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 she 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.

Drury Lane 1919

When John and Mary Ann moved to the second store in Kentish Town, Sarah Pullen and her husband managed the Drury Lane branch together. It was likely that other managers' 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”.

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