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Sainsbury's in SE1

Sainsbury's in SE1

Stamford House

Centralised nature of the business meant that as it grew, so did the need for efficient support from the Blackfriars headquarters. New Stamford House fulfilled an important role in the rapidly expanding company.  In the 20 years before the 1st World War JS opened 96 branches – all supplied from Blackfriars. Drawing of Stamford House shortly after its completion in 1913, shows wrought ironwork on top of the building – believed that this was taken down and used for scrap during the Great War.

South and West facades were faced with red brick, Portland stone and polished granite.  Beneath this classic revival exterior was a relatively novel method of construction.  One of the earliest buildings in London built with steel and reinforced concrete – immense strength beneath elegant exterior.  ‘The floors were made of terracotta pots, linked together with steel tie rods and the whole area covered with concrete’.  For the staff the new offices were a great improvement and were very modern by the standard of the day with mahogany woodwork, comfortable desks and chairs and individual electric lamps.  ‘What a change from our old offices with high desks, high stools and possibly a cooking range too – relics from the days when the old building was used as flats’. 

Training school

Training school at Blackfriars established in 1915 to help the new female and young male staff engaged to cover during wartime pick up the rudiments of food handling quickly.  Provided ‘off the job’ training:  new recruits spent a fortnight learning how to operate a bacon slicer, use scales and ‘knock up’ butter and margarine.   Many new staff came from far afield and this fortnight at Blackfriars was their first experience of London – they were put up in a local hostel and after their training were despatched to a London branch for ‘on-the-job’ training, after which they would transfer to a regional branch. Following end of WWI, demobilised men were sent to the Blackfriars training school for refresher course before returning to their pre-war jobs.


By 1928, as the number of branches which had to be served by the office and warehouse facilities reached around 200 a less elaborate northern extension was added to the northern side of Stamford House, doubling it in size. In 1932 there 945 staff employed at head office, in the warehouse and in the factory.  Almost every aspect of the work was labour-intensive, from the manual calculation of branch stock results to the hand-linking of sausages. Originally built as a warehouse with offices, but functions changed considerably as the firm expanded.  The only part which has had the same use throughout its history is the 4th floor – the top floor- which was always been occupied by the directors (mainly Sainsbury family).

At the other end of the 4th floor during the 1930s was the clerical staff.  Here row upon row of clerks ‘extended’ endless columns of figures with pencil and paper.  Branch sales of every commodity were calculated and aggregated to give the weekly turnover.  Despatch notes which listed the deliveries which went from the depot were matched against the receiving branches debit note.  Suppliers’ invoices were checked against the goods received by the dept.  For the young men who worked in the offices the regime was as tough as that for the branch staff.  Speed and accuracy were essential and anyone making 2 mistakes in the week was sent to the company secretary – two such visits meant dismissal.

The buyers also occupied the top floor: while some products such as biscuits were simply ordered by clerks who used the sales figures as a guide, the purchase of perishable products was a skilled task requiring close links with suppliers.  It was regarded as so important that at first only members of the Sainsbury family were able to do it – eg Alan Sainsbury began his career working alongside his uncles, Mr Arthur and Mr Alfred, buying eggs and dairy products.  Even after the business became too large for this to be possible, every buying decision was closely supervised by a Sainsbury.

North end of 3rd floor – poultry department where all the poultry and game brought for inspection and grading and was then despatched in hampers to branches.

South end of 3rd floor became the branch management department, which changed its name to the shop services department overnight after the chairman JB Sainsbury pointed out that he was the branch management department.  South end of the 3rd floor also housed the training centre for a time. 

After the WW2 a complete replica shop was set up at street level, with a mock window which was dressed each week.  A sketch of it was then distributed to branches to ensure uniform window displays.

Lower floors of Stamford House had originally been designed as warehouse space. However later on machinery was installed on the 1st and 2nd floors for packing Sainsbury brand dry groceries such as rice, pulses and oats.  Sacks of peas or flour were poured into large hoppers on the 2nd floor to feed the machines on the floor below. On the ground floor were the loading banks where the horse vans and motor lorries were loaded up with goods for despatch to the branches.  Of the original 6 loading bays, only one remained in operation by 1993.

Lower ground floor was originally occupied by the stores department, which distributed supplies such as paper bags and string to the branches, but by  the early 1930s the lower basement was used as  a cheese store – all cheese sold by Sainsbury’s passed through the cheese warehouse before reaching the branches.  Around 17,000 cheeses were stored and matured there, which must have had a memorable aroma to visitors.  The cheese store became a staff restaurant in 1957 (previously used a canteen during WWII) probably due to unique water supply.

Stamford House notable for having its own water supply – an artesian well sunk 450ft deep through the London clay by the contractors in 1912.  Until WWII this was the building’s only water supply and during the Blitz was the only available water supply in the neighbourhood.  The well still supplied around 35,000 litres of non-drinking water a day to the building during the 1990s.


On the opposite side of Stamford Street were the old ‘kitchens’ where Sainsbury’s own brand potted meats and pies were made.  The smell of baking pies attracted local boys who hung around in the hope of earning a bite to eat in exchange for running an errand. By the 1930s, the kitchens were badly in need of modernisation as the firm’s growth had outstripped their capacity.  The butchers had to work outside in the yard and the old premises were impossible to keep up to Sainsbury’s hygiene standards.

Sir Owen Williams was commissioned to design a model factory to replace the old kitchens, at Paris Garden– had previously designed the Wembley Pool and Stadium, the Daily Express building in Fleet Street and the Boot’s factory at Beeston near Northampton – he was a specialist in concrete construction well ahead of his time. The new building was a marvel of modernity and was the first pre-stressed concrete building to be approved by the London County Council. It's included in Pevsner's Buildings of England:

 "This was a bold, honest reinforced concrete structure six storeys high, the first in London to be built on the flat slab principle, i.e. with the main weight of the floors supported by two internal rows of massive mushroom-headed columns”. The project was supervised by James Sainsbury, whose father Albert had managed the old factory – still in his 20s but relished his new responsibilities.  He insisted the factory be equipped with quality control laboratories to ensure the goods produced could be regularly tasted and analysed. He also decreed that there should be no cupboards to attract clutter and that every worker on the production lines be provided each day with a freshly laundered hand cloth.

The new factory opened in 1936.  Branch staff could visit for an organised tour on their early closing afternoon. They could follow the progress of pork carcasses newly arrived from Frank Sainsbury’s abattoir at Haverhill in Suffolk, as they travelled through the factory from the receiving bay on the ground floor.  Heads were removed for use in the Brawn and Bath chaps which were made in the basement.  An overhead rail system carried the rest of the carcasses up to the 2nd floor where they were jointed.  Some meat was sold as fresh pork, while the rest was boned and minced for use in the sausages and ‘table delicacies’ for which JS was renowned.  Next to the butchers were the sausage-makers – rows of girls who deftly filled great lengths of sausage –skins with the meat extruded from their machines.  The end product could be despatched within an hour of the carcasses entering the building.

Girls wore neat blue overalls with detachable white collars and white hats.  Known as ‘Little Ireland’. On the 3rd floor was the bakery, where Sainsbury’s veal and ham pies, pork piekins and steak and kidney pies were made.  Bread was baked and allowed to go stale for 72 hours so that there was always a supply of breadcrumbs in perfect condition for sausage-making.  The spice and seasonings room, was also here, described by the workforce as the ‘holy of holies’  John Sainsbury’s own gardener grew thyme and marjoram for the factory.  From the oven the pies went down to the first floor where they were packed into wicker baskets ready for despatch to the branches.

By the 1940ss, factory was being refurbished, having had a bomb fall through the roof and explode on the 4th floor during the war.  The factory eventually took over nearby Wakefield  House and Tress House (Tress and Co, hatters were based round there – later JS labs) and more than 2400 worked there in 3 shifts.  Factory closed late Saturday afternoon only to re-open again on Sunday and at its peak was producing almost 400 tons of pies , sausages and cooked meats together with 200 tons of fresh pork and 250 tons of by-products.  The factory was the only by-product plant licensed in central London.  At the forefront of new equipment – first to sell pre-packed long pie and introduced skinless sausages in the late 1950s.  By 1972, work of the factory was transferred to Haverhill meat products and to contractors. The bakery at Sainsbury’s factory is depicted in a stained glass window at Christchurch Southwark.

Second World War

During WWII, Stamford Street head office was manned day and night with staff taking turns to co-ordinate the requirements of individual branches and pass on the reports of bomb damage to the engineers and building staff.  An air raid shelter and canteen was set up in the lower basement and a dormitory for fire watchers and duty staff on the 3rd floor. Although a few key staff remained, most were evacuated – office workers who lived north of the river were sent to premises above the Cockfoster branch and those from south of the river went to Ewell. Depot staff were evacuated from Blackfriars to temporary premises  in Hampshire, Essex, Fleckney near Leicester and Woolmer Green in Hertfordshire –  of course a distribution system based entirely in London was vulnerable to air attack, but this arrangement also saved on fuel, which was strictly controlled by the government, and allowed the company to supply branches which it would have been prohibitied from serving from the capital because of the banning of movement of foodstuffs between various designated  zones within the country..

During the Blitz, there were direct hits on the garage workshops, the ‘kitchens and the Union Street bacons stoves, which were being used by the Ministry of Food to store frozen meat.  28 stoves, were destroyed and fires raged for 48 hours as the fat on the beef and bacon kept in the store provided excellent fuel for the flames.

Transport & depots 

This is Running Horses Yard, which was  the site of a famous coaching inn during the 1750s and had been used as stables for Sainsbury’s horse delivery vans from the 1890s onwards.  1951 the ’Empties’ or returns depot was opened there – each day two hundred vehicles passed through the yard returning and collecting boxes, feathers and rabbit skins from branches to be recycled. Had fallen into disuses in 1980, following closure of factory and warehouse at Blackfriars.

Sainsbury’s expansion both geographically and in terms of the range of products sold following the advent of the self-service supermarket meant that it was no longer practical to serve all the branches from a single central London depot, and so the process of decentralisation began with the acquisition of a large site at Basingstoke in 1962.  Also took over much of the work formerly undertaken by the Union Street bacons stoves - machine slicing, wrapping and pricing it, which had previously been done at the branches.  This first depot was followed by other sites at Hoddesdon, Buntingford and over at Charlton.

Depot decentralisation of the depots made it more than ever necessary for the standards set at head office to be monitored and enforced.  To achieve this, Sainsbury’s became the first food retailer to enter into the computer age.  In May 1961 a massive EMIDEC 1100computer was installed by crane at Stamford House.  It took over the stock control of non-perishable lines, which had previously been performed by the mechanised Powers-Samas punched card system.  The computer allowed info about sales of non-perishables to be gathered and analysed with greater accuracy.

Staff social activities

As staff numbers at Blackfriars grew and spread out into neighbouring buildings there was more of a sense of a Sainsbury’s community in the area, almost like a self-contained ‘village’.  In common with other companies, sports and social activities were actively encouraged from the early 20th century, - the first sports club to be formed at Stamford House was the cricket club in 1915 and a sports ground at Dulwich was purchased shortly afterwards.

Rennie House conversion

Built as a 4 storey food factory in the 1930s, manufacturing techniques had become outdated by the late 1960s.  Sainsbury’s desperately needed further laboratories and admin backup – after much research it was decided that conversion would be a suitable alternative to demolition and rebuilding. Conversion wasn’t an easy task – thermic lances, dynamite and diamond drilling were all used to overcome the problems imposed by the building’s massive monolithic structure which had been built to an extremely high standard both in strength of concrete and density of reinforcement.  Visual strength of the building was considered to be important feature of the building, worth preserving. Old full height modular system replaced by sophisticated double glazed aluminium window units incorporating an electronically controlled external blind system – helps retain the building’s modular proportions.  Internally, the pillars were concealed with false ceilings.

The conversion was completed in January 1976 at a cost of £4 million and was named Rennie House after Sir John Rennie, the architect, engineer and builder of Blackfriars Bridge he had lived in Stamford Street.

Converted building now provided laboratories at 4th and 3rd floor levels, 2nd floor is open plan offices (2nd floor was previously the sausage-making factory), 1st floor housed Sainsbury’s central computer facilities and the ground floor had rooms for printing, conferences and training, plus a central telephone exchange.  Staff facilities in lower ground floor.  A new 1500sq m two-storey air-conditioning plant room was built over the roof.


Sainsbury’s is no longer based at Blackfriars, in September 2001 the offices were relocated to the former Daily Mirror HQ at Holborn Circus. The reason for the relocation : Historically, the company headquarters has been fragmented across a number of buildings in and around Stamford Street. Relocation to a single, flexible office building forms an integral part of the company's business transformation programme.