Women at War
Summarised version

Throughout the war, head office sent detailed bulletins to all of its branch managers advising them on how to deal with problems that arose. In this section we have reproduced the contents of those bulletins that dealt with the employment of single and married women in the Second World War. It gives a fascinating insight into developing and changing social attitudes between 1939 and 1945.

You can read through the bulletins by selecting from the timeline table below.

Timeline.    Click on the date to see the extract





7th September

Engaging of females


7th September

48 hour week


13th September

Mental Maths


26th September

Changes to the working week


4th October

Female staff ‘standing around’


11th October

Employing married couples


13th October

Make up and jewellery


7th November

Policy on female recruitment


7th November

Over-recruitment of female staff


7th November

Reasons for dismissing female staff


26th April

Recruiting married saleswomen


24th December

Saleswomen in the fresh meat section


15th September

Titles of female staff


7th October

Footwear and stockings


10th January

Weights lifted by female staff


20th February

Call-up of female staff


25th June

Staff welfare scheme


22 March

Women as deputy managers: additional duties


22 March

Coupons for female’s overalls


01 February

Temporary staff from the Ministry of Labour


14 February



22 June

Bringing children to work




1939, 7th September: Engaging of females

The following is a guide to the number of female trainees you are to engage for your branch:



Number of females trainees




Cooked meats








1 for every two blocks



1 or 2



1 or 2

Poultry shop



Poultry Block


1 but realise that rather a different type of women will be required for this work



None, but they can be very usefully employed assisting the men by wrapping

The women must be made capable to take the place of men, and that can only be done if they are put to work by the side of the men so that they can continually be told and learn.


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1939, 7th September: 48 hour week

You were informed some time ago that as from Monday October 2nd all females, other than domestics, would work 48 hours per week. THAT RULE STILL STANDS AND IS NOT BEING ALTERED so that females you now take on can be told that as from October 2nd they will work 48 hours per week and the present females employed can be told we are not going back on what we have already told them. Please bear this in mind when you are deciding what is the full staff complement for your branch. We sincerely trust that it will not be necessary subsequently to have to alter this decision for we feel that to do so will not only be a retrogressive step but wrong in the view of the condition generally, e.g. travelling, under which females will have to work.


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1939, 13th September: Mental Maths

Not unnaturally many of the new saleswomen have had little recent experience at mental arithmetic and where customers purchase more than two items find it difficult to make a quick and correct addition. It is therefore our wish that you put the following into effect immediately.

On each counter there is to be a neat pile of scrap paper on a clip so that the various items can be put down and added up. When you make your periodical tour of the Departments you can soon see whether any calculations are correct.


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1939, 26th September: changes to the working week

Shops which now open at 8 o’clock on Friday and Saturday, and in all cases these must continue to do so, are to close on those days at 6.30 pm irrespective of the hour of closing of competitors. It is anticipated that as the days draw in, the opening and closing hours will have to be adjusted accordingly, with the result that the total number of hours during which we will be open will tend to be reduced. For this reason we are not laying down any hard and fast schedule to cover the 48 hours for female staff at all branches.

At certain branches it will be necessary for the female staff to commence on Friday and Saturday at the normal time and to remain at work until half an hour after closing. In such cases to ensure the hours of the female staff be kept at 48, it is suggested that they be divided into three groups, one-third having a second half day off on Monday, one-third on Tuesday and the balance on Wednesday.


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1939, 4th October: Female staff ‘standing around’

We have received serious complaints that, in spite of our instructions, at certain branches a number of the female staff are to be seen standing around in groups ‘marking time’. There is plenty of work to be done and much to be learned, so again we repeat that whilst we continue to be fortunately placed with staff at the moment, the female staff must take advantage of every opportunity to acquire knowledge and experience. We doubt very much if all the girls know all the prices, and the study of these, in the same way as a study of the various items in the Grocery Department, must be more profitable than being idle.

It has also come to our knowledge that a proportion of the war-time staff are beginning to make a practice of either arriving late or arriving just on time and signing the Time Book immediately on arrival before they are actually ready to commence their duties. We do not approve of this and in view of the fact that they are now working 48 hours a week we think it a little unreasonable.


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1939, 11th October: Employing married couples

We are pleased indeed that we are able to employ the services of the wives and relatives of so many of our staff. Even though, no doubt, it is not necessary we feel that we should remind managers that irrespective of who these employees might be, the standard of work must remain the same. Do not let an unbusinesslike atmosphere creep in because so many relatives are employed.

Whilst we have agreed to wives being employed in the same shop as their husbands because we feel it only natural that they would wish it this way, we do not think it particularly good that a wife should work on the same counter as her husband, especially if he is in charge of the counter.

A far as the wives of managers are concerned, we need hardly say that it is most important that managers should realise the little difficulties that might arise if they are not very careful as to the way they employ their wife’s services.


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1939, 13th October: Make-up and jewellery

We want it to be understood that at the moment we are not laying down any hard and fast rules on this subject. Whilst we strongly object to, and in fact will not permit under any circumstances, saleswomen being heavily made up, or wearing unsuitable jewellery, we do not wish you to forbid a saleswoman using a slight amount of make up if she is desirous of doing so or wearing a piece of jewellery to which she is particularly attached.

Tolerance on the part of the employer combined with reasonableness on the part of the employee is a better state of affairs than domination by the employer and resentment by the employee.

If one of your staff is using too much make up, rather than say, “We don’t allow that” it is better to say “Although we don’t object to make up, if you could use a little less I would be glad”: then if the employee persists is the time to talk about rules and regulations.


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1939, 7th November: Policy on female recruitment

On the outbreak of hostilities in accordance with our predetermined plan, we engaged a very large number of female emergency staff. The reasons for this move were obvious. It was known that a very large proportion of our staff is men of military age and that we shall sooner or later lose them. We decided not just to replace men with women as the men left, but rather to start immediately the process of training women to be ready to take the place of men when they leave at a future date. Our policy, and the fact that we got in the field first, has resulted in us today having on our staff a very large number of really excellent young women. We do not run the risk of the business being seriously incapacitated by a large number of male staff suddenly leaving, and in the long run we shall reap the very considerable advantage that our wartime staff will be a trained body of women not a makeshift staff.


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1939, 7th November: Over-recruitment of female staff

The staffing position has been considerably complicated by a number of unexpected factors including:

We had hoped that registration would have been completed by now and that after making full use of the services of all staff we should have been able to tidy up the position. We are in a position to estimate fairly accurately our requirements, and all emergency staff have had time to prove their abilities and thus enable you to pick out those worthy of employment for the duration.


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1939, 7th November: Reasons for dismissing female staff

In deciding who are to be dismissed the following procedure will be followed:

When considering which are your inefficient staff the under-mentioned are the points to which we attribute particular importance:


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1940, 26th April: recruiting married saleswomen

The engagement age for saleswomen is 15 and a half to 22 years, but we are willing to consider very good applicants, particularly ex-employees, over this age: they will not, however, commence at a higher wage than £2 per week. Will you bear this in mind when looking for suitable staff to replace your Army losses.

Please remember that we are willing to consider the question of employment for all married women but particularly the wives of our men called to the Colours. We are, of course, employing quite a number of these women already, but there are, and will be, more and more of them who would probably be very pleased to work for us to augment their army allowances.

We suggest that you mention the matter to the man before he joins his unit; do not commit yourself, but if, after an interview, you think that the wife is a suitable person to be employed by the Firm then put her name forward to Blackfriars as an applicant for a position of saleswoman or clerk, mentioning that she is the wife of an employee on National Service.


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1940, 24th December: Saleswomen in the fresh meat section

The firm are prepared to consider applications from saleswomen already on the staff who are desirous of a transfer to the Fresh Meat Department.

Applicants accepted will serve a probationary period of four weeks, and if approved at the end of this time an addition will be made to their salary at the rate of six shillings [30p] per week over the existing scale of wages for saleswomen.

In due course proficiency will be looked for in the general duties of the department except, of course, the heavy cutting.


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1941, 15th September: Titles of female staff

Now that we are having to replace some men in certain grades, other than counter and delivery staff, with women, some difficulty seems to be experienced in choosing the right title for the female replacements. Would you please note the following official titles that are to be used:

The expressions ‘Porteress’, ‘Manageress’, ‘Butcheress’, are not to be used.


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1941, 7th October: Footwear and stockings

In view of the difficulties in purchasing stockings, we have expressed our willingness to allow staff to dispense with these during business hours until the position eases.

As regards shoes, we are NOT prepared to permit the staff to wear shoes which are unsuitable for the job they have to do. By unsuitable we mean shoes which do not give reasonable support and protection for those standing for long periods and also unsuitable we mean shoes which look ill-chosen and out of place in a retail food shop.


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1942, 10th January: Weights lifted by female staff

We have had a few cases recently of female staff lifting weights that have either been too heavy for them or else have been lifted badly causing physical strain.

The only guide we have of the correct weight for women to lift is the Factory Act which states that women employed in factories can be asked to lift a maximum weight half as heavy as themselves. This means that a female employee of 9 stone or more can be asked to lift 63 lbs. When we use the words ‘to lift’ we do not mean ‘to carry a distance’.

To avoid any danger of physical injury accurring to our female staff, with its consequent heavy expense to the Firm, we think it wisest that female staff do not lift weights heavier than say 40 lbs.


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1942, 20th February: Call-up of female staff

We understand the intention of the Ministry of Labour to be that they will call up all female employees born in 1920 or 1921. It is possible that we may be able to claim deferment in a few cases, but we are given to understand that any large number of such claims would certainly not be allowed.

The only women in these two age groups who will not be called up are those who are married and have children under the age of fourteen.

In the case of female members of the shop and rounds staff aged from 22 to 25 inclusive, we are informed that these will certainly not be called in the immediate future and in any case will only be required if the Ministry of Labour cannot obtain sufficient numbers from other groups. In the case of those aged 26 to 30 we are informed that it is not at present the intention of the Ministry of Labour to call any so long as they remain in their present employment.

With regard to the branch clerical staff within the ages 22 to 30, the position is unfortunately not so satisfactory. Our understanding at the moment is that apart from First Clerks most of these age groups will in due course be called up.


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1942, 25th June: Staff Welfare Scheme

When the Staff Welfare Scheme was first instituted in 1934 it was drawn up to cover male and unmarried female employees only, since it was not the practice of the firm to employ married women at that time. The position is now very different, and we have felt it desirable to arrange with the Standard Life Assurance Company that in future married women will not be excluded from the scheme. They will receive both annuity and life insurance benefits but they will not be covered for the disability benefit as explained in the scheme.

Henceforth it will not be necessary for female employees to discontinue their membership on marriage – in fact, the reverse will be the case since no employee who is a member of the scheme can cease to be a member without leaving the Firm. The Marriage Dowry will continue in force as explained in the Staff Welfare Scheme Booklet, except that payment will be based on contributions to the date of marriage and will be paid at that time, although no refund of the contributions themselves will be made until termination of employment.

Present married female employees who were previously members of the Scheme and who ceased to be members when they married, although still continuing with the firm, may rejoin the scheme as from 1st July 1942.


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1943, 22nd March: additional duties which can be undertaken by female deputy managers


The Deputy Manager being a woman can obviously most easily assist the Manager, particularly if he is a male, by undertaking on his behalf certain control of the female employees in the following:


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22 March, 1943: overalls for female workers


Unfortunately, owing to our inability to provide coupons to the Manufacturers the entire manufacture of overalls for us has ceased and will not be resumed until we have accumulated a quantity of coupons. No doubt the majority of staff owing coupons, or unable to provide coupons or unable to provide coupons against current orders, are waiting for the supplementary issue which it was expected would be made last month. We should inform you, therefore, that, according to the latest information available, the supplementary coupons will not be issued until the beginning of January, although it will be possible to make an application for them very shortly. On the other hand, the Board of Trade have assured us that should a Saleswoman use her own personal coupons now for overalls she will be able to spend the equivalent of the new issue for her private use: in other words, personal coupons and the supplementary issue will be interchangeable. This should be passed on to the staff concerned and should enable Managers to obtain the required coupons from the staff.


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01 February, 1944: Ministry of Labour substitutes


We must remind Managers that they may from time to time receive calls from staff applicants sent by the Ministry of Labour as substitutes for our present staff. Such applicants should have with them a Ministry of Labour card marked to this effect.

In all cases, whether the applicant is considered suitable or not, she must be asked to call at Blackfriars. If, as is sometimes the case, she declines to travel to Blackfriars, please take her name and address and inform the Staff Department as soon as she has called.


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14 February, 1944: Holidays


Although we have indicated that it may be necessary for holidays to be taken in two separate periods during wartime, this in no way alters the arrangement that in peacetime holidays not exceeding twelve working days must be taken in one period except with special permission from the Firm.

In determining the holiday times for individuals you should take account of the need of the individual rather than the age or seniority alone. The employee with children at school has a much better claim to take his holiday within the school holiday period than an older employee whose children are grown up. The latter should have the first choice in the periods outside school holidays - July, September, etc.


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22 June, 1944: Bringing children to work


The fact that in many districts schools are closed is no doubt causing worry to some of our married employees, a number of whom may feel it necessary to stay away from work on this account.

We know that Managers share our desire to be as considerate as possible to the staff in the present difficult circumstances, and we wish you to know that you have our authority to allow married women to bring their children to work with them and remain on our premises, provided that if they are under a certain age the domestic arrangements in the house are such that there is someone to keep an eye on them and provided also that the older ones do not get in the way, naturally keep out of the shop, and generally behave themselves.

Children of all ages must be kept out of the Kitchen; we must not take any risk of children on our premises either burning or scalding themselves.


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Copyright J Sainsbury plc, 2001.