The Early History of Sainsbury’s in Camden

In 1868 John Sainsbury, dairyman, opened his first shop at 173 Drury Lane, with a possibly apocryphal one hundred pounds of capital. He had just married Mary Anne Staples and in 1872, on the birth of their second son, the family moved to 159 Queen’s Crescent, the second shop in the chain, to enjoy the better air.1

By 1881, Sainsbury’s had no fewer than three shops in Queen’s Crescent, besides several elsewhere. The census shows that the accommodation at No. 94 was used as a hostel for the six young men, aged fourteen to eighteen, who worked as shopmen in the various shops along the Crescent. The 1881 census shows too that John Sainsbury’s family had grown to four sons and two daughters.2 As the business expanded rapidly and the bulk buying demanded large warehouse space, John Sainsbury set up his first wholesale depot at 90 Allcroft Road, near his three Kentish Town shops. 3

Allcroft Passage

Sainsbury's first depot in c!880. This was where Sainsbury's smoked bacon and had stabling and warehouses to supply the growing chain of Sainsbury stores until the Company's headquarters moved to Blackfriars in 1891.

Picture of the Kentish Town depot

Betty Scott, with her greengrocery stall outside 159 Queen’s Crescent in 1914.4

The stalls outside the shops in Queen’s Crescent were all part of the same busy market scene. Betty Scott’s daughter remembers going into Sainsbury’s each day to buy a farthing’s worth of milk for her mother’s tea, while her brother used to deliver vegetables to the housekeeper of the shop where the Sainsbury employees lived.

Since there was hardly any competition from other firms in Queen’s Crescent, the three managers competed against each other, especially during the Second World War. They watched each other’s deliveries carefully and if one received a crate of rabbits and the others did not, the phones to the depot became incandescent.

The Manager and Assistants at 98 Queen’s Crescent, 19395

A tiled floor circa 1900


The Aerated Bread Company

By the 1960s great changes were taking place in the way we lived. The traditional London tea shops were disappearing, public manners were changing and supermarkets were arriving. Up until then every London shopping parade had a Joe Lyons tea shop, an ABC, or Express Dairy tea shop. Many districts had all three. They were clean, with waitress service, and highly popular. The imposing red brick ABC building in Camden Road supplied bread and cakes to dozens of tea shops, bakeries and grocers all over London and the suburbs.

A young lad left school at fourteen with one ambition, to work at the ABC. The smell of fresh bread which filled the neighbourhood, had been a lure for as long as he could remember. There were no immediate vacancies for van boys, so he started at Dingwall’s, which was then a wood factory, at one pound six shillings and sixpence a week. A few months later he was offered an opening at the ABC, at a slightly higher wage.

At the end of each day the delivery vans were all backed into their positions at the loading bay, ready for an early start. Each van delivered to four or five shops in different parts of London and the suburbs. He quickly learned how to swing up the metal trays of bread or cakes, carry them on his head and slide the trays into the greased runners in the vans. Vegetables, sweets and cigarettes completed the load. This was to be his life for years.

By the 1950s, snack bars were starting up in small premises, with lower rents and no room to sit comfortably, or linger. The old tea shops in spacious surroundings, with leisurely tables where people could sit for hours, play chess, or read their papers, began to close. People too began to eat in the streets, a thing unheard of before 1939. It was simply not done. No respectable middle-class person ate in the street, yet today smart business executives can be seen queuing for sandwiches at a street window and eating them while walking through major streets, on their way back to work. The leisurely lunch has gone. People eat at their desks and if, under the new ‘hot desking’ system, they have no personal desk, but merely plug in their lap-top in some convenient socket, they perch where they can.

In this atmosphere, with old-fashioned tea shops closing, the Aerated Bread Company began to fail. In the days of fast food, their customers had gone. In 1976, the firm made 800 people redundant and set up instead a smaller and leaner firm called Allied Bakeries. This was to supply shops of any sort, but succeeded in making a small profit in only one of the next six years.

One employee said, “If we can make the Mini Metro, you would think we could make a few sausage rolls”, but the building and machines were antiquated, unable to meet modern production targets. Other firms were offering lower prices in a vicious discount war. On 19 March 1982 the factory closed completely, with another 200 redundancies. The workers received three months pay, tax free, but most did not expect to get a new job easily. Because of their age, some might never work again and prospects looked bleak. 6

The ABC building was imposing, in red brick with white facings; the smell of new baked bread had wafted from it for decades, but now it was empty. Despite a vigorous local campaign the Department of the Environment refused to spot-list it and so preserve it from demolition. Within months the building had disappeared.

The ABC building at the corner of Camden Street and Camden Road

The New Sainsbury Building

The prospect looked bleak. The site at the corner of two busy roads, which had been filled as long as anyone could remember with the familiar red and white ABC building, was now a eyesore on a derelict stretch of canal. Then came a new lease of life. Sainsbury’s proposed to build a new supermarket on the ABC site, with 32,000 square feet of sales area and room below for 427 cars. Supermarket buildings need to be flexible, easily adapted spaces, so that racks of goods can be placed in the most convenient positions and repositioned easily. Fixed pillars can hinder this, so Nicholas Grimshaw, the architect of Waterloo Station and many other major buildings, designed an enormous market hall, completely free of pillars. A light-weight steel roof hangs from two rows of cantilevered steel girders, with no centre poles. It is like an enormous tent, held up by outside guy ropes. It would cost ten per cent more than a traditional building, but Sainsbury’s thought the extra flexibility worth the price.

Sectional view showing the market hall with car parking below

The Sainsbury Market Hall lies along Camden Road and the bus routes, while customers’ cars and all delivery lorries are confined to the back of the store. The building is a vast and efficient machine for moving and displaying consumer goods of all kinds. The quantities involved and number of people who pass through the doors, are staggering. Efficiency is the watchword.


Sectional view showing the market hall under construction with car parking below

Close-up of part of the suspended roof

In the diagrams above the supporting structures are in place on either side and a tower crane is lifting one of the curved roof beams in to place. Before the roof beams were in position the site looked like an empty shipyard with two rows of cranes  along the opposite edges. When the roof was in place a false ceiling as added, so that the construction can not be seen from inside the Market Hall, but the cantilevers dominate the building from outside.

Contrasting Past and Present

About 1960 a small grocery shop in Kingsland Road, Hackney, closed down. Nobody would buy the business, so the shop re-opened for some different trade. Before the shop fitters cleared it out, they offered any historically interesting pieces to a local primary school which was interested in local history and had a small museum. The school collected the scales, brass weights, a few tiles and other memorabilia, including two strange pieces of wood. Nobody knew what they were.

One was made of 3 inch by 2 inch softwood and about eight inches long, with a shaped handle at one end. The second was of 4 inch x 2 inch timber with a 3 inch by x 2 inch hole through it. Clearly one fitted loosely into the other and they showed signs of long wear, but their purpose was a mystery. Then a television programme showed similar blocks and I remembered having seen them in use in the distant past. With my head just above the counter, I remembered a grocer’s assistant towering above me. A pile of pieces of blue sugar paper, each about eight inches square, was stacked by the scales. When a customer bought half a pound of currants, sultanas, or some other dry goods, the assistant wrapped a square of paper round the end of the longer block, folding the corners neatly. He then up-ended the block with its paper covering, put them in the hole and removed the block. The man had started to make a paper bag. He poured the currants from the scale into the paper tube, folded over the top tightly and tied the packet across in two directions with string. All this for half a pound of currants! A home-made Christmas pudding contained currants, raisins, sultanas, candied peel, almonds, sugar, flour, and half a dozen other things, most of which would need wrapping. No wonder that the queues used to stretch out of the building.

Today the supermarkets have solved all this. We do our own fetching and carrying. Everything is ready weighed and pre-packaged. We select, carry, load on to a conveyor belt, pay and then pack the goods into plastic bags. This method of selling has spawned a multi-billion pound packaging industry and some say that the packaging is even tastier then the food.

Delivering groceries with a covered handcart and by modern methods

The two pictures have been reduced to the same scale


A Final Note
Reactions to the new Sainsbury building

Some critics welcomed the innovative building. In the Guardian, Martin Pawley hailed it as the ‘most extraordinary piece of take-no-prisoners architecture since the Lloyd’s building.’ The Financial Times praised it as an ‘unremittingly sophisticated structure -------- grey as a battleship and structurally expressive as an oil platform’. Many of the general public disliked it intensely, repelled by its alien frontage, extraordinary structure and forbidding colour. However, it must be said that some of its most vocal critics at the start, can be seen shopping there each week.


  1. The Best Butter in the World, by Bridget Williams, 1994, p.14

  2. Ibid p. 26

  3. Ibid p. 26

  4. Photo Mrs. Sophie Jones and Sainsbury’s.

  5. Sainsbury’s.

  6. Ham & High, 19 March, 1982
Gilbey’s Bottle Store

Stables Market and
the Stanley Sidings

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