Night when Joplings was burned to the ground

The glow from the fire could be seen for 20 miles.
The glow from the fire could be seen for 20 miles.
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Those who were present to witness it will never forget.

The date was Tuesday, December 14, 1954. It was a night of drama.

Weary firemen clearing up.

Weary firemen clearing up.

The night when Joplings, one of Sunderland’s largest and best-loved department stores, was burned to the ground with nothing remaining but twisted girders and smouldering rubble.

Philip Curtis from Sunderland Antiquarian Society explained more.

It was a typical cold December day.

Christmas was on its way and Joplings department store, then in High Street, was packed with goods for the festive season.

A fire ladder in silhouette against the smoke.

A fire ladder in silhouette against the smoke.

A special effort had been made that year with Santa’s Grotto.

Wearsiders flocked there looking for that special Christmas present. Little did everyone know but that evening the store would be completely destroyed by Sunderland’s largest fire of the century.

Established in 1804, the store had moved into their High Street premises in 1921 from its smaller shop situated further down the street.

By 195, it was - together with Binns, Liverpool House, Blacketts and Kennedy’s - part of the thriving, active commercial shopping area of the town.

Clearing up begins.

Clearing up begins.

The fire began in the basement with what is thought to have probably been an electrical fault and it spread rapidly.

By the time the alarm was sounded the whole store was ablaze. When fire engines arrived at the scene, the glow from the blaze could be seen from almost twenty miles away and crowds had flocked there to see the spectacle.

Firemen attending fought valiantly to save the store but the blaze was out of control.

To their credit they worked hard to contain the fire and ensure that the nearby buildings were saved from serious damage.

Fighting the blaze

Fighting the blaze

Among the archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society is a first-hand account of the fire from one of the attending officers, Sidney Ord.

Sidney would eventually become a Divisional Commander of the brigade but on December 14, 1954, he was a young fireman at Fulwell Fire Station.

He recalled how he was the driver of the Dennis Major Pump that night and “positioned my machine in High Street partly across West Sunniside to reach and also ‘set in’ to the water tank.

“Two hose lines were then laid to branches, I think, in William Street. The main building was at this time blazing from end to end although, strangely, the front windows were intact and the window display contents unaffected.

He explained in his first-hand account exactly what his job was on that dramatic night.

“As the Pump Operator, it was my duty to remain with the pump and operate its controls. From this position I could see the deteriorating situation in the store and I noticed in particular a window display of fur coats gradually heating up then burst into flames followed by the windows breaking.”

The morning after - Wearsiders arrived to view the remains.

The morning after - Wearsiders arrived to view the remains.

We continue with Sidney’s account of the dramatic Joplings story in tomorrow’s Wearside Echoes.

The aftermath looking up High Street.

The aftermath looking up High Street.

Firemen receiving a well-earned drink from the Salvation Army.

Firemen receiving a well-earned drink from the Salvation Army.

Anxious staff gather in the Havelock Cinema for a report on the situation following the fire.

Anxious staff gather in the Havelock Cinema for a report on the situation following the fire.

Firemen at the scene.

Firemen at the scene.

The scene from above.

The scene from above.