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John James, Mary Ann with their family c 1890

A family business

When John James Sainsbury and his wife Mary Ann Staples opened their first dairy shop, they could not have imagined the legacy they would leave. The couple, then aged 24 and 19, were taking the first footsteps on a journey to create the best loved supermarket in Britain.

They started their business at 173 Drury Lane, in Holborn, central London, determined to offer fresh, quality food at prices everyone could afford. According to company legend – or possibly urban myth – their first day of trading was 20 April 1869, the day of their wedding. As newlyweds, they shared their home above their shop with three other families.

It was Mary Ann who ran the shop for the first few weeks, while her husband worked out his notice at Gillet’s grocery. While many people trading in London sold watered-down milk or unclean food, Mary Ann dreamed of offering the “best butter in London”.

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First Female Employees, 1915

First Female Employees, 1915

Sarah Pullen, one of the couple’s early employees, told the Evening Standard in 1928:

“Mrs. Sainsbury was always up very early in the morning and took great pride in the cleanliness of the shop. She was very keen on serving behind the butter counter."

After four years in business, in 1873, the couple opened a new shop at 159, Queen’s Crescent in Kentish town. They moved to live above the store, which sold eggs, milk, butter and cheese. Two years later, they opened another branch at number 151 Queen’s Crescent, specialising in ham and bacon imported from Ireland and Denmark. As trade grew, in 1884 they opened a third branch on the same road, at number 98.

 

Mary Ann continued working in stores until the 1880s, when the family’s success meant she could become a lady of leisure. While she mainly stayed at home at the family’s new villa in Highgate, she continued to join John James on store inspections, almost until her death in 1927. John James and Mary Ann’s ambition was to open one shop for each of their 12 children.

The stores remained a family business throughout John James’s life. From 1915, he worked in partnership with his eldest son, John Benjamin. In 1922, John James became Chairman and Governing Director, positions he held until he died in 1928. According to folklore, John James’s last words were: ‘Keep the shops well lit’.

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John James Sainsbury with his six sons 1900

John James Sainsbury with his six sons 1900

The Second Generation

Of John James and Mary Ann’s 12 children, the six men became involved in the family business. Their eldest son, John Benjamin, was born above the dairy on Drury Lane and was trained from an early age to take over the business.

His first role was that of egg boy. He said: “I remember wearing a small white apron (made especially for me by my mother) to fill the position of Egg Boy in the shop on Saturdays. How proud I was to be able to bank out of my wage of one shilling and sixpence [7.5p] for services rendered.”

He worked across the business: taking responsibility for the bacon and ham departments; the buying of lamb and Ostend rabbits, and developing new shops. He kept scrupulously high standards and received weekly reports on each branch from a network of inspectors. Even during the Great War he insisted all food was clearly labelled.

In the 1920s and 30s, he played a key role in the growth of Sainsbury’s, visiting potential new store sites with his family at weekends. He became a director in 1922 and chairman in 1928, remaining in office until his death in 1956.

George, the couple’s second son, was also born at Drury Lane. He joined the family business in 1886 and took responsibility for the ‘office and counting house’, together with butter and cheese, cold storage poultry and game.

John James and Mary Ann’s third son, Frank, was not excited about following in the family footsteps. He was sacked as branch manager at 18/20 Seven Sisters Road, Holloway, after his father caught him riding a bicycle around the shop. He was sent to work on a family friend’s farm, for a trial. It was so successful that in 1902 John James set Frank up on his own farm at Blunts Hall, near Haverhill, Suffolk.

Frank supplied the business with eggs and poultry, later establishing an egg collection scheme in East Anglia. Eggs were collected from local farms, tested and then packed at Blunts Hall. He also supplied meat for sausages and cooked pork products.

The couple’s fourth son, Arthur, became provisions buyer, which meant buying goods including butter, pork and eggs. He managed the kitchens that made own-label pies, sausages and cooked meats. In 1922, he was made a director.

Alfred, the fifth son, was responsible for the grocery department, which included packaged goods including tea, sugar and canned foods. He was also made a director in 1922.

The youngest of the six brothers, Paul, was born in 1890, almost twenty years after his eldest brother. He trained as an architect before managing building development within the business.

The Third Generation 

Alan Sainsbury, grandson of John James and first son of John Benjamin, joined the company aged 17. The year was 1921 and he worked alongside his uncles as a buyer. It was a responsible job, and one held only by Sainsbury family members at the time. He became a company director in 1933 and Joint General Manager with his brother Robert in 1938. In 1956, he was made Chairman, then President in 1967. Alan Sainsbury was named Baron Sainsbury of Drury Lane in 1962.

His younger brother, Robert, joined the business in 1930 and became a director in 1934. He shared the responsibilities of Joint General Manager, looking after accounts, personnel and administration from 1938. He became Chairman in 1967 and then President in 1969. Robert Sainsbury was knighted in 1967.

James Sainsbury was the son of Arthur, and joined the company in his late teens. He was responsible for the development of Haverhill Meat Products, based at his Uncle Frank’s farm business. He became a director in 1941.

 

The Fourth Generation

Born in 1927, John Davan Sainsbury – son of Alan Sainsbury and great grandson of John James – served national service and studied at university before coming to work for the business in 1950. In 1951, he became a biscuit buyer and was quickly promoted.

Mr JD, as he was known, became a bacon buyer in 1956. He piloted the production of sweetcure bacon at Haverhill abattoir in Suffolk. He championed the development of Sainsbury’s own range of products, and personally approved all packaging designs.

In 1980, he received a knighthood for his services to the food industry.

He was made a director in 1958, Deputy Chairman on his father's retirement in 1967, then Chairman and Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s in 1969. In 1979 he was appointed marketing advisor to then Minister of Agriculture, Peter Walker.

It was under John Davan that the company evolved from a middle-sized grocery chain to become a household name and Britain’s best loved supermarket. In 1991, former managing director Sir Roy Griffiths said: ‘No senior member of a family ever cherished the family traditions more closely.”

He was made Baron Sainsbury of Preston Candover in 1989, and became a Knight of the Garter and Life President of Sainsbury’s in 1992.

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The Queen Mother and Mr JD Sainsbury at Cromwell Road 1985

The Queen Mother and Mr JD Sainsbury at Cromwell Road 1985

Today

The Sainsbury family maintains a close interest in their legacy. Today Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover KG is Life President of Sainsbury’s, though he is not directly involved with the day-to-day management of the business.

The family is also involved in the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, where 18 grant-making trusts established by three generations of the family operate from. The trusts’ donations to charitable causes over decades represent a leading example of philanthropy in Britain.