Former workers are invited to remember a long-lost part of Sunderland’s shopping heritage. Sarah Stoner takes a look.
THE 20th anniversary of the closure of a much-mourned Wearside shopping legend is to be marked with a reunion.
Former Binns staff are urged to relive their memories of the department store during a coffee morning at Sunderland Minister this Wednesday – exactly two decades after the firm shut for good.
“I loved being part of Binns. It was like working with your family,” said Vera Vincent, 71, one of the reunion organisers. “That is why so many Binns workers still remember the shop with fondness.
“It really was a great loss to Sunderland when the store closed down. Shopping at Binns was a tradition for generations of people. All the staff knew each other too, and helped each other out.”
Businessman George Binns moved from Lancashire to Sunderland in 1804, opening a small High Street drapery in 1807 before acquiring Thomas Ellerby’s larger haberdashery at No 173 in 1811.
The store proved an instant success and, following George’s death in 1836, it passed to his eldest son, Henry. Within just a few years, Henry was able to retire on the profits of his hard work.
“It was Henry who renamed the store H. Binns,” said local historian Carol Roberton. “His son, Henry Jnr, took over when his father retired to Croydon and it became one of our most popular shops.
“Those who could afford it ‘Shopped at Binns for Everything’ – just as the adverts urged. Those who couldn’t afford to buy went to look around – and there were always the sales to look forward to.
“In between the big sales there were half-price remnant days. All the bargains were detailed in page upon page of adverts in the Echo, all of them as well-read as any news page.” The family firm continued trading as H Binns, Son and Co even after passing to Henry Jnr’s son, Joseph John, in 1865. Two decades later, in 1884, H. Binns was on the move again.
Two houses in Fawcett Street, then at the heart of the shopping district, were leased for the major expansion and, after Binns was floated as a limited company in 1897, these were bought outright.
Additional shops were later rented in other premises and, by the outbreak of the First World War, the capital of H. Binns stood at a very healthy £65,000 – around £20million in today’s money.
“H. Binns became one of the largest and best-known department stores in the north,” said Carol. “And, by 1924, the slogan Shop at Binns was on the front of all the trams in Sunderland.
“Binns reigned supreme in its heyday, it really did. Trains and buses were chartered to bring people in from the pit villages, and it survived two World Wars as well as the Great Depression. For almost 200 years it seemed to get bigger and better. Steeped in tradition, it nonetheless moved with the times. Its high service and quality endured through the years and were second to none.”
Indeed, after H. Binns survived the Zeppelin attacks of World War One, it positively thrived in the post-war years – opening branches in Darlington, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Carlisle and Lincoln.
The depression years of the 1930s saw Binns – which by now had shops on both sides of Fawcett Street – survive by aggressive marketing, including the chartering of trains to bring in customers.
And, as other shops and businesses folded, so Binns became a nationwide name – chalking up capital of over £1million by 1935 – and employing 5,000 staff across the North East and Scotland.
Even Hitler failed to halt its success. Only the general office survived when an air raid on April 16, 1941, hit both stores. But it was trading again days later, and two new shops opened in the 1950s.
“Binns was known for many years as the ‘Harrods of Sunderland’,” said Carol. “It employed its own furniture craftsmen, its own French polishers, its own watch repairers and its own alterations staff.
“There were skilled staff to advise on furnishing fabrics, and the food hall brought delicacies that weren’t available anywhere else locally – it was the first place on Wearside to sell green peppers.
“It was said locally that you were somebody if you had a job in Binns. They knew their customers too. In the last days, staff dated the decline from the time local buyers were no longer required.”
Indeed, following the take-over of Binns by the Al Fayed brothers in 1985, the east side Fawcwett Street store closed in April, 1989. The west side one shut its doors on January 30, 1993.
“It was a sad day for Sunderland when Binns closed,” said Vera, who was recruited to work in the accounts department of the business after leaving James Williams Street School in the 1950s.
The Hendon-born mum-of-two went on to be responsible for the bookwork in the food department, as well as assisting the general manager, and has nothing but happy memories of her years there.
“I retired in 1992, a year before it closed. I loved working there, particularly in the food department. The girls were a pleasure to work with – absolutely fantastic – and it was a real shame Binns closed.
“A lot of people worked for Binns almost all their lives. It would be wonderful to see as many old faces at the reunion as possible – and it would great if people brought along old photos as well.”
•The reunion will be held in the café at Sunderland Minster on January 30 from 10am. All welcome.
From shopworker to battlefield hero
RIDDLED with bullets – and just minutes from death – former Binns worker Herbert Reed used his final few breaths to save his commanding officer.
The Sunderland-born gunner hauled the injured chief officer to safety as their ship, SS Cormount, came under German attack in June 1941.
Minutes later, the 30-year-old former shop assistant died. His stomach had been ripped open by Nazi machine-gun bullets.
Herbert, who had lived with his parents at 13 Oakwood Street before the war, was posthumously awarded the George Cross for his actions.
“I understand he not only carried the chief officer to safety, but he also carried the steward from the bridge to a place of greater safety, before he lay down and died,” his mother, Annie, told the Echo.
“The chief officer and the steward both survived their wounds, and the ship itself was safely brought into port. I understand the plane which attacked them was shot down too.”
Herbert, who was born in Sunderland in 1911, was the eldest of four sons. His father, Henry, served as a chief engineer on a coasting vessel.
After leaving Bede School, Herbert joined Binns and served as secretary of the sports club. He was also a Rover in Offerton Scout Troop and, when war broke out, he joined the Royal Artillery.
Just a few months later, he volunteered as a gunner on merchant ships patrolling the seas around Britain – much against his parents’ wishes.
“He felt he was not doing sufficient for his country before he was transferred to this duty,” Annie Reed told the Echo just after her son’s death.
“When his father knew he was going to sea, he told him ‘You are throwing your life away,’ but Herbert answered: ‘Dad, this man (Hitler) has got to be put down, and we are the men to do it.’
“Herbert died as he lived – a most unselfish life. No mother could lose a better son.”
The brave Wearsider was on only his third voyage when SS Cormount came under enemy attack from cannon, machine guns and bombs.
He managed to shoot back at a German plane before suffering the fatal stomach wound and carrying out the brave rescue.
His actions won him the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea, the 1939-1945 Star and the British War Medal 1939-1945, as well as the George Cross.
“Gunner Reed behaved with the utmost gallantry. By his gallant and utterly selfless action, Gunner Reed saved the life of the chief officer,” his medal citation reads.
Binns facts and figures
•Henry Binns was a member of the anti-slavery lobby. Only cotton “warranted to be free labour grown” was sold in his shop. His brother, George, was jailed for six months for his Chartist movement activities. His son, Henry Jnr, became Prime Minister of Natal in 1897.
•The Bear Pit coffee bar at Binns was a favourite hang-out for the “new breed of teenager” in the 1960s. The store’s waitress service restaurant, however, was hailed as “the last bastion of afternoon tea civilisation” until the 1980s. Tommy the lift-man was also a well-known figure.
•Chief Constable Frederick Crawley, of Sunderland Borough Police, developed the Police Box in 1923 – now famous as Doctor Who’s TARDIS. More than 20 boxes were built by Binns staff – intended as a replacement for the town’s old and crumbling police stations.
•Binns commercial manager William Waples is remembered for capturing the changing face of Edwardian Sunderland on camera. He also came up with the Shop At Binns trams adverts. He served with the Royal Flying Corps during World War One, pioneering aerial photography.
•Upholsteress Ethel Fowler, 100, found her talent for sport nurtured by Binns bosses – who trained her to become one of the first women to run the 100 yard dash in under 11 seconds. She later secured a place at the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but war saw the contest eventually cancelled.
•Monkwearmouth-born Bea Robertson, 92, worked at Binns before serving as a sergeant during World War Two. She served most of her five army years in Scotland – where she “worked hard for her three stripes” and also met future husband Gunner John Robertson.