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Store Highlight: 173 Drury Lane

A description of what it was like to shop in Sainsbury's first branch and the changes it went through before closing its doors for the last time in 1958

Store Highlight: 173 Drury Lane

When John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury moved into Drury Lane in 1869 there were more than two hundred shops in the street, around a quarter of which sold food. Drury Lane was a busy London street where there was plenty of custom from local working people.

Drury Lane was described by a journalist of the time as: 
‘an honest, hard working and thrifty thoroughfare... but between the churches of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Clement Dane's an amazing amount of beggary, destitution, profligacy, vice and downright villainy hides its many-headed misery.’

The premises at number 173 had previously been occupied by Thomas Skivens, described in differed editions of Kelly's Post Office Street Directory as a 'butcher' or a 'greengrocer'. Skivens appears initially to have sublet the shop to John James. It was not until December 1874 that the latter signed a lease with the freeholder, the Reverent T H B Baker. The annual rent for 173 Drury Lane was around £128, and the rates a further nine guineas.

The house had five floors which included the shop, an attic and a basement, where the food for the shop was stored. The Sainsbury family's living conditions must have been cramped, as the 1871 census records that they shared the premises with three other families.

John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury's declared aim was to have 'the best butter in London'. When they first opened they only sold three products: eggs, milk and butter. Milk consumption was on the increase due to the growing popularity and affordability of tea. Sarah Pullen, one of the couple's first employees, later recalled how 'it was Mrs Sainsbury who made the shop famous for the quality of its butter. She was always up very early in the morning and took great pride in the cleanliness of the shop.' 

The couple made a shrewd business decision in deciding to open a dairy shop. At this time milk was gaining in popularity as the habit of drinking strong sweet tea was taking over the traditional pint of ale. Shops in Drury Lane which competed with Sainsbury's included two dairies, five cheesemongers, two cowkeepers - who would have sold milk from cows kept on the premises - and an egg salesman. Producing milk from cows kept in city backyards or basements was very unhygienic. By contrast, the Sainsburys sold 'Railway Milk' which was supplied daily from the farms of Devon, Dorset and East Anglia by specialist milk trains. To aid the desire to keep the store clean and to sell the best produce the shop was tiled from floor to ceiling and marble counter tops were installed where goods were sold. This kept the branch clean and hygienic, as well as helping to keep temperatures down in summer.

It was hardly surprisingly that the Sainsburys' style of trading proved popular with customers and in 1873 they were able to open a second shop at 159 Queen's Crescent, Kentish Town. In 1920 the Sainsbury family were able to purchase the freehold of 173 Drury Lane outright. When this was complete John James chided his son, John Benjamin, for making a business decision based only on sentimentality.

The original branch continued to trade until 1958 when the business recognised that the tiny shop, with only one counter, was too small to keep up with the demand from a more modern customer. At that time the trade consisted of office workers, actors and residents of the nearby Peabody buildings. It is said that the actors from The Opera House came in in their make-up and with coats on over their tights. They apparently caused so much of a stir that the female staff were not allowed to serve them! Sainsbury's built a larger self service branch across the street at 24-25 Drury Lane to enable them to stock more goods and serve customers more efficiently and on the 10th of November that year 173 pulled down it's shutters for the last time.