How London Created The British Supermarket

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 101 months ago

Last Updated 08 December 2015

How London Created The British Supermarket

These days you can't turn a London street corner without careering headlong into a Tesco Metro or a Little Waitrose or a Lil' Lidl (OK, the latter doesn't exist, but surely it's only a matter of time?). However, 65 years ago, the city didn't have a supermarket. Here's a crash-course on how genteel greengrocers became the big boys we know, love and loathe today.

Photo by Magic Pea.

A man (and a woman) called Sainsbury

You could say Sainsbury's was built on a foundation of butter. Co-founder Mary Ann Sainsbury (wife of John James) ensured a high-quality version of the dairy product was a USP of the humble grocery store the couple opened together on Drury Lane in April 1869. A second shop opened in Kentish Town four years later, and the brand (then J. Sainsbury) was well on the way to becoming a household name.

While self-service may seem like a modern concept, back then it referred to plucking your own goods off the shelf, rather than relying on counter service. Sainsbury's trialled this American style of DIY shopping at its West Croydon store in 1950. According to The Grocer, some were instantly won over by the concept:

"As we went in, we collected a basket and wandered around, choosing a tin of fruit here, a packet of biscuits there... There was no queuing, no need to ask 'What do you have in stock?'"

Photo by Andrew Smith.

However, not all reviews were so favourable. A piece from the Telegraph claims one frustrated shopper chucked a basket at Alan Sainsbury, grandson of founder John James, and the brains behind self-service. Much like you might throw a basket at a touchscreen now.

So Sainsbury's spearheaded self-service in the UK. But hang on a minute — was the Croydon store big enough (or, indeed, super enough) to be the first supermarket? The general consensus seems to be no, it wasn't.

Premier premieres

The pioneering style of all-in-one, self-service shopping didn't debut on Oxford Street, neither was it an exclusive experience for a handful of South Ken poshos. The claim of being the first belongs to Premier Supermarkets, which opened its doors in Streatham in 1951. Its size (and presumably as it has the word 'supermarket' in its name), means it is considered to be the UK's pioneer. Why Streatham? According to Friends of Streatham Green, the area was home to the longest, busiest strip of shopping real estate in south London. Premier Supermarkets raked in about a grand a week, while the average retailer was totting up roughly £100; a revolution was inevitable. But although Premier Supermarkets set the standard for doing the weekly shop in a single blitz, the brand had limited shelf life. A certain Mr Jack Cohen bought out the chain in 1960.

Tesco in Woolwich: officially the ugliest.

Jack Cohen and Tesco

So who was this Cohen fella? A Jewish grocer, he grew up in Whitechapel and cut his teeth selling surplus food from a stall in Well Street Market, Hackney. His first day's profit was a cool £1 — a figure on which the brand has steadily improved on (in 2013 it scooped £3.3 billion, and that was with a six per cent fall from the previous year). Cohen opened his first Tesco shop in Burnt Oak in 1929 (the name is a combination of a shipment of tea he'd bought from TE Stockwell, and the first two letters of his own surname). But even though he'd given birth to Tesco in London, Cohen opened the first Tesco supermarket in Maldon, Essex (in 1956 — so a little late to the party, too). London is now flecked with hundreds of Tesco stores, and the total square footage of its properties in the UK measures over 32,991,000 — an area bigger than the City of London. These days, Tesco has the sexiest supermarket in London — the Hoover Building in Perivale — and officially the plug ugliest, in Woolwich.

Photo by Paul Mison in the Londonist Flickr pool

Waitrose and Streatham (again)

Waitrose may not quite have the empire Tesco does, but there's still a decent handful of them (plus the chain probably gets less gyp from Londoners than the average supermarket). The first Waitrose store — then called Waite, Rose & Taylor — was at 263 Acton Hill. The John Lewis Partnership bought the chain in 1937 and when Waitrose went 'super' in 1955, good old Streatham (558 High Road) was again the testing ground. According to the company, the store greeted shoppers as follows:

"The fascia was in eggshell green vitriolite, with neon-lit lettering in dark green perspex and sheet bronze. Opening hours were 8.30am to 6pm with half day closing on Wednesday and a late night on Friday."

Eggshell green vitriolite it may have had, but Streatham's Waitrose closed down in 1963. It didn't prevent the revolution. Once London had proved the popularity of the supermarket, the rest of the country quickly followed, making household names of the capital's grocery pioneers.

If the history of London's supermarkets interests you, book a visit to the Sainsbury Archive at Museum of London. And if you're looking for more reasons why Streatham is cool, you'll find them here.