THE heyday of one of Wearside’s best-loved stores still holds fond memories for ex-pat Stuart Newton – 22 years after it closed its doors.
Stuart, who now lives in Canada, spent almost every Saturday at Binns during the post-war era – where his mother sipped coffee and discussed fashion trends with pals.
But, although some visits must have dragged for the little boy, he still found the bustling department store – where people “shopped for everything” – exciting to visit.
“My mother May would get us all dressed up on a Saturday morning and then we’d ride into town on a tram for a session at Binns,” recalls Stuart, a former school teacher.
“This was the emporium in centre of town, with a restaurant/cafe up on the second floor and windows at corner positions to watch folk crisscrossing the streets below.
“It was noisy; with dozens of women exhorting with each other and there were no men in the room, so no distractions – making for a different kind of conversation.
“Yet it was a little exciting, a fizzy mood prevailed for a while, like early champagne had been passed around. I could sense something special was happening in there.”
The roots of Sunderland’s beloved Binns stores date to 1807, when businessman George Binns opened a small drapery in High Street – moving down the road to No. 173 in 1811.
The store proved an instant success and, following George’s death in 1836, it passed to his son Henry. Henry renamed it H. Binns and the store’s popularity soon spiralled.
Within just a few years, those who could afford it “Shopped at Binns for Everything”– as the adverts urged. Those who couldn’t still popped in - especially at sales times.
The passing decades saw Binns move to Fawcett Street, where two thriving shops were opened. Zeppelin attacks and the Great Depression of the 1930s failed to halt trade.
Even Hitler’s air raids of World War Two, which saw both shops destroyed, couldn’t stop Binns from reigning supreme in its heyday – with new stores built after the war.
It was to these modern stores that young Stuart made his weekly trips – smartly dressed in school uniform - whiling away the hours listening to the latest gossip.
“Once a month, a fashion model from women’s ware came upstairs to the cafe to show off new lines of seasonal clothing,” said the former Monkwearmouth Grammar School pupil.
“She whisked round the tables, twisting and twirling at random positions whilst whispering prices. It was really a highlight for patrons, but they scarce showed it.
“The form dictated a reception somewhere between faint interest and studious disregard. Yet she always put her best foot forward, to present new outfits.
“At the same time, ladies would be showing off their best hats. Feathers upon a straw weave, coloured ribbons with pins; one or two of them wearing a fox-fur across the shoulder.”
Stuart’s father Thomas, who worked at Doxford’s shipyard, occasionally appeared at the end of these sessions - dressed in a smart suit, with a hankie tucked in his breast pocket.
Thomas and May would then follow the fashion show with a “parade around” Sunderland - when they paid bills and called at offices on what they called “adult business”.
“Years later I re-visited Binns with my mother,” said Stuart. “As before, lots of ladies sipped coffee at the window tables, with real silverware upon thick linen tablecloth.
“These women scanned the venue with interest and judgment; noticing everything, seeing everybody, because this was still their domain.
“For many years Binns store proffered an important centre for people, a nice show place, with some refinement for a brief interlude each week.
“Sunderland was basically an industrial town sustained by employment in shipyards and docks, to fully occupy the men folk; while the women needed something quite different apart from the men, away from home-care and routine comforts.”
•Look out for more shopping memories in Wearside Echoes next Monday. Do you have memories to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Binns facts and figures
•Lancashire-born businessman George moved to Sunderland in 1804.
•He opened a drapery in High Street in 1807 before acquiring Thomas Ellerby’s larger drapery and haberdashery at No 173 in 1811.
•Following George’s death in 1836, it passed to his eldest son, Henry. Within just a few years, Henry was able to retire comfortably.
•Henry re-named the store H. Binns. His son, Henry Jnr, took over following his retirement, making No 173 one of Sunderland’s most popular shops.
•The family firm continued trading as H. Binns, Son and Co even after passing to Henry Jnr’s son, Joseph John, in 1865.
•In 1884, two houses in Fawcett Street were leased for a major expansion. Binns floated as a limited company in 1897 and then bought the properties.
•By the outbreak of the First World War, the capital of H. Binns stood at a healthy £65,000 – around £20million in today’s money.
•By 1924, the slogan Shop at Binns was on the front of all the trams in Sunderland. This would remain a noted slogan on trams and buses for almost 70 years.
•A branch of H. Binns opened in Darlington in 1922. Others in Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Carlisle and South Shields followed.
•The “Hungry Thirties” saw Binns survive by aggressive marketing – chartering special trains to bring in customers. It had capital of over £1million by 1935.
•Both Binns stores in fawcett Street were destroyed in World War Two, but the firm was trading again within three days. A new five-storey store opened in 1953.
•Binns was known at one time as the ‘Harrods of Sunderland – but the ‘empire’ was eventually taken over by House of Fraser. The last Binns store in Sunderland closed in 1993.