Drury Lane was a busy London street where there was plenty of custom from local working people. When John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury moved into Drury Lane in 1869 there were more than two hundred shops in the street, around a quarter of which sold food.
Drury Lane was described by a journalist of the time as:
‘an honest, hard working and thrifty thoroughfare... but between the churches of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Clement Dane's an amazing amount of beggary, destitution, profligacy, vice and downright villainy hides its many-headed misery.’
173 Drury Lane had five floors which included the shop, an attic and a basement, where the food for the shop was stored. The Sainsbury family's living conditions must have been cramped, as they shared the premises with three other families.
John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury aimed to have 'the best butter in London'. Rising standards of living in the capital meant that there was an increased demand for quality food, particularly eggs, milk and butter. Milk consumption was on the increase due to the growing popularity and affordability of tea.
There was a cowkeeper at number 153 Drury Lane. Producing milk from cows kept in city backyards or basements was very unhygienic. By contrast, the Sainsburys sold 'Railway Milk' which was supplied daily from the farms of Devon, Dorset and East Anglia by specialist milk trains.
The Sainsburys' style of trading proved popular with customers and in 1873 they were able to open a second shop at 159 Queen's Crescent, Kentish Town.