The family who lived above Sunderland’s arcade

SEVENTIES: The New Arcade in 1970 - looking much more modern after a post-war revamp.
SEVENTIES: The New Arcade in 1970 - looking much more modern after a post-war revamp.
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GENERATIONS of Wearsiders shopped at New Arcade – but for Norma Sanders it was simply home.

Marshalls the Chemists, Willie Watson’s Sports Shop, Reed the Jewellers and, of course, Palmer’s, all helped the complex gain a reputation as a shoppers’ paradise.

But for young Norma, her parents Amelia and Harry Alcock and siblings Pat, Harry and Sid, it offered safety and shelter, a home from home amid scores of bustling stores.

“My brother Sid was, I believe, the only baby born in the New Arcade,” she recalls. “It was my first home - our quarters being near the top of the building and up seven flights of stairs.

“The only window in the living-room-cum-kitchen looked out over shop roofs. Next to the window was a sink and a wooden draining board burned by heating a kettle and a pan on one gas ring.

“Further along the wall we had a coal oven and coal fire, where mam cooked soup and sometimes made toast on a long fork for a treat. Rhubarb pies and home-made bread were family favourites.

“How mam managed to bring up four children in the conditions in which we lived, I will never know - especially whilst working as a cleaner both in the arcade and outside!”

The New Arcade was opened in 1874 as a direct competitor to the Old Arcade - which linked High Street with Coronation Street and welcomed visitors from the 1830s to the 1930s.

Scores of small stores competed for business at the new site, selling everything from shoes to herbal remedies, and Marks and Spencer even opened a penny bazaar store there in 1900.

“Mr Robinson the jeweller, Mr Wright the watchmaker, Bob Foreman the herbalist and a cash register company, among others, all had offices near our rooms,” recalls Norma.

“The toilet was across from our quarters, up a flight of stairs, along a passage where Mr Franklin ran his photography business, then up another flight. Not a journey for cold, dark nights!

“Water was heated in a bucket to do all the washing, and across the passage from the kitchen - overlooking Joplings - was the front bedroom; shared by mam, dad and the two boys.

“Pat and I slept in a store room just off the kitchen - and the kitchen also doubled as a bathroom. One after the other we were washed in a tin bath in the middle of the floor.

“Coal for heating the water had to be brought from the coal merchants, which used to be behind the old Post Office in Norfolk Street. This was several hundred yards away from the arcade.

“Getting the coal to the house and up so many flights of stairs must have been a nightmare and a trial for my dad, who was in constant pain after a horse kicked out and smashed his knee cap.

“He had been in the Royal Artillery, but was invalided out after the accident. In spite of his pronounced limp, he still managed to earn a living, and was a special constable during the war too.”

Despite the hardship of life above the New Arcade, however, Norma’s childhood was also a magical time - as she believed Father Christmas lived in the attic over their quarters.

“He worked there all year round to make the toys to deliver around the world! We were told never to go up to the attic or no-one would get any presents for Christmas,” she said.

“This was dad’s caring way of making sure we didn’t go into the attic, which housed the boilers and was full of machinery and other equipment. But we were so proud to have Santa living with us!”

Although Norma and her siblings were brought up among scores of stores selling clothes, most of the family’s skirts, trousers and jumpers were actually hand-made by her mother Amelia.

“Mam had an old treadle sewing machine and made almost all our clothes except coats. She also knitted all our jumpers and cardigans,” recalls Norma, now of South Shields.

“To supplement this, we would go on Saturdays with mam to a weekly auction of second-hand clothes held in Brougham Street. First hand up might acquire a pair of school knickers for a penny.”

Norma attended Chester Road School, where she developed a life-long love of poetry, and spent her leisure hours at Lambton Street Salvation Army Corps and the Corps Cadets bible class.

The Second World War, however, was to wreak havoc on the lives of the Alcock family - when a bombing raid on March 13, 1943, left the New Arcade badly damaged.

Indeed, not one pane of glass remained in any of the shops, and part of the roof collapsed as well.

The arcade was forced to close – and only re-opened in July 1951 after a “modern face-lift”.

“Living in the town centre, so close to the telephone exchange, we were always at risk from bombs. The night we were bombed we were taken up to my nana’s house in Rosedale Street,” said Norma.

“We slept on the settee and then, in the morning, a new experience for us children! Grandad had a few chickens in the yard, so we had boiled eggs for the very first time!

“I remember some while later I went with mam when she checked out the damage to all our worldly goods. I can still smell the soot which seemed to be everywhere.

“Those years are a world away from today. I wish I could take folk back in time just to see how things were – so many in those days lived in conditions most folk today could never visualise.”

n Do you have memories of bygone Sunderland you would like to share? Email sarah.stoner@jpress.co.uk