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Long Read

Staff Registers

An introduction to our digitised staff registers

The Sainsbury Archive staff registers are an extremely valuable historical resource. They tell us much about the company itself, but can also be used for a wide range of other purposes, from genealogical research to employment history, including the experiences of women working during the First World War. Although some of the information they contain can be found elsewhere, in census records for instance, the staff registers have the advantage that they were updated frequently and give some unique details.

Staff records for large parts of Sainsbury’s history do not survive, and some items that we hold are closed for data protection reasons. This story aims to give an overview of the three main sets of staff registers that we have digitised and made available on our website, and to explain how to use them effectively. For a bit more historical background, you can find an introduction on this site to Sainsbury’s working lives over the years and the story of women at work.


‘Early staff registers’

These three volumes are the earliest set of staff registers in the Sainsbury Archive. They include staff working in branches and at Sainsbury’s head office and warehouse in Blackfriars. The first one covers staff who joined the company in the 1890s, and the others date from 1900-1906. The first register includes the following details:

  • Name and home address of staff member

  • References from previous employer(s)

  • ‘Qualification’, i.e. what job the staff member was hired to do

  • Salary

  • ‘Branch sent to’ (or department if working at Blackfriars)

  • ‘Date Engaged’, i.e. when they started working for Sainsbury’s

  • ‘Left Employ.’, i.e. when they finished working for Sainsbury’s

  • ‘Reasons for Dismissal’


Here is an example of an entry from it:


‘Counter’ here means that the staff member worked behind a counter serving customers in a branch. The salary is preceded by ‘in’, which shows the company provided him with meals and accommodation. This was a common arrangement for staff who did not already live locally (in this case the staff member was previously living on the Isle of Wight). Accommodation was often situated directly above the branch.


‘Staff registers (mixed)’

This set of registers continues from where the earliest ones finish, so the first entries date from 1906. They continued to be updated well into the 1930s, although new staff were no longer added after 1929. There are 37 volumes in total, reflecting the rapid rise in the number of Sainsbury’s branches in the early 20th century and the need for large numbers of staff: by 1920 the company employed some 2,800 people. These registers include all branch and Blackfriars staff, except women hired to fill vacancies left by men serving in the First World War. These women were recorded in separate volumes, detailed below. Many other female employees do appear in the ‘mixed’ registers, such as clerical staff in branches, housekeepers in staff accommodation, and factory workers at Blackfriars.


The information in these registers is similar to those created before, but they now also note marital status, transfers to different branches, and references given to any subsequent employers (from 1925 onwards the age of new staff was routinely recorded as well). Due to the increased numbers of staff, they were now entered in separate registers depending on the first letter of their surname. Multiple volumes were required for the more common letters. Here is an entry from the ‘L’ staff register:


Arthur Leggett was one of many men who left his duties at Sainsbury’s to enter the army during the First World War. In the registers this cause of leaving was recorded as ‘To join Colours’ (or just ‘Colours’), which meant enlisting in a regiment. In the months before his departure Arthur was sent to manage three different branches in quick succession, highlighting the turbulence the war was causing for Sainsbury’s staff department. Further details about staff enlistment and re-engagement after the war were kept in a separate register (SA/EMP/2/19). After Arthur’s military service ended he returned to work for Sainsbury’s for another ten years. A photograph taken in 1909, his first year with the company, shows Arthur (seated, second from right) with colleagues from 3 London Road, Brighton branch. Arthur's story was later told in 'JS Journal', the Sainsbury's staff magazine.


‘Staff registers (female)’

As mentioned above, separate registers were kept to record ‘saleswomen’, a blanket term used for women doing the work of male branch staff who were absent, wounded or killed during the war years. There are five volumes covering these appointments, made between September 1914 and 1929. The fact that these women were not included in the other registers reflects how their roles were viewed as temporary: soon after the war ended and demobilised men started returning, many women were paid to leave their jobs, or moved to the new grocery departments which were added to larger branches. Some female former staff were subsequently re-engaged at the start of the Second World War, as the company recognised the value of their previous experience.


The first two ‘female’ registers cover all surnames, but as the war continued and more volumes were needed names from each half of the alphabet were recorded separately. The column headings are the same as those in the ‘mixed’ registers. The below entry shows a rare example of a branch ‘manageress’ who did not lose her seniority in the years following the war:


As well as the registers of ‘saleswomen’, this series also includes one volume (SA/EMP/2/20/6) recording female staff who joined Sainsbury’s between 1926 and 1929, mostly without a job title listed. It appears that these staff were maids who helped the housekeepers to look after branch staff. This register also includes a few male ‘Learner’ staff who attended ‘School’. This was a training facility set up at Blackfriars in 1915 to teach the basics of working in a branch.


How to use the staff registers effectively

By now it is hopefully clear that the staff registers contain a wealth of information. But before accessing them it may be useful to bear a few more things in mind.


A key point is that although the registers are digitised, they have not been transcribed, so the text in them unfortunately cannot be searched in our catalogue. Instead it is necessary to use the indexes which can be found at the front of each volume. These list the names included in the same order they were recorded – roughly according to when they joined, not alphabetical order. Some pages have been damaged through overuse, and small parts are therefore missing, but otherwise the indexes are fairly straightforward.


To find the indexes and particular pages on the website, use the buttons which appear at the bottom of the page when you have clicked on a register. The arrows take you to the next or previous images, and the button in the middle shows a thumbnail overview of the whole volume. The numbers underneath note which image you are on (not the page number), and the total number of images.



There is some inconsistency in the order names are written, but surnames are usually first, followed by first name(s). This can cause some slightly strange looking entries: on more than one occasion, for example, we learn that ‘King Arthur’ was a Sainsbury’s employee!


Sometimes, due to a lack of space, small additional pieces of paper were stuck into the volumes and can appear to cover parts of pages. Look at the images before or after to see the full record.


Although they can appear challenging to use, it is well worth spending time with the staff registers to appreciate the snapshots of Sainsbury’s history they offer.