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Staff Accommodation

Staff accommodation at Sainsbury's

Providing its staff with lodgings helped Sainsbury’s to grow and succeed over many years. But it is a part of the company’s history sometimes forgotten about today. This story looks back at how it all worked and the ‘family atmosphere’ enjoyed by many residents and housekeepers alike.


Living above the shop

The earliest Sainsbury’s staff to live above a shop were the founders: John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury were one of four families sharing the cramped space above 173 Drury Lane, location of the very first Sainsbury’s store, opened in 1869. Two years later their first son and future chairman of the company, John Benjamin Sainsbury, was born there.


John James and Mary Ann soon opened more shops, and when they hired staff to work in them they often offered a place to live too. By 1881 there were three Sainsbury’s branches in Queen’s Crescent, Kentish Town, and that year’s census suggests that the street contained a hostel for six of the company’s ‘shopmen’, who were aged between 14 and 18, as well as accommodation for a store manager and his wife. John James and Mary Ann had also moved to Queen's Crescent, and the original shop in Drury Lane now had a new manager who lived above it, as did a ten-year-old ‘cheesemonger's boy’. In a time when most shops were run by families who lived on the premises and kept them open nearly all hours of the day and night, having managers and assistants who ‘lived-in’ allowed Sainsbury’s to expand whilst operating in a similar way.


Hostels and housekeepers

By the 1930s Sainsbury’s had over 200 branches and 6,500 employees. Trading hours were shorter than in the early days but staff accommodation remained an important pillar of the company’s success. The shops were mostly located in London and South East England, but the need for new ‘learner’ staff was so great that Sainsbury’s recruited young men and boys, some of them only 14 or 15 years old, from all over Britain and Ireland. They all needed to live somewhere near their work. During the Great Depression the offer of board and lodging along with secure employment became a particular selling point. ‘A Career for Your Boys’, a booklet advertising Sainsbury’s jobs, describes it as follows: ‘For country boys and staff who do not live in the district, board and residence is provided at the Branches. Each house is in the charge of a competent Housekeeper, whose aim is to study the welfare of the staff, and make the life of the country boys as homely as possible. The accommodation at the Branches, although simply furnished, is light, airy and comfortable, and includes a library for the use of the staff; in fact, the directors of the firm have catered for the comfort of the staff in every way.’


The housekeepers could be strict when they needed to be. Breakfast times were rigidly stuck to, ensuring staff were never late for work, and at night the housekeeper could flick a master switch and turn off all the lights so everyone in the hostel would go to sleep. But most of the housekeepers seem to have genuinely cared about their ‘lads’. Being away from home and their own families must have been hard for many new branch staff, but the hostel atmosphere in some ways replaced what they had left behind. An article looking back at the history of staff accommodation in ‘JS Journal’, the Sainsbury’s staff magazine, called the housekeeper and branch manager ‘in effect mum and dad of a social unit centred on the shop.’ The food was often an improvement on home cooking, and even in times of rationing housekeepers served up the best fare they could, with the help of recipes devised at Sainsbury’s head office (some of these, like ‘Carrots au Gratin’, admittedly do not sound very appetising). Housekeepers washed and mended shop uniforms and made sure accommodation was tidy and secure. Sometimes they would even stand up for staff when they were too ill to work, informing the manager that they would not come down until they had had some aspirin and bed rest. Residents inevitably found ways of bending hostel rules. In later life many still remembered arriving back after ‘lights-out’ and climbing in through a window, or ‘borrowing’ delivery bicycles from the shop to explore the West End.


The typical hostel was directly above a shop, as it had been since ever since John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury lived in Drury Lane. Access was via an external staircase rather than through the shop itself. Limited space meant that up to four staff members had to share a bedroom. As Sainsbury’s expanded it sometimes provided staff accommodation in separate buildings, often known as ‘dormy houses’. The first of these was opened in Cambridge in 1931. These could be a bit more spacious – one Haywards Heath branch staff member recalled ‘an old manor house called Brenteleigh’ where residents played tennis in the garden. They also presented different challenges for the housekeeper. At a hostel in Sutherland Avenue, West London, the housekeeper had to feed 40 young men, double the usual number, without the convenience of a Sainsbury’s branch downstairs to supply food. She also had to prepare lunches for ‘about a dozen kitchen and cleaning staff on the premises’. Even though it could be hard at times many housekeepers loved their work. One described how her initial fears and uncertainty about the role gave way to years of ‘mutual enjoyment’ meeting new people.


The staff registers accessible on this website record the names of many of those who lived and worked in the early 20th century hostels.


‘New Ideas about Living In’

The 1950s and 1960s saw Sainsbury’s close many old-fashioned counter service branches and open larger self-service stores. This spelled the end for numerous hostels. But a leaflet from this time advertising ‘opportunities in residential staff catering’ could nonetheless inform readers that 50 branches had hostels attached, ‘the capacity of the houses varying from 5 to 16 persons’. Some new shops were built with specially planned staff accommodation above. Hostels, and the efforts of the housekeepers and domestic staff who worked in them, remained an important way of enabling young men and, increasingly, women to work for Sainsbury’s if they did not already live near a branch. A film produced to mark Sainsbury’s centenary in 1969 mentions the contemporary hostels and their ‘family atmosphere’.


But things were changing. In 1965 ‘JS Journal’ included a long article titled ‘New Ideas about Living In’ suggesting that the size of the new branches, the number of staff working in them and ‘a need for mobility of the firm's personnel’ were irrevocably transforming the character of the hostels. The housekeeper could no longer plunge everyone into darkness each night, and residents wanted ‘to feel free to come and go, limited only by the customary courtesies of people who share a home.’ Staff could now entertain themselves with TVs, radios and record players in their rooms, as well as books. Planners of the hostels intended that bedrooms would have no more than two beds, and be larger than normal double rooms in hotels at that time, although some older rooms still slept four. Another notable difference was that the resident domestic staff now came from countries all over Europe, and were able to attend English classes alongside their work. Most only stayed in the job for a year but at least two spent longer with Sainsbury’s and became permanent housekeepers.


By 1975 ‘JS Journal’ was claiming that ‘the days of the hostels are numbered’. Supermarkets were becoming ever larger and only 12 branches still had hostels above, all of them in London. Two, at Balham and Ruislip, were for female branch staff. The others housed men, ‘mainly management trainees and assistant managers’ or staff visiting London for training courses. The residents of these survivors were grateful to get good quality board and lodging for only 20 per cent of their salaries, half what they might have to pay in private accommodation. Without the hostels many could not have afforded to go away on holidays. But recruiting staff to work in them was becoming a major difficulty, and the last one seems to have closed sometime in the 1990s.


If you have memories of living or working in Sainsbury’s staff accommodation please consider recording them for posterity on our Memories page.