Check out how Sainsbury’s in Kentish Town looked in 1955


The chain have been in the neighbourhood for 140 years, so here’s their story, from beginnings on Queen’s Crescent to the mammoth Camden store on the banks of the Regent’s Canal



J Sainsbury, now a Co-operative. Photo:
J Sainsbury, now a Co-operative. Photo: Camden Town & Kentish Town Then & Now, Marianne Colloms & Dick Weindling (The History Press)
The impact of World War II is deeply etched into the patchwork fabric of today’s London. The post-War years saw environmental and cultural changes that still echo all around us. And this amazing photo of J Sainsbury’s brand spanking new Kentish Town ‘self-service’ concept store, taken in 1955, neatly captures the essence of those times. As soon as we saw it in the excellent Camden Town & Kentish Town Then & Now book, it demanded a write-up.

The building on the corner of Islip Street had just been completely rebuilt, filling a large bomb site. The sweeping glass frontage was bold and modern. In fact it looks far more modern than the current drab security shutter aesthetic of the Co-Operative in residence there today. In ’55, the shop boasted the alien idea of picking up one’s groceries from aisles rather than having them individually wrapped by an overalled gentleman behind a counter, juggling scales, scoops, knives and paper bags for one customer at a time.

And my, how busy it looks in there! People were clearly attracted by the prospect of avoiding the hours of weekly queuing they previously had little option but to participate in. We particularly like all the perambulators parked up out front – with the children left sitting in them. It was, indeed, another era.

Also observe the reflection of the Marks & Spencer signage from across Kentish Town Road (where Iceland is currently located). They upped sticks from the area in the 80s, to be replaced by a huge shoe shop where the sales staff roller skated around the aisles to fetch footwear in one of history’s less successful retail service concept experiments.

The second ever branch of Sainsbury's,  Queen's Crescent, 1914. Thanks to to Tim Matthews' Camden Now & Then Facebook page
Sainsbury’s, Queen’s Crescent, 1914, and as it is now. Thanks to to Tim Matthews’ Camden Now & Then Facebook page
Kentish Town Road was much more dominated by the big store brands: M&S, Woolies – Sainsbury’s had three shops alone. The company’s association with K-Town stretches back to its very inception, of course. John Sainsbury famously bought his second store at 159 Queen’s Crescent in 1872, thereby starting the grocery chain that was to become such a dominant retailing force.

Expansion was swift, with three Sainsbury shops on the Crescent by 1881. There was also the firm’s first ever wholesale depot just around the corner on Allcroft Road. The distinctive early brand identity, long before the utilitarian orange lettering of the ‘good food costs less’ era, was developed here too. Mosaic floors, green and cream wall tiles, marble-topped counters.

Yet more Sainsbury innovation took place here in the ‘hood when the Camden Town superstore was completed in the early 90s. It replaced the huge but redundant Aerated Bread Company (ABC) bakery. As tea rooms went out of fashion for good, the scale of this bread and cake operation could not be sustained. The imposing historic red brick factory structure was not preserved despite a campaign, so up rose the new Sainsbury’s, a shop that was praised in the Guardian at the time as the “most extraordinary piece of take-no-prisoners architecture since the Lloyd’s building.”

Camden Town Sainsburys. Photo: e-architect.co.uk
Camden Town Sainsburys. Photo: e-architect.co.uk
The radical design, by Waterloo’s one-time Eurostar terminal designer Nicholas Grimshaw, has not proved quite as popular with everyone. Some find the dominance of the cantilevered steel girders which hold up the giant overarching roof too brutal, although their shape is also meant to mirror the form of the Georgian terraces opposite. Still, in investing in such a ruthlessly functional retail space, Sainsbury’s had broken new ground yet again.

And having moved out of Kentish Town Road with the coming of said controversial superstore, they are now back, as ‘Local’ branches prove the latest wheeze for ongoing expansion of the grocery giants. Next time you scan your own bag of spuds at the computerised till, take a moment to reflect on 140 years of relentless development in buying and selling food, much of it pioneered right here on our doorstep.

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Sources: Camden Town & Kentish Town Then & Now, Marianne Colloms & Dick Weindling (The History Press £12.99), Streets Of Gospel Oak & West Kentish Town (Camden History Society, £8.50)and Localhistory.co.uk – The early history of Sainsbury’s in Camden

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  • Gavin the coffee flavoured estate agent

    I love that 50s picture. Could be New York City.

  • Tim

    Hi Tom and the KTers.

    Fascinating stuff as always!

    People interested in Camden ‘now & then’ pictures might be interested to know that my own album of 100s of such photos has been available free to Facebook-enabled users for several years now. A little before Marianne’s & Dick’s fine book, and 13 quid cheaper! And there’s 100s more to come… when I get the time

    Eg. Sainsbury’s related ones are thus:

    Kentish Town Road, as mentioned above: http://tinyurl.com/d87dzwu

    Modern day, previously the ABC Bakery: http://tinyurl.com/ch3fw82

    The 2nd ever Sainsbury’s on Queen’s Crescent : http://tinyurl.com/d9yls89

    The first Sainsbury’s warehouse : http://tinyurl.com/bu63x6y

    And a now defunct outlet on Chalcot Rd: http://tinyurl.com/cgk45wx

    Enjoy! And share freely.

    Tim

    • Kentishtowner

      Thanks Tim. When you do get enough time to upload the 100s, please let us know as they sound like a rich source of inspiration for future investagative Wednesday Picture features. And we can support views of your fantastic project in the process.

      • Tim

        I will do – but it’s not the uploading that takes the time, it’s the taking the photos. The 225 already there have taken long enough. Another 50 should be up there soon-ish, in dribs and drabs tho. Cheers, tim

  • Caroline

    I refuse to use the computerized tills I want to be served by a human being.

  • alistair

    When I worked for Camden in the 1980s we looked into leasing the accommodation for workers Sainsbury’s had above their KT store

  • Charlie Beckett

    It is really striking how really ugly the Coop frontage is compared to the original. Far too cluttered, like most of KTR

  • fionasantfiona

    Caroline, I’m totally with you on that one. Can still recall the Tesco staff wiped out in a day in favour of the self-checkouts, and the bewildered singular till-person left. Maybe it’s just inevitable progress, but can’t help feeling its also circumventing some natural but important balance of give and take. Or possibly I’m mutating into an old hippy.

  • Isadora

    Do you know something more about the structure of this Sainsbury’s??? I study Architecture and I have to search informations like what it is made of, the style of construction… I’ll apreciate a little help… Thanks!

  • Eileen

    I agree with you so much. The tears have been falling out of my eyes since I found this picture of Sainsburys today. I played on the bombsite as a child before Sainsburys was built,I also watched it being built as I walked by everyday to School. The Sainsburys lived in the top of the building, I know my sister used to play with a Sainsbury daughter simalar age and would visit her on the top floor residence. To put the icing on the cake my dear mother was head butcher girl from the first day it opened for three years until we moved from Kentish Town to Camberwell where my parents set up a General shop of their own, unfortunately, my father died suddenly 3 years later and he never managed to steal J Sainsbury’s crown. I moved 100 miles away from London 44 years ago, but seeing this picture today just brought back so many happy memories. Some more local info. the first ever Group Practice of Doctors opened in Caversham Road,Kentish Town also around that time and they would invite the local children (I was one)during school holidays to use and play in their back garden. The children then had so much freedom, we could go to Parliament Hill Fields for days on end without adult supervision. Wonderful memories.