Life & Culture

From market stall to supermarket giant: the man who made Tesco

One hundred years ago, Jack Cohen started the market stall which grew into a vast supermarket chain. Jenni Frazer looks back on a colourful life


At the end of his long life, it was difficult to get a sense of the hard-nosed and ruthless businessman “Tesco Cohen” must once have been in his heyday.

When I interviewed him for the JC back in 1978 on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Sir Jack Cohen’s home was a cluster of “me with” photographs; Sir Jack with the Queen, Sir Jack apparently exchanging memories of the East End with celebrities from television, Sir Jack and his wife, Lady Cissie (Sarah), with their two daughters, Irene and Shirley. And pride of place was given to a flower bowl to mark the couple’s Golden Wedding, inscribed “John Cohen, Sarah Fox, 1924-1974”.

He was not, by any measure, a good-looking man. But the minute he smiled — a wide grin which transformed his face — the ghost of the Jack Cohen of 1919 suddenly appeared, the Whitechapel boy whose market stalls and backchat lured in the shoppers of Hackney.  And it is the centenary of that barrow-boy initiative that the Tesco empire is celebrating this year.

He didn’t have much to sell: army surplus, fish paste and golden syrup, at first. But it was enough, five years later, to allow him to marry Sarah “Cissie” Fox — and the story goes that the money the young couple received as wedding gifts was ploughed back into the business. Just the same, the Fox family didn’t much take to Jack as a future son-in-law, because they thought that working the markets was common.  As for Cissie, in that 80th-birthday interview, Jack recalled that, before their marriage, she used to go out dancing with another man while he was working all hours. “And then it was me or the other fellow”, Jack growled, while Cissie chipped in that he had been “the best husband in the world”.

The life of the founder of the Tesco supermarkets empire began in unpromising circumstances. Jacob Edward Cohen was born to a large family in Whitechapel. His father, Avroam Kohen, came from Lodz in Poland and, like thousands of his co-religionists, worked as a tailor.

Young Jack left school at 14 and was apprenticed to his father  but he did not enjoy the work. Nevertheless, the tailoring skills stood him in good stead when he signed up for the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 — he became a canvas-maker for balloons and other aircraft.

As the First World War dragged on, Jack Cohen served first in France and then in Egypt and Mandate Palestine. But a tragic incident in December 1917 pretty much put paid to Cohen’s military career.

He was on board HMS Osmanieh, a passenger and cargo ship which had been taken over by the Royal Navy as a supply and troopship. In the harbour of Alexandria, the ship struck a German mine and sank in less than seven minutes, drowning 209 people, including soldiers, nurses, crew and even the captain of the Osmanieh. A nurse who found Cohen floating in the water saved him, and he was sent back to England.

Still only 21 in 1919, Jack Cohen returned home after he was demobbed, but told his father he did not want to stay in tailoring. Instead, he used his £30 demob money to buy surplus army stock, and set up a market stall to sell it in Hackney.

Much depended on getting the best spot in the market. The tradition was that each day the traders would gather and, at a given signal, race each other to secure the best pitch. Cohen was either a terrible runner or very sharp, because his method secured him the best pitch every time: he’d simply throw his cap in the right direction, easily beating his racing competitors.

It was on the market stalls that Jack Cohen developed his first, and best-known slogan — “Pile it high, sell it cheap”. By the time he married Cissie Fox in 1924 he was the owner of several market stalls, and was able to launch a wholesale business.

Cohen’s stalls were easily recognisable in the markets, bursting with produce, tins of food and other groceries tumbling over each other in a colourful array to draw the customer in.

It was in 1924, the year of his marriage, that the Tesco brand name was created. Famously it derives from the initials of his tea supplier, TE Stockwell, and the “co” from Cohen.

By 1939 — 20 years after that first market barrow was wheeled into place — Jack Cohen owned 100 Tesco stores, the first two having opened in  1931 in Becontree and Burnt Oak.

By that time, Jack and Cissie had two daughters, Irene and Shirley. Both girls married men whom Jack brought into the business — Irene married Hyman Kreitman, and Shirley married Leslie Porter.

In 1932, Jack made a first visit to America to look at their self-service supermarkets, but he was unimpressed and didn’t think Britain would embrace the idea. It was Hyman Kreitman who convinced him, after the war, and Tesco supermarkets took off.

One of Jack Cohen’s regular gifts to favoured young men in the business was a tie-pin bearing the letters “YCDBSOYA”. It would be presented with a twinkle and the message that it was “a little bit of Yiddish humour”. In fact, as he was quick to tell people, the letters stood for another Jack Cohen mantra: “You Can’t Do Business Sitting On Your Arse”.

Often known as “Slasher Cohen” or “the Guv’nor” — the first name in honour of his fondness for cutting prices — Cohen was also the first to introduce a loyalty scheme in his shops, the famous Green Shield stamps.

Knighted in 1969 for his services to the retail and food industry, Sir Jack also became master of an unusual City guild — the Worshipful Company of Carmen — in 1976. It’s nothing to do with Bizet’s operetta, or even hair curling — the name derives from “cart” men, or drivers, and is a nod towards Jack Cohen’s original barrow on the market.

Jack himself is commemorated in an English Heritage blue plaque at 91 Ashfield Street, Whitechapel, where he lived as a child. In 2018, Tesco, in the “sell it cheap” spirit, founded a new discount chain, called Jack’s, aimed at competing with supermarkets such as Aldi or Lidl.

Cissie’s name is remembered in Jewish Care’s Lady Sarah Cohen care home in north London. Throughout their lives, the couple supported charities in Britain and Israel, something echoed by their daughters. Jack’s belief was that charitable giving came with the territory of being a wealthy Jew, and frequently declared: “My name is Cohen” as his reason for helping others.

Irene, who married Hyman Kreitman when she was 19, became a major donor to the Tate Gallery and to Ben-Gurion University in Israel through the Kreitman Foundation. Hyman retired from all business at the age of 60 and the couple, who had a daughter and two sons, spent the rest of their lives in charitable endeavours.

Irene, who gave up her studies at LSE in order to get married, had trained as a guide at the Tate and worked there, almost always anonymously, for more than 25 years, building up a vast store of artistic knowledge. The couple donated £2.2 million to artistic research facilities at the Tate, housing more than 120,000 exhibition catalogues, and the papers of Stanley Spencer, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, David Bomberg and the art historian Kenneth Clark.

They also donated considerably to Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, which made Hyman Kreitman an honorary doctor of philosophy in 1979. 

The Kreitman name  and that of Sir Jack and Lady Cohen  are all over the Ben-Gurion campus, from buildings to fellowships to chairs at the university.

Irene’s younger sister, Shirley, went on to a different kind of public recognition. She married Leslie Porter, who also played a major part in the Tesco business, but clashed frequently — and dramatically — with his father-in-law. On one occasion it’s said the two men set about each other with swords  (which had been hanging over a fireplace in the Tesco offices).

Shirley became a Conservative councillor and then the leader of Westminster Council.

Closely allied with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Shirley Porter became a Dame in 1991, an award given by Prime Minister John Major for her work in bringing Westminster Conservatives a stunning victory in the 1990 elections. But, for Dame Shirley, fond of publicity stunts in the footsteps of her father, it all went spectacularly wrong when she was implicated in a “homes for votes” scandal, and accused of gerrymandering.

She moved to Israel (although she now spends time back in London) and eventually repaid £12.3 million in 2004 after a long and troubled investigation into her actions.

Dame Shirley and her husband had a son and a daughter but tragedy struck in 1993 when their grandson, Daniel Marcus, was killed in a road accident in the south of Israel.

She was not treated kindly in the press. One critic said of her: “Dame Shirley seemed to me Macbeth with shoulder pads. Richard III in a pink velour leisure suit”.

Journalist John Ware believes  she experienced quite a lot of “subliminal, posh antisemitism. When a Tory said ‘she’s just ghastly’ you knew what they meant”.

The result, he said, was that she interpreted all opposition as unjustified and unfair.

“She was someone who set her jaw against the world. A combination of a doting dad, loads of money, and a chip on her shoulder that wasn’t imagined, was lethal”.

In that 1978 birthday interview,   I asked the Tesco founder what he most desired as a birthday present. He put in a plea for “good health and an ability to enjoy the rest of my life”.

Sadly, this most pugnacious of tycoons died only five months later — but his legacy remains as Tesco marks its centenary.

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