Main MenuSainsbury's Our Future History Main Logo

Living Archive

Social Menu
View Asset
Kentish Town

From dairy store to national supermarket

It started with a single dairy shop trading on Drury Lane in central London. Now Sainsbury’s has more than 1,200 stores nationwide. We take a look at the nation’s best-loved supermarket’s incredible journey across the country.

Sainsbury’s stores can now be found right across Britain, from Local shops where we can pop in to pick up supplies, to giant supermarkets with huge car parks. A century and a half ago, the country looked very different.

Victorian London was the world’s largest city, home to 3.2 million people in 1861. Trading took place at street markets, and the flow of people through market streets made them ideal for the early shops. The first Sainsbury’s stores in Drury Lane, Kentish Town, Islington and Stepney were small, often under 500 square feet. To increase sales, they traded through open windows and from stalls outside - which also worked to advertise the goods inside.

The first store opened at 173 Drury Lane, in 1869, one of more than 200 shops in the street. A cowkeeper lived at number 153, selling milk produced in the polluted city backyard. In contrast, John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury’s ‘railway milk’ came from farms in Devon, Dorset and East Anglia - helping with their wish to have ‘the best butter in London’.

View Asset
Chapel Street, Islington

Chapel Street, Islington

The Sainsbury’s family expanded the business through London. In 1882, John James Sainsbury opened the first Islington branch at 48 Chapel Street. The fascia board proclaimed: 'J. Sainsbury's Shilling Butter is the Best Value in the World. Quality Perfect, Prices Lower.' The store was so successful that he chose to expand the business. In 1887 he opened 51 Chapel Street, specialising in game and poultry - expensive luxuries were not usually available in working class areas. A provisions shop followed at number 76, in 1889, and a dairy at 441⁄2 Chapel Street in 1893.

It was not just central London that appealed to John James. In 1882, he opened in Croydon, the largest London suburb, with a population of 78,947 people. He took great care with the decoration of the shop, and counter-tops were made of Italian marble.

It was not just central London that appealed to John James. In 1882, he opened in Croydon, the largest London suburb, with a population of 78,947 people. He took great care with the decoration of the shop, and counter-tops were made of Italian marble.

Rivals said the store was too lavish, but the decorations were practical and hygienic. John James’ son John Benjamin later said: “The critics missed the point my father had in mind, and that was to produce a shop to ensure perfect cleanliness and freedom from the menace of all food shops in those days - mice and rats.”

The Croydon store stocked a wide range of cheese, cooked meats and poultry and game in season. A pork butchers followed on the same road: the first branch to sell own-brand sausages.

From Kentish Town to Balham, Stepney to Redhill, stores kept opening in London’s market streets and new suburbs. By 1903, there were 100 branches in and around the capital.

Expanding nationwide

In 1936, the company bought the Midlands-based Thoroughgoods shop chain, founded by Alfred Banton, who had first worked under John James. The business went bankrupt after Banton’s retirement, and Sainsbury’s reopened them – the company’s first move into Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and Northampton. In the 1960s, these stores were converted to self-service and in 1966, as the Midlands enjoyed high prosperity, the company opened stores across Birmingham.

Sainsbury’s expanded into the West Country in the 1970s, with stores in Bridgwater, Taunton and Exeter. The Exeter store was so popular that a coach company ran Christmas shopping trips for customers from Torbay.

In 1974, the northernmost branch to date was opened, in Doncaster. In-house magazine, JS Journal described it as “introducing Sainsbury’s southern charms into black pudding country”. Many colleagues had never heard of the supermarket before.

In November of the same year, the first Welsh store was opened in Cwmbran shopping precinct, offering food, health, kitchenware, stationery and homeware. It carried fresh Welsh lamb, and bread pudding made from a local recipe. Store manager Elwyn Davis described the opening as ‘Bendigedig’ - which he translated for non-Welsh speakers as ‘Wonderful, great, excellent all rolled into one’.

In the 1980s, Sainsbury’s became established as a truly national supermarket, opening branches across the north of England, south Wales, and into Scotland. The first store north of the border was the company’s sixth Savacentre hypermarket in Edinburgh in October 1984. It was 68,000 square feet. A decade later, the first Glasgow store opened its doors.

Ballymena became the first Northern Ireland shop, opening in December 1996. It stocked 900 local product lines, including Food Flair shortbread, and it became the first store to contain a branch of a bank, First Trust.

Location counts

Sites for all stores were carefully chosen. Central positions in shopping parades were selected, rather than corner locations which John James Sainsbury believed were ‘for banks’. Shops within a row were easier to keep clean and cool, while corners tended to collect dust from turning vehicles. In the 1930s, the development company Cheyne Investments built whole new shopping parades.

From 1946, the government named ‘New Towns’, which were designed to offer high quality housing, often for people spilling out of London. These towns were important for the expansion of the business, and in 1957 and 1958 self-service stores were opened in Crawley, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage.

Edge-of-town stores were trialed, opening on Coldham’s Lane, on the eastern edge of Cambridge, in December 1974. Shoppers needed to use a car to get to the store. On the day of opening, the 376-space car park was filled and long queues emerged outside the store, breaking all records for opening customer numbers.

Coldham’s Lane became the first store to take £1million in a single week and on two occasions in the 1990s it closed because it had become dangerously busy. Its popularity highlighted a shift in shopping patterns: cars meant customers could buy more in one trip.

In the 1980s, Sainsbury’s picked up redundant industrial sites in city centres, such as the 25,300 square feet Nine Elms store, beside the New Covent Garden Market. More than half of new stores in the 1980s were built on derelict land, whether inner city or edge-of-town. Use was made of existing historic buildings on these sites. The Wolverhampton branch incorporates a disused Victorian church, which now houses a coffee shop. The store in Streatham, South London is built inside a renovated listed silk mill.

Not simply Sainsbury’s

In 1975, Sainsbury’s partnered with British Home Stores to jointly launch Savacentre, inspired by giant hypermarkets in France, selling a huge range of goods. Then, in 1979, Sainsbury’s formed a joint company with Belgian DIY retailer GB-Inno-BM (GIB) to set up Homebase, a chain of house and garden DIY stores, the company’s first entirely non-food related business.

In 1998, the first Local store was piloted in Hammersmith, designed for customers who did not have time to do a full food shop. It was such a success that Local stores are now on hundreds of high streets across the country.

Behind the scenes 

To supply the growing number of stores, Sainsbury’s has always needed depots. In 1882, John James established the first depot at 90 Allcroft Road, near the Kentish Town shops. It provided warehouse space for butter, cheese and eggs; stables for delivery horses and office space and accommodation for a resident foreman. Later, bacon-smoking stoves were added to smoke Sainsbury’s own-brand bacon.

The central depot remained in London in the 20th Century. When the Midlands chain of Thoroughgoods shops were bought in 1936, those furthest from the depot had to be sold. The company’s distribution system was highly organised, but complicated and out-of-date. Goods were stacked by hand onto vans for delivery. Loading was a skilled job.

Keith Curtis, who worked at the Blackfriars depot in 1952, said: “I've been on night duty and seen a loader get it all on except for one box of eggs and he'd stand back and scratch his head, and start to get it off again and reload to get it all on somehow.” The loader would draw a sketch showing where the goods for each branch were placed in the lorry.

Today, the company has seven depots of its own, and contracted depots across the country that mean distribution can be spread far and wide.

The shopping experience.

Throughout the company’s expansion across Britain, attention has always been paid to detail, so shops are inviting to customers. Sainsbury’s has always recognised the importance of window displays, which were to be completed 'by 10 o'clock each morning, including Mondays'. At Christmas, rows of poultry would be hung up outside shops.

Hygiene has always been hugely important. The marble counters, tiled walls and counter fronts were scrubbed each day and tiles polished with ball whitening.

From the 1990s, stores started using traditional building materials, from reclaimed local stone in Macclesfield and Rhyl to flint cladding in Thetford. In 1999, the company was selected by English Partnerships to pioneer the UK's first 'low energy supermarket' at the millennium site in Greenwich. The futuristic design featured natural daylight, solar panels and wind turbines.



1869 – John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury open their first shop in Drury Lane

1873 – A second shop opens in Kentish Town

1881 – John James takes over a cheesemongers in Watney Street, Stepney, which had previously been run by Edward Staples, Mary Ann’s brother.

1882 – Another shop opens in Chapel Street, Islington

1882 – ‘Model shop’ opens in Croydon

1882 – First depot at Allcroft Road, Kentish Town

1888 – Store opens in the Exchange in Balham

1900 – First ‘country’ branch in Redhill

1936 – Acquisition of Thoroughgoods chain in the Midlands.

1950 – First self-service branch created in the Croydon store.

1954 – Sainsbury’s extends to South West London, through the acquisition of shops run by the Coppens brothers.

1974 – First edge of town store at Coldham’s Lane in Cambridge

1974 – First store in Yorkshire opens in Doncaster

1977 – First Savacentre at Washington, Tyne and Wear

1976 – First Welsh branch in Cwmbran

1976 – Devon’s first branch opens in Exeter

1981 – First Homebase store opens at Purley Way, Croydon

1989 – First supermarket in the North East in Middlesbrough

1992 – First Scottish branch at Darnley, Glasgow

1994 – Calais off-licence opens, taking Sainsbury’s across the Channel

1996 – First store in Northern Ireland opens at Ballymena

1996 – First store in Northern Ireland opens at Ballymena

1998 – First Sainsbury’s Local opened in Hammersmith