Meet the Sainsburys

john james sainsbury c1870
John James Sainsbury c1870.
Audio Clip. Laurie Holmes, Sainsbury's pensioner, describes meeting John James Sainsbury at High Barnet branch in c1921.
John James Sainsbury was born on 12th June 1844 at 5 Oakley Street, Lambeth. During his childhood his family moved house several times between rented rooms. The area in which they lived was close to the Thames wharves and to Waterloo station, which opened in 1848.

  John James started work at the age of 14. He may have stayed at school beyond the normal leaving age of 10 or 11, possibly helping out as a 'monitor'. His first job was with a grocer in the New Cut, Lambeth. From there he went on to gain experience with several other grocery businesses. 

When John James was eighteen, his father died and he took on the additional responsibility of helping to support his mother and two sisters. At the age of 24 he married Mary Ann Staples and they set up a dairy shop together at 173 Drury Lane, Holborn. The couple had probably saved a few pounds with which to buy shop equipment but their circumstances were extremely modest. They shared the cramped accommodation above the little shop with three other families.

Throughout his life John James avoided personal publicity and little evidence remains of his character. It is clear, however, that he had grown up in a poor family, as he was determined to offer pure food at prices everyone could afford. He was also a shrewd and energetic businessman and understood the opportunities offered by the growth of London for his trade.

Throughout John James’s life Sainsbury’s remained a family business. At the time of the firm’s incorporation in 1922 John James took on the title of Chairman and Governing Director, a position which he held until his death in 1928.

John James’s last words are said to have been 'Keep the shops well lit.'

mary ann sainsbury
Mary Ann Sainsbury c1890.
Mary Ann Staples was born on 30th June 1849 at 4 Little Charles Street, St Pancras. Her father, Benjamin Staples, was originally a woodcarver, but in 1863 he opened a small dairy shop at 87 Chalton Street, Somers Town, Euston. Mary Ann and her two younger brothers probably helped out in this shop, which in 1882 became part of the Sainsbury’s chain. 

At the time of her marriage to John James, Mary Ann was working in the dairy shop of a family friend, Tom Haile, at 32 Strutton Ground, Victoria. 

It is said that Mary Ann ran the shop at 173 Drury Lane by herself for the first few weeks it was open. This was probably so that she and her husband could rely on his wages while they built up their own trade. Sarah Pullen, who was one of the couple’s first employees later recalled:

Mrs Sainsbury was always up very early in the morning and took a great deal of pride in the cleanliness of the shop.

In 1873 the family moved to live above the second shop at 159 Queen’s Crescent, Kentish Town. The area in which this branch was located was newly developed and much less overcrowded than Drury Lane. Mary Ann continued to work in the shop, but her role diminished as the size of her family grew.

By the 1880s the firm’s success had made the Sainsbury family extremely prosperous. When the family moved again, in 1886, it was to a smart villa in the fashionable suburb of Highgate. Mary Ann was now devoting herself entirely to family life and none of her five daughters needed to enter the business. She continued to take an interest in the business, however and accompanied John James on inspections of the shops almost until her death in 1927.

On to the next generation.

Copyright J Sainsbury plc, 2000.