Jack Cohen (businessman)

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Sir John Edward Cohen (6 October 1898 – 24 March 1979), born Jacob Edward Kohen and commonly known as Jack Cohen, was an English grocer who founded the Tesco supermarket chain.

Early and private life

Cohen was born in the city of London and grew up in Whitechapel.[1][2] His family was Jewish: his father, Avroam Kohen, was a Polish immigrant (from Łódź, City in central part of Poland) who worked as a tailor, and his mother was Sime Zamremba.[1] He was named Jacob Edward Kohen, but was known as Jack from an early age. [1] He was educated at the London County Council elementary school on Rutland Street until he was aged 14 and then began his working life as an apprentice tailor to his father.[1] His mother died in 1915 and his father remarried. He became estranged from his father after an argument about his career choice as a grocer. [1]

In 1917, he volunteered to join the Royal Flying Corps where he used his tailoring skills as a canvas maker for balloons and other aircraft.[1] He served in France, and also in Egypt and Palestine.[1] He was on board a ship that was sunk by a mine outside Alexandria in 1917.[1] He returned to England after contracting malaria, and was demobilised in 1919.[1]

He married Sarah (Cissie) Fox, daughter of an immigrant Russian-Jewish tailor, in 1924. [1] Cissie was a great supporter of her husband's business interests, so much so that the money they received as wedding gifts was invested in a wholesale venture.[3] They had two daughters, Sybil Irene born 1926 and Shirley born 1930.[1] Irene married Hyman Kreitman (1926–2005) and Shirley married Leslie Porter (1920–2005).[1]

He continued to work after a colostomy operation in 1958, even after standing down as chairman of Tesco in 1969.[1] He died in London.[1]


Cohen was reluctant to return to tailoring after the First World War, and he established himself as a market stall holder in Hackney, in London's East End by purchasing surplus NAAFI stock with his £30 demob money.[1][3] He soon became the owner of a number of market stalls, and started a wholesale business.[1] Initially the other stalls were run by members of the family but gradually non-family members were added. Cohen and his wife worked 7 days a week, starting at dawn and counting money until late. At each market the traders would gather and, at a signal they would race to their favoured pitch. Cohen could not run fast so he simply threw his cap at the spot and this could beat anyone.[4]

In 1924, he created the Tesco brand name from the initials of a tea supplier, T. E. Stockwell (formerly Messrs Torring and Stockwell of Mincing Lane), and the first two letters of his surname.[1] The market trading business became difficult to expand because partners tended to be unreliable so eventually he changed to high street shops without doors, looking and sounding as far as possible like market stalls.[4] The first two Tesco stores opened at Becontree and Burnt Oak in 1931.[1] By 1939, Cohen owned a hundred Tesco stores.[1] His expansion was helped by the growth of new shopping centres. Retailers are often reluctant to be the first to sign a contract in a new centre lest they become the only ones. With his market experience and courage, Cohen was often the one to take that risk and he had ways of drawing a crowd. Developers became keen to help him with his start-up costs because of his ability to get people into a new centre, with benefit to the other shops.[4]

Sometime around 1930 he changed his name by deed poll to John Edward at the suggestion of his bank manager, whose staff had trouble distinguishing between the many Jacob Cohens banking at the Mare Street branch of the Midland Bank in Hackney.[1]

In 1932, having opened his first Tesco-named shops,[3] Cohen travelled to the United States to review their self-service supermarkets. At the time he was not impressed and felt they would never be accepted in the UK. After the war he took another look and listened to his son-in-law Hyman Kreitman, who was very keen. He opened one of the first British supermarkets. The new strategy was led by Kreitman who understood how to manage this new style of shop and the crucial tasks of mass buying, selling and logistics. Tesco grew strongly. It gradually drew ahead of its rivals and took over many of them.[1][4]

He expanded the company by take-overs and mergers, making it the fourth largest chain in the United Kingdom by 1968 (behind Co-op, Fine Fare, and Allied Suppliers).[1] He campaigned against retail price maintenance, tackled in the second half of the 1960s by the Resale Prices Act 1964, and was a leading instigator of the Green Shield trading stamps scheme in 1963.[1]


Cohen was knighted in 1969.[1] He was master of the Worshipful Company of Carmen in 1976-7.[1]

Sir John and Lady Cohen supported a range of charities in England and Israel, giving their name to the Jewish Care facility, Lady Sarah Cohen House at Friern Barnet, north London.[5]

In 2009 an English Heritage blue plaque was placed at 91 Ashfield Street, Whitechapel, London, where Cohen lived as a child.[3]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 P. M. Oppenheimer, ‘Cohen, Sir John Edward (1898–1979)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, January 2009 accessed 23 September 2013 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "odnb" defined multiple times with different content
  2. English Heritage Blue Plaque for Tesco Founder
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "English Heritage Blue Plaque for Tesco FounderER". English Heritage. 16 April 2009. Retrieved 3 February 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Aris, Stephen (1970), "7: Sir John Cohen", The Jews in Business, London: Penguin Books (Pelican), ISBN 0 14 02 1629 4<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Lady Sarah Cohen House". Jewish Care.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links