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Women at Work

Women at work

Mary Ann Sainsbury and shopkeepers’ wives

During the 19th century, shop keeping was generally regarded as an unsuitable job for women, not least because of the long working hours and heavy lifting it entailed. However, it was both common and acceptable for female family members to work in smaller shops. The ability to employ male staff was a measure of a retailer’s success. The first woman to work in a Sainsbury shop was Mary Ann Sainsbury, wife of John James and joint founder of the first shop in Drury Lane.  Food retail was Mary Ann’s family business: she had previously worked in her father’s dairy and in another dairy shop owned by Thomas Haile. Mary Ann ran the first shop while her husband worked out his notice with the grocer George Gillett and continued to work behind the counter until the company’s success allowed her to devote herself entirely to family life.

Sarah Pullen, one of the couple’s early employees said: 'the principle trade in those early days was in butter and eggs, and it was Mrs. Sainsbury who made the shop famous for the quality of its butter. She was always up very early in the morning and took great pride in the cleanliness of the shop. She was very keen on serving behind the butter counter.’ (Evening Standard 3 Jan 1928). Mary Ann’s insistence on scrupulous hygiene was one of the things that made Sainsbury’s successful, at a time when tainted and adulterated food was becoming a national concern. When John and Mary Ann moved to the second store in Kentish Town, Sarah Pullen and her husband together managed the Drury Lane branch. It was likely that other manager’s wives would have shared in the running of the shops, although they tend to appear in census records as “cheesemonger’s wife” or in Sainsbury staff records as “Manager’s wife – Housekeeper”. 


Early jobs for women

As the business grew and more male staff were employed behind the counter, women were increasingly recruited to work as housekeepers, cooks and maids in the staff accommodation which was provided above the shop. Housekeepers were often older women or widows.  Their duties included:

▪ Catering for the staff, ensuring that they were provided with breakfast, dinner and supper.

▪ Ensuring that the bed linen and uniforms for the staff were clean and in good repair.

▪ Ensuring that all the rooms were kept clean and tidy.

▪ Ensuring the security of the hostel.

The housekeepers also looked after the health of the boys who lived in. This might mean a daily dose of cod liver oil in the winter, or sending them back to bed when they were not fit for work. Sometimes the housekeeper would have to stand up to the manager, who wanted a boy back at work. By 1900, women were starting to be employed by Sainsbury’s for clerical work, often in an office at the back of the shop which was separated from the shop floor by a polished wood and mirrored partition. This development allowed the shop’s managers to concentrate on running the shop floor. Female clerks continued to be employed throughout the existence of counter-service shops.


First World War staffing

The majority of Sainsbury’s shop staff were young men aged between 18 and 25. When the First World War broke out, these men enlisted to join the army. Faced with the depleted workforce, Sainsbury’s began to recruit saleswomen. The female recruits were initially given simple tasks such as packaging groceries and ‘making oneself generally useful’. Rings, jewellery and loose hair were forbidden but unlike their male counterparts saleswomen were provided with chairs. A new training school for female staff was established at Sainsbury’s headquarters in Blackfriars, London. The fortnight’s ‘off-the-job’ training that new saleswomen received became very important, as by 1915, some stores were entirely composed of female staff and boys who were too young to fight. By the end of the war there were 39 female branch many of whom were the wives or sisters of former managers. A few of these women retained senior positions after the war, but most were either paid off or demoted. Sainsbury’s expanded rapidly during the 1920s and 30s and in 1920 new grocery departments were opened in many shops. These changes offered new jobs for unmarried women. Apart from domestic staff, women had to leave their jobs when they got married and were paid a lump sum ’dowry’. Wages for women were much lower than for men: in 1920 Junior Male Assistants aged 20 received 40 shillings a week, while their female equivalents were paid 23 shillings.


 Second World War staffing

 The day after the war was declared in 1939, a bulletin was issued to managers requesting an urgent recruitment drive:

‘Unless we enrol an enormous number of women within the next few weeks, there is a strong possibility that in a few months as our male staff begin to go we shall find it very difficult to carry on.’

Women who had worked for Sainsbury’s prior to marriage created a reserve of experienced potential staff; preference for employment was also given to the wives of existing employees. However, Sainsbury’s had over-estimated the number of staff needed. There was a slower rate of call-up and a more gradual introduction of rationing then had been first expected. Trade also slumped due to the evacuation of women and children to safe areas. The result was that the company’s wage bill rose by £100,000 per week, at a time when sales were falling. Many women were therefore laid off within only a few months of starting work, although the company was quick o assure them that they would be the first to be called upon again if needed. Nevertheless, the general managers considered that the recruitment drive had been a success:

‘In the long run we shall reap the very considerable advantage of a trained body of women, not a make-shift staff’.


As more men left for war, staff shortages began to be felt. In February 1942 the situation became even more serious when the call-up was extended to all single women in the twenty-one age group. It was expected that women working in the food industry would be exempt from both conscription and war work, but this was not the case. Another drive to recruit part-time married women was set up. As the government took control of the supply of foodstuffs, Sainsbury’s competitive edge came to depend more on the skills of its staff.

Female recruits received on-the-spot instruction from the men they were to replace. This ensured that they were already known to customers and familiar with their new work when their instructors left. Some allowances were made – whereas male employees were expected to be able to add up in their heads, notepads were provided for women whose mental arithmetic was rusty. It was recognised that working women were frequently juggling multiple demands.

In a letter to staff on National Service in 1940, Alan Sainsbury wrote:

‘Many of these women have children and homes to care for and taking this in to consideration, they are doing a grand job of work’.

Staff were given ‘mentors’ to help them settle into the job and were paid personally by the manager so that problems could be discussed in private. A ‘shopping time’ allowance of one hour a fortnight was granted in 1943. During the flying bomb raids, when many schools were closed, women were even permitted to bring their children to work. Sainsbury’s appreciated the hardships caused by wartime conditions: managers were instructed to be understanding about the effects of lost sleep during bombing raids, damage to employees’ homes and particularly to bereavement. From 1942 married women were included in the Staff Welfare Scheme.


Post-war years

The pre-war ‘marriage bar’ was never re-instated after peace was declared and married women continued to work at Sainsbury’s from 1945. National service for men helped keep women in employment and the introduction of self-service stores in the 1950s created many new part time jobs for women, both married and single. Women were employed as checkout operators, shelf fillers (the early freestanding shelf units were called ‘gondolas’ and so these women became known as ‘gondola girls’), and weighing, wrapping and pricing food in the preparations rooms. Large self-service branches employed twice as many women as men. By 1968, 11,000 of Sainsbury’s 28,000 employees worked part time and most were women.

With better conditions and more job opportunities in the stores, some recruitment advertising began to be aimed specifically at women. Equal pay was introduced during the period between 1970 and 1975 and women began to climb the employment ladder within the business. However, only a minority of women were entering management positions at this time. In 1981, a quarter of management positions were held by women, even though they made up two thirds of the total workforce.  In the same year Sainsbury’s appointed its first female non-executive director, Jennifer Jenkins, who later became a Dame.  Improvements continued to be made for the working lives of women. In 1989 a ’career bridge’ scheme was introduced. This allowed women to take a break of up to five years without losing status or benefits.