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Sainsbury’s Christmas turkey advert c.1970

Talking Turkey at Christmas

Many families across the UK will be tucking into a turkey this Christmas, unaware of the illustrious journey this bird has undertaken to become one of Britain’s most enthusiastically observed Christmas traditions.

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Christmas Turkey Display, Forest Hill, c.1910

The Early Bird

Turkeys were brought to British shores in 1526 when William Strickland, an intrepid navigator of the time, imported six wild turkeys into the port of Bristol.

Turkeys were an instant success with the British public, especially the upper classes; they were considered extremely exotic and initially came with an equally exotic price tag. They did, however, contain far more meat than birds of a comparable size and possessed a unique taste that struck a chord with the British pallet.

While turkey remained popular and became increasingly affordable throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn't until the 19th century, during the Victorian era, that it really became synonymous with Christmas dinner. Previously, roast beef and roast goose had formed the centrepiece of most Christmas dinner tables.

Sainsbury's knew that most pre-1930s families didn't have access to personal refrigerators and so perishable items such as turkeys had to be purchased as late as possible. Sainsbury's would arrange for its turkeys to be delivered to stores one week before Christmas, causing an enormous surge in trading the following week as families were eager to find their prize festive fowl.

To ensure the turkeys stayed as fresh as possible, they arrived in stores 'rough plucked' with soft feathers attached and giblets still inside. It fell to the junior colleagues to 'clean-pluck' the birds ensuring they were in perfect condition for the famous shop front displays.

Inside the stores, birds were hung in order of size along rails usually reserved for bacon. Outside, up to 250 birds were hung, row after row, until the entire shop fascia was covered. Once a customer had selected their bird, it was the poulterers job to dress and truss the turkey, sealing it in a brown paper bag with a greaseproof lining ready for collection or delivery.

Preparing the Shop for Christmas, c. 1940

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Timeless Turkey: A British Institution, c. 2010

Timeless Turkey: A British Institution

By the 1950s, farming methods had advanced sufficiently enough to make turkeys relatively inexpensive and readily available across Britain. 

Home refrigeration became widespread and customers were able to purchase turkeys weeks in advance of Christmas. In turn, Sainsbury’s would stock the birds in greater numbers at an earlier date to satisfy the demand.

Sainsbury’s had long since introduced the British Norfolk Black Turkey to its range when the Victorians showed a particular penchant for the breed. Its rich and juicy breast meat, combined with a unique texture, made it a family favourite. Its popularity has grown to the present day - in 2012, 90,000 Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference Norfolk Black Turkeys were sold out of 450,000 British turkeys in total. 

Sainsbury’s commitment to animal welfare and responsible sourcing means it acquires these turkeys from small farms in Norfolk where the birds are free to roam amongst perches and straw bales, allowing them to lead a more natural life.