Staff conscription and war service

The outbreak of the First World War had a dramatic effect upon Sainsbury’s staffing levels -  at Norwich, the manager Raymond Asdye and his deputy had to run the shop alone, when the whole of the rest of the staff enlisted at once. Bulletins were circulated to branches insisting that staff give at least six days’ notice of enlistment.

At the beginning of the Second World War, reserved status (exemption from conscription) was given to managers, butchers and warehousemen over the age of 30. The authorities recognised the important role of experience managers in implementing the rationing regulations. Warehousemen were reserved because it was felt that their heavy work could not be done by women.

Although the government recognised that distributing food was work of national importance, as the war progressed, the needs of the armed forces took priority. In May 1941 the age for managers’ reserved status was raised to 35, and finally in January 1942, reserved status was abolished altogether. This was a serious blow, because the retention of experienced male staff was regarded as essential to the maintenance of standards and the smooth running of the business.

To mark the announcement that war in Europe was over on 8th May 1945, John Benjamin Sainsbury wrote to all Sainsbury’s staff on national service:

‘To all of you who,… have by your individual exertions and sacrifices made possible the successful conclusion of the first part of this great task… we send this expression of our deep and lasting gratitude’.

Though it is not known exactly how many men from Sainsbury’s served in the First World War, it is estimated that around 500 were killed and, on average, each of Sainsbury’s 128 branches lost four members of its staff.

A Roll of Honour booklet was produced listing the 280 Sainsbury’s staff who gave their lives during the Second World War and a war memorial was dedicated at Sainsbury’s Stamford House headquarters on 29th November 1950. The memorial is now located at Sainsbury’s Holborn offices.

The Sainsbury Archive is grateful to Martin Edwards for creating a free fully searchable online database, containing all the details from Sainsbury’s Roll of Honour, enhanced with details from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:

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