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Women at work

On the home front

The two World Wars changed British life – in some ways, irreversibly. Men were called up to fight, women took their jobs, and rationing meant that food was limited. Sainsbury’s stores saw an impact from the wars, just as the rest of the country did.

First World War

When the First World War broke out, Sainsbury’s workforce was mainly men. Many colleagues - young men aged between 18 and 25 – were enlisted to join the army. In Norwich, manager Raymond Asdye and his deputy had to run their shop alone, when everyone else working in the store was enlisted at the same time. Bulletins reminded people to give six days’ notice of enlistment.

With a depleted workforce, stores started recruiting saleswomen. At this time, women didn’t have the right to vote: the fight for gender equality hadn’t even started. Female colleagues were initially given simple tasks, such as packaging groceries. They weren’t allowed to wear jewellery or keep their hair loose, but unlike their male counterparts, they were provided with chairs.

Sainsbury’s set up a training centre at the Blackfriars headquarters, giving new recruits a fortnight’s training. By 1915, some stores were composed entirely of women and boys too young to fight.  

By the end of the First World War, there were 39 female branch managers, many of whom were wives or sisters of former managers. While a few retained senior positions when the war came to an end, most were paid off or demoted.

After the war, Sainsbury’s opened its first grocery departments. This created new opportunities for unmarried women (women who got married had to leave work and were paid a lump sum ‘dowry’). In 1920, unmarried women were paid just over half the salary of male employees: junior male assistants were paid 40 shillings a week, while their female counterparts were paid 23 shillings.

No one knows exactly how many men who worked in stores served in the First World War. It is estimated that around 500 were killed and, on average, each of the 128 branches lost four colleagues.

Second World War

At the beginning of the Second World War, managers, butchers and warehousemen aged 30 or over were given reserved status so they were exempt from conscription.

The day after war was declared in 1939, there was an urgent recruitment drive. A bulletin to all managers said: ‘Unless we enrol an enormous number of women within the next few weeks, there is a strong possibility that in a few months as our male staff begin to go we shall find it very difficult to carry on.’

Women who’d worked for Sainsbury’s before marrying formed teams of experienced potential staff; preference was also given to wives of existing employees. However, call-up was slower than imagined and rationing introduced more slowly than expected. Trade also slumped as many women and children were evacuated to safer areas.

The wage bill rose by £100,000 per week (the equivalent of £5 million today) as sales fell. Just months later, the stores had to lay off many new recruits – though with assurances they’d be the first to be called upon again if needed. Sainsbury’s general managers believed the recruitment drive would prove successful in the long run, as a ‘trained body of women, not a make-shift staff’ would prove important.

In May 1941, managers’ reserved status was raised to 35, and in January 1942, reserved status was abolished altogether. The following month, call-up was extended to all single women aged 20 or 21. It was time to hold another recruitment drive.

As the government took control of food supply, Sainsbury’s competitive edge came from colleagues’ skills. Female recruits received on-the-job instruction from men they were to replace. This meant customers got to know them and could see the transition for themselves.

Some allowances were made: while male employees were expected to be able to add up in their heads, notepads were provided for women. In a letter to National Service colleagues in 1940, Alan Sainsbury wrote: ‘Many of these women have children and homes to care for and taking this into consideration, they are doing a grand job of work’.

Female colleagues were given mentors, and personally paid by managers so problems could be discussed in private. During flying bomb raids, when many schools closed, women were allowed to bring their children to work. Managers were told to be understanding of wartime conditions, from lost sleep during raids to damaged home and, in particular, bereavement.

On 8 May, 1945, when war in Europe was over, John Benjamin Sainsbury wrote to all colleagues on National Service, saying: ‘To all of you who… have by your individual exertions and sacrifices made possible the successful conclusion of the first part of this great task… we send this expression of our deep and lasting gratitude’.


A Roll of Honour booklet was produced listing 280 colleagues who gave their lives during the Second World War. A war memorial was created at the Stamford House headquarters on 29 November, 1950, which is now located at Sainsbury’s Holborn offices.

Air raid training

During the First World War, one store was damaged. The shop at 168, High Road, Streatham in south London was bombed by a Zeppelin in an air raid in 1916.

In September 1939, when war was declared once again, air raid procedures were sent to branch managers. They were instructed to close shops during an air raid and direct customers to the nearest ARP shelter.

In reality, many customers stayed, sheltering in the basement on benches made from egg stall boards. When shops had no basement, ‘quite good cover is to be had beneath the counter or the back shelf’.

In September 1939, when war was declared once again, air raid procedures were sent to branch managers. They were instructed to close shops during an air raid and direct customers to the nearest ARP shelter.

In reality, many customers stayed, sheltering in the basement on benches made from egg stall boards. When shops had no basement, ‘quite good cover is to be had beneath the counter or the back shelf’.

Church shopping

On 9 July 1943, the high street of East Grinstead was bombed, setting off 500 gallons of paraffin. One hundred and eight people died, one of the highest civilian losses in any raid. The rear of the London Road store collapsed. Sainsbury’s continued serving the community from the disused Wesleyan Chapel on the same road. 

In 1944, the store was completely destroyed by a V1 bomb. The ‘shop in a church’ continued to trade until 1951 when a new self-service store was opened.

Threat of invasion

Sainsbury’s created a contingency plan in case of invasion. Branch managers within 30 miles of the coast were told to requisition a branch van, and take cash and valuables to an alternative branch or depot.

Instructions included: ‘Do your best to persuade the powers that be of the necessity of keeping your own transport to move goods from the shop which would be of value to the enemy. If the roads are blocked you must use your own initiative.’


Before the Great War, three quarters of butter, cheese, eggs and bacon consumed in the UK was imported. As soon as war was declared in 1914, notices in all branch windows told regular customers that Sainsbury’s would keep supplying them – and warning them against hoarding. All the same, worried customers joined lengthy queues to stock up on the basics.

Panic buying pushed up the prices of imported provisions, including sugar and butter. Managers were instructed not to sell more than two pounds of sugar to anyone. Sainsbury’s ran an advertising campaign for Crelos, the ‘delicious, digestible and economic’ own-brand margarine.

Rationing was introduced for sugar in 1917, and for butter and margarine in 1918. Stores were threatened with prosecution several times for selling goods at prices below those set by the Board of Trade. Long queues formed when high demand goods arrived.

During the Second World War, Sainsbury’s set up its own rationing department at the London head office. In November 1939, families were instructed by the Ministry of Food to register with a retailer before rationing was introduced.

Goods were rationed at different times and in different ways. Butter, bacon and sugar were rationed in January 1940, followed by meat and preserves in March 1940. Tea, margarine and cooking fats followed in July 1940 and cheese in 1941.

Rationing was complex: sugar, bacon, butter, cheese and cooking fats were rationed by weight. Jam and other preserves were rationed as a group so customers could choose whether to buy jam, marmalade or syrup. At some points in the war they could 'swap' jam for extra sugar.


Sainsbury’s introduced a 'Fair Shares' scheme to ensure that goods in short supply - such as sausages, cake, meat pies, blancmanges and custard powder - were distributed evenly. Many customers found the long queues for un-rationed items frustrating. Sainsbury’s staff bulletin said: ‘The knack of keeping happy those customers who are waiting is one of the greatest gifts which a saleswoman can possess’.

Colleagues couldn’t talk openly about deliveries. Doris Challis, who worked as a sales assistant at Sainsbury's during the Second World War said: ‘'Talking back slang amongst the staff was very important. One could not say in front of customers, sugar has just been delivered, or bacon etc. It has to be RAGUS for sugar, RETTUB for butter, NOCAB for bacon etc.' Packaging changed too, to reduce paper by halving the size of labels on cans.

Jams and preserves became the first products to be taken off the ration list in December 1948, but it wasn’t until bacon and meat came off on 3rd July 1954 that wartime restrictions were finally over.