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Long Read

A Family Business

When, in 1869, a young couple of 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.

First Generation

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. They started their business at 173 Drury Lane, in Holborn, central London, determined to offer fresh, quality food at prices everyone could afford.

SA/FAM/1/IMA/1/7 - Photograph of John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury, [1896]
John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury

According to company legend – or possibly urban myth – their first day of trading was 20 April 1869, the day of their wedding. When they married John James was twenty- four and Mary Ann just nineteen. It is possible that the Drury Lane shop opened earlier than this but the choice of the young couple’s wedding day as the founding date recognises the equal part played by Mary Ann in contributing to the success of the business. 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”.

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 initial 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’.

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.

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.

SA/FAM/2/IMA/1/3 - Photograph of JB Sainsbury with his wife Mabel
John Benjamin Sainsbury

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.

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Photograph of egg department staff SA/PRO/FAR/14

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.

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The Sainsbury Family

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.

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Alan Sainsbury

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.

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Robert Sainsbury

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.

SA/FAM/15/9/1 - Portrait photograph of James Sainsbury by Lotte Meitner-Graf
James Sainsbury

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.

SA/FAM/5/IMA/2/1 - Photograph of JD Sainsbury with woman carrying out bacon quality control, 1957
John Davan Sainsbury testing bacon

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 national supermarket giant.

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.

SA/FAM/5/IMA/4/1 - Photograph of JD Sainsbury at Cromwell Road branch, London, 1984
John Davan Sainsbury in a store

Simon Sainsbury was Alan’s second son and brother of John Davan. He began working for the company in 1956 and was appointed Director of Financial Policy and Personnel in 1959. He became Deputy Chairman on his uncle Robert Sainsbury’s retirement in 1969. Simon continued to oversee financial, personnel and administrative aspects of the business until his retirement in 1979.

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Simon Sainsbury

Timothy Sainsbury, the third son of Alan, joined his brothers at Sainsbury’s in 1956. In 1959 he became deputy to Fred Salisbury (the first non-Sainsbury director of the company). He was appointed Director of Estates, Architects and Engineers in 1962.  Within this role, he accomplished the important task of converting all the remaining counter service shops to self-service, and modernising the earlier self-service shops. Timothy Sainsbury held various government posts between 1983 and 1994 and was knighted in 1995, when he returned to Sainsbury’s as a non-executive Director.

SA/FAM/7/1/1 - Photograph of Timothy Sainsbury
Timothy Sainsbury

David Sainsbury is the son of Robert Sainsbury, grandson of John Benjamin and great-grandson of John James. He joined the company in 1963 and played a major part in managing Sainsbury’s financial operations. In 1971 he was made a director and Financial Controller, and then in 1973 became Finance Director. David became Deputy Chairman in 1988 and Chairman in 1992.  David Sainsbury was the last family member to work for the company. His retirement from Sainsbury’s in 1998 concluded 129 years of management by the Sainsbury family.  David Sainsbury was created Baron Sainsbury of Turville in 1997.

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David Sainsbury