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John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury and Family c.1890

Sainsbury’s Humble Beginnings: 1869-1900

When, in 1869, a young couple of 19 and 24 set up a small dairy shop in a small property they rented on London’s Drury Lane, no one could have predicted that this would go on to become a nation-wide retailer, known to families right across the country.

But this young couple were Mary Ann Staples, daughter of a dairy shop owner, and John James Sainsbury, son of a craftsman from Lambeth (pictured here in the 1890s).

Their first shop is said to have opened on 20th April 1869, the day they married.

Success was never far behind John James and Mary Ann, who opened a second store on Queen’s Crescent, Kentish Town only four years later in 1873 - an impressive achievement at the time. Kentish Town had only recently become part of London and was growing quickly. There were not enough shops to supply the rapidly growing number of households, so the shop was a welcome addition for families in the area. The new Sainsbury’s shop did well and two more stores were opened on the same road in 1875 and 1881. 

In 1882, they purchased their first shop on the busy market road of Chapel Street, Islington. This year saw the first shop opening outside of London too, in the rapidly growing town of Croydon. The area was well-off and well-connected, with eleven different train stations. This led John James to quickly turn the Croydon store into a model store in the autumn of the same year. 

This store, with its extravagant fittings and impeccable cleanliness, proved so popular that they opened a number of other Croydon stores soon afterwards. Quite a few of these were specialist stores, including a pork butchers which introduced Sainsbury’s own sausages to the public - with great success. 

By 1896 the shops in the area were doing so well that the original shop expanded out into neighbouring premises. These luxury stores drove Sainsbury’s growth massively and allowed them to offer an even greater range of products in stores in poorer areas too.

The video below is a modern take on what life was like between 1869-1900. It was undoubtedly a simpler time in many ways, but also a time of great transition. Sainsbury's were expanding with new and exciting ventures at this time, but all the while remaining faithful to their core brand values.

1869-1900: Quality Perfect, Price Lower

From the earliest days of Sainsbury’s, John James and Mary Ann cared about the quality of the produce they sold.

While many people in London sold watered down milk or unclean food, Mary Ann dreamed of having the "best butter in London".

One of the couple’s first colleagues, Sarah Pullen, recalled “Mrs Sainsbury... made the shop famous for the quality of its butter. She was always up very early in the morning and took great pride in the cleanliness of the shop”.

In 1882, Sainsbury’s started to offer its own brand products at its stores for the first time. This was a year of great change for Mr and Mrs Sainsbury, as they established the company’s first depot on Allcroft Road, near the shops in Kentish Town, where goods from suppliers could be stored in greater quantities than before. With the addition of its own bacon-smoking stoves at the same location, this represented Sainsbury’s first foray into producing its own goods for sale.

The whole aim of this was to find a way of providing goods cheaper than other retailers, without compromising the quality. John James went a long way to ensure the freshness of products, even insisting that the butter from his Dutch suppliers was stamped with the date it was made - an innovative move at the time, which the Dutch government later made compulsory.

It was around this time that Sainsbury’s adopted its first slogan, "Quality perfect, prices lower”. This attitude has remained to this day and these ideals are reflected in our motto, “Live well for less”.