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The people who keep the stores ticking

The backbone of Sainsbury’s has always been made up of extraordinary people. Each and every one has helped to create Britain’s best loved supermarket.

When the first dairies opened in London, opening hours in the market streets were long. Colleagues would live on site, so there was someone ready to serve customers at almost any hour of the day or night.

In the late 19th Century, people would often work 80 to 100 hours a week, with a typical working day beginning at 7.30am with a uniform inspection. Trading ended at 9.15pm on weekdays and 10.45pm on Fridays.

Saturday was the busiest day of the week: many people were paid on a Saturday evening, so shops stayed open into the early hours of Sunday morning. People would head into the stores still drinking from the tankards that they carried from the pubs. Shutters would be pulled down before midnight, but trading continued as long as there were customers to serve. As the last customer left, the shop would be scrubbed down from top to bottom ready for Monday morning.

Male staff and shop managers would ‘live in’, and housekeepers would cook meals, clean uniforms and bed linen, and help take care of younger colleagues. Some of them needed looking after: one housekeeper, Alma Clark, remembered a boarder putting his electric trouser press is his bed so that it was warm when he returned from an evening out. “The smell of burning wool and mattress lasted for a long time,” she said.

There were gender divides. In the 19th Century, young men aged between 18 and 25 held most roles working with customers. Adverts would appeal for ‘Tall, well-educated youths’ and ‘keen young men’. Women - often widows or older women - would mainly work as cooks and housekeepers.

Sainsbury’s continued offering people a place to live into the 20th Century, as colleagues would travel from Yorkshire, Devon and Wales to work for the company, especially during the economic depression of the 1920s and 30s.

In the ‘A Career for Your Boys’ recruitment booklet in the 1930s, it said: ‘'The accommodation at the Branches, although simply furnished, is light, airy and comfortable, and includes a library for the use of the staff; in fact, the Directors of the firm have catered for the comfort of the staff in every way.”

Edward Kitchingham joined the business in 1943. He remembers living in a company hostel: “Housekeepers were like Gold Dust. I remember one there was an ex-showgirl (at least 40 years earlier). She must have been 70 years old,” he remembers

In 1950, the Shop Act reduced trading - and working - hours. Sunday trading stopped, and only one late opening was allowed each week, until 9pm. The five-day trading and working week was introduced in 1961, and stores opened from Tuesday to Saturday. By 1981, all Sainsbury’s shops opened from Monday to Saturday.

The business has almost gone full circle and returned to the trading hours it kept a century ago - though 100 years on, colleagues aren’t expected to be at work for all of them. The 1994 Sunday Trading Act saw the supermarket return to seven day openings, and from June 1997, some of the larger stores experimented with 24-hour opening.

Historically, the most junior role was that of egg boy. Huge crates of 360 eggs needed testing for freshness by candling – which involved holding a candle in front of an egg to see inside it. It was also seen as a test of honesty: one boy was sacked for cracking dozens of eggs, and then selling them to his friends. Another junior role was working as a delivery boy. People could make their way up through the ranks, especially with training.

The company has always believed in training people well. It was the first shopping chain to set up a training school, in 1915 in Blackfriars. It was first used to train female colleagues during wartime, giving them a fortnight of ‘off the job’ preparation. Later, it was used to train all young people, and was so successful that other retailers started advertising for ‘Sainsbury’s trained men’. Trainees would be taught how to cut bacon into 15 different thicknesses; balancing the scales and dividing butter from a block into half-pound packs using our ‘Method of Wiring’.

Sainsbury’s continues to provide high quality training. In 1974, an apprenticeship scheme launched for our new in-store bakeries. Thirty-two years later, in 2006, the company pioneered a new, GNVQ-recognised bakery scheme to address the problem of falling numbers of trained bakers in the country. In the same year, the supermarket began a partnership with Mencap Workright to support people with learning disabilities to achieve permanent employment.

The rise of women in store

While Mary Ann Sainsbury played a crucial role in running the first stores, it took a long time for many women to take on management roles. Out of necessity, women kept stores trading during the First World War, as so many men were called to fight. By the end of the war, 39 women - many wives or sisters of former managers - were running branches. While a few kept their senior positions, most were paid off or demoted.

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1915 First Female Employees

As the business continued to expand during the 1920s and 30s, new grocery departments meant new jobs for women. But it was just a dozen years after women had won the right to vote in Britain, and there was no suggestion of equality in society.

Sainsbury’s was progressive: women working in the stores would leave their jobs when they got married and were paid a lump sum as a dowry. Wages for women were much lower than for men. In 1920, Junior Male Assistants aged 20 received 40 shillings a week, while their female equivalents were paid almost half, at 23 shillings.


During the Second World War, many women rose through the ranks, taking jobs vacated by men. There were slightly different expectations: while male employees were expected to be able to add up in their heads, notepads were provided for women.

In 1945, when peace reigned once more across Europe, the rules on married women working were never reinstated. National service for men helped keep women in employment, and many new part time jobs came from the introduction of self-service stores in the 1950s. Many women, both married and single, took on these roles. Women worked as checkout operators, shelf fillers – or ‘gondola girls’ as they were called then - or took responsibility for wrapping and pricing food. By 1968,11,000 of the 28,000 employees worked part time and most were women.

Between 1970 and 1975, equal pay was introduced for women and men. But it was still a long road to equality. In 1981, the company appointed its first female non-executive director, Jennifer Jenkins. A quarter of management positions were held by women at this time, despite making up two thirds of the workforce. In 1989 a ’career bridge’ scheme was introduced, which allowed women to take a break of up to five years without losing benefits.