Marks & Spencer started as a one penny stall in Leeds Market. It has grown to be a leading high street leader. It has a special place in British retailing. Pupils studying Business Studies were very interested to learn how the business supported Britain’s war effort from 1939 to 1945.


Did You Know?


At the M&S AGM, in May 1939, Simon Marks announced that each store would have it’s own full-time air raid precautions officer. Already 25 per cent of staff had been trained in first aid or anti-gas precautions. M&S encouraged staff to join the Territorial Army, enabling them to attend training camps on full pay.


I did not expect that a business would make air raid precautions – James


M&S staff gave first aid to troops returning from Dunkirk.


M&S directors showed they cared by letting their staff help others - Ben


By early 1941 supply ships were being sunk at a rate of over 20%. Food rationing was more important than ever. M&S food sections displayed notices saying ‘register here for cheese and preserves’. Occasionally food and merchandise would be sold straight from a lorry’s tail-board.


M&S pulled through and continued to be a successful business - Grace


The British Government took nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany. Simon Marks was among those who lobbied the government and sponsored some of the children. One of these, Herbie Wolff, aged eight, later worked for the company for over 30 years. All four of his sons worked for M&S at some point.


I strongly agree with what Simon Marks did – Katie


In 1939 Ralph Salaman produced the first M&S air raid precautions manual (ARP). In each store most of the Chief ARP officers were women. The ‘Chain Gang’ of M&S, Boots, Lyons, BHS and Woolworths was a mutual aid system enabling staff to share each other’s canteens should any properties be damaged by enemy action. A blast proof shelter was built in each store and tin helmets always on hand.


I never realised that M&S had done so much for their country - Lorna


More than half of M&S stores were damaged to some degree. Sixteen were destroyed completely and four in part. These included Coventry, Sheffield, Swansea, Southampton, Great Yarmouth, Plymouth and Birmingham. Eight members of staff were killed and 36 injured whilst on duty.


Imagine shopping there one day and the next day it’s gone – Matthew


The fifth floor of M&S Head Office in Baker Street, London, was used by the Special Operations Executive. It’s activities were highly secret. They used a different entrance to M&S staff who were told to only say ‘good morning to them and nothing else’.


I’d love to know how successful their secret work was - Bradley


One of the greatest challenges faced by M&S during the war was the shortage of trained staff. In September of 1939 over 20,000 were employed by the company. By June 1941 this had fallen to 15,000 and by mid 1943 it was just 11,000. Of the 2000 men employed by M&S over 1500 were in the forces. Women replaced men and girls replaced women as 1000 employees joined the services. These included Women’s Armed Forces, nursing, transport, the Land Army, and munitions production. Simon Marks noted that it ‘was the loyalty and determination of female sales staff, submerging their personal worries, that allowed Marks and Spencer to survive at all’.


M&S staff must have really cared for each other – Sam


Company staff knitted garments such as socks and balaclava helmets. Stores held social events and theatrical entertainment for servicemen. Wounded servicemen were fed for free in staff canteens. Restaurants and mobile canteens served ‘Blitz Broth’, from an M&S devised recipe.


What an amazing idea. Real commitment – George


At Head Office staff raised enough money to donate an ambulance. Over £5000 was raised by a national staff collection, enough to purchase a Spitfire. Called the Marksman it was shot down near Calais on 24 March 1942. The pilot, John Sills, lies at rest in Pihen-les-Guines Cemetery.


This is a fantastic amount of money for those years. A very moving story - Rob


By the end of the war 1500 male employees were serving in the armed forces. By 1945 96 had died, and 59 had become prisoners-of-war. The Personnel Department individually wrote to all these men and women.


Everybody was so determined to win the war  - Reece