The founders: John James Sainsbury

John James Sainsbury was born on 12th June 1844 at 5 Oakley Street, Lambeth. He was the fourth and last child of Elizabeth and John Sainsbury.

His father was an ornament and picture frame maker. John James had three elder sisters, Elizabeth Sarah, Eliza Jane (d. 1866) and Margaret Maria (d.1846). During his childhood the family moved house several times between rented rooms close to the Thames wharves and to Waterloo station, which opened in 1848.

Few records remain of John’s early life. He took his first job aged 14, at a grocer’s in New Cut, one of London’s busiest markets. He went on to work for Henry Jeans, an oil and colour merchant in Woolwich and then during the 1860s for George Gillett, another oil and colour merchant, at 57 Strutton Ground, Victoria.

John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury, 1896

At the age of 24 he married Mary Ann Staples and they set up a dairy shop together at 173 Drury Lane, Holborn. The couple had probably saved a few pounds with which to buy shop equipment but their circumstances were initially modest. They shared the accommodation above the shop with three other families.

In trade, he was determined to offer fresh, quality food at prices everyone could afford. He was also a shrewd and energetic businessman and understood the opportunities offered by the growth of London for his trade.

Throughout John James’s life Sainsbury’s remained a family business. From 1915 he ran the business in partnership with his eldest son, John Benjamin. At the time of the firm’s incorporation in 1922 John James took on the title of Chairman and Governing Director, a position which he held until his death in 1928.

John James’s last words are said to have been 'Keep the shops well lit.'



The Museum of London is funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Corporation of London London Wall, LONDON EC2Y 5HN, United Kingdom. Copyright Museum of London, 2005 All rights reserved. This site is maintained by the Museum Systems Team.