The Centenary of Britain’s First Self-Service Grocery Shop

David Greig’s thistle emblem above the Turnpike Lane shop (c. K. Morrison)

One hundred years ago the very first self-service grocery shop in the British Isles was opened in North London by the multiple provision dealer David Greig (1866-1952), a rival of J. Sainsbury’s.

This pioneering retail experiment was ignored by contemporary newspapers, but in 1951 the company revealed that it took place in its Turnpike Lane branch in 1923. Turnpike Lane was located close to the spot in High Street, Hornsey, where the chain originated in the 1870s. Directories confirm that the exact address was 111-113 Turnpike Lane: the middle of a mid-Victorian shopping parade.

Wrought ironwork displaying the firm’s ubiquitous thistle logo is still affixed to the brickwork above the modern shopfront of No. 113, where it once framed a signboard. Otherwise, the firm has left no lasting trace of its occupancy.

Wrought iron armature for signage over David Greig’s Turnpike Lane shopfront – just the right half survives (c. K. Morrison)

The Turnpike Lane experiment was probably inspired by self-service shops seen by Greig and his wife when they spent six weeks in America in summer 1922.

Greig’s self-service shop is known to have measured just 18ft. by 40ft. It was equipped with one-way turnstiles at both entrance and exit, obliging customers to perform a full circuit.

Goods were displayed on island units, as well as on shelves. The units stood 6ft. tall: more like modern supermarket fixtures than the low gondolas favoured in the 1940s and 1950s. For reasons of hygiene, no goods were positioned within 3ft. of the floor.

Despite extra work involved in packaging, labelling and pricing provisions such as bacon and cheese, Greig’s self-service trial proved modestly successful. Nevertheless, because profits were not sufficiently spectacular, it ceased after just seven or eight months. In later years, the company expressed regret for the premature termination of the Turnpike Lane experiment, suggesting that if they had persevered the history of self-service shopping in Britain might have been quite different.

111-113 Turnpike Lane (c. K. Morrison)

Other British experiments in self-service grocery shopping followed in the 1920s and 1930s, but were mostly short-lived. The method only took off towards the end of the Second World War when it was embraced by several co-operative stores in North London. Multiples like Tesco and Marks & Spencer began self-service trials in 1947-48, but it was the 1950s before David Grieg revisited the format.

Unlike Greig’s original premises in Hornsey, the ground-breaking shop in Turnpike Lane has never been marked by a commemorative plaque. Indeed, its historical importance seems to be completely unknown. The centenary of Greig’s precocious self-service experiment offers an opportunity to put this right.

Text, research and photographs, copyright K. Morrison.

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1 Response to The Centenary of Britain’s First Self-Service Grocery Shop

  1. Paul Dunstan says:

    When I left school in March at the tender age of 16 1975 my first retail job was at a small branch of David Grieg’s in Kingstanding Birmingham – whenever I mention the name no-one has heard of them. I lasted a full six months working in all areas Deli, Cig kiosk as well as filling shelves and I enjoyed the experience, sadly I was made redundant after those six months I think Key Markets took over but didn’t keep the store open, one other thing I remember was fifty pence an hour so a grand sum of £20pw

    Like

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