Robert Sayle was born in 1816 in Southery, Norfolk in 1816. His father was a farmer, but he did not want to follow his father's footsteps and moved to London to learn the drapery trade.
In 1840 he moved to Cambridge and with help from his father he opened a drapery shop at 12, St Andrews Street. He placed a full page advertisement in the Cambridge News which cost the princely sum of £2. The store was cutting edge for the time, having two plate glass windows to display its wares. Prices were fixed and no credit was given. The premises were owned by two Cambridge colleges and the ground rent was £13 per year. The lease lasted for 40 years.
The business continued to grow, purchasing the shops along St Andrews Street, and by 1888 had extended up to No 17 St Andrews Street. Robert Sayle was married in 1849, and had seven children by 1860. To start with he had lived over the shop, but in 1866 he moved to Trumpington to a house which is now part of the Perse boys Prep School.
In 1869 an office was opened in London, and in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1870s and Singapore in the 1880s. These were responsible for exporting cotton from Manchester and importing hand woven silks.
In the 1881 census, Robert Sayle was a JP and general merchant and farmer. He was an Anglican with a strong interest in good works. He subscribed to the Royal Albert Almshouses at the junction of Hills Road and Brooklands Avenue. He supported the relief fund for cotton industry workers during the American Civil war and helped the Methodist Conference buy land for a large Wesleyan Chapel in Hills Road, but which was demolished in the 1970s. He bought a large house and grounds on Trumpington Road for the Methodist Conference, who developed it as the Leys School.
In August 1879 there was a famous bad storm with damage to buildings by lightning strikes, and boats were floating on Parkers Piece. At the shop £2000 worth of stock was lost. In 1882 rules were changed by Cambridge University to allow fellows to marry. Sayles reacted to this by starting to sell furniture.
Robert Sayle died of a heart attack in 1883, his funeral was arranged by the shop undertakers department and he was buried in the Mill Road cemetery.
The business continued to be run by partners who greatly expanded the departments, and it continued until 1934 when it was bought by Selfridges. They kept the Robert Sayle name, but could not run it profitably, so it was sold to John Lewis. It continued at St Andrews Street until 2004. It moved temporarily to Burleigh Street, while St Andrews Street was demolished to make way for the Grand Arcade which opened in 2007 with the new John Lewis as the anchor store, the Robert Sayle name having been dropped in favour of John Lewis.