current account, and also joined forces with Sun Alliance to form Woolwich Life. The following year, it took over the Town and Country Building Society.
In 1993, thanks to a substantial investment in improving service levels across the network, the Woolwich became the first major financial institution to receive an Investor in People award. Branches were redesigned and staff were moved out from behind glass screens in order to provide a more personal service to customers. This modernisation process culminated with the Woolwich's conversion to a PLC in 1997. Three years later, attracted by the prospect of a ready-made mortgage business, Barclays PLC paid £5.4 billion for the Woolwich.
To a great extent, the Woolwich continued to operate as a separate entity within Barclays and the process of amalgamation was quite gradual. However, in 2007, Woolwich branches disappeared from British high streets as they were either closed (and their business transferred to the local Barclays branch), or transformed in to Barclays branches. The Woolwich name, however, lived on as Barclays mortgage business.