A CITY centre landmark which survived two World Wars and The Great Fire of Sunderland is the focus of today’s Then and Now feature.
The Hutchinson Buildings – better known to generations of Wearsiders as Mackie’s Corner – has stood watch over High Street West since Victorian times.
“Mackie’s Corner really is an iconic landmark,” said local historian and retired photographer John Brantingham, who provided these vintage and modern photos.
“It holds a special place in the hearts of generations of Wearside folk, and stands as a testament to a time when shoppers from across the North East travelled here to shop.”
Business was booming for Sunderland’s industries – from glass, to mines and ships – when timber merchant Ralph Hutchinson decided to build a new shopping complex.
The site of a large house once owned by Dr William Clanny – the inventor of the miners’ safety lamp – was chosen for the ambitious project, and work began in 1845.
“The new building occupied one of the most prominent corner sites in Sunderland. It was designed by architect George Middlemiss and built by James Dowell,” said John.
“Created from high-quality Edinburgh stone, and featuring cast iron posts, the ground floor was devoted to shops, while the upper levels were given over to residential use. But, although Hutchinson opted to name the new building after himself, it was the popularity of the first tenant which gave the building the nickname still in use today.”
Robert Mackie, a hatter by trade, opened a large store in the corner site of the building, just below the dome, following the completion of construction in 1850.
“His workmen could be seen through the windows making silk hats, and Wearsiders soon started gathering outside the store to watch the experts at work,” said John.
“The nickname of Mackie’s Corner stuck from then on, even after Mackie’s death. Scores of tenants went on to occupy the premises, but none left the same impression.”
One tenant, draper Alderman Levy, attempted to change the name in the 1890s – having the word Cosmocapelion embellished in gold lettering across the building.
And, according to records held by Sunderland Antiquarian Society, the firm of Drury & Son also tried to change the name – to Drury’s Corner. But this attempt failed too.
“No matter how hard each new tenant tried, no other name caught on. It was Mackie’s Corner back in the 1850s and remains so today – more than 160 years on,” said John.
Although the name remains the same, Mackie’s Corner has seen major changes over the decades – the main one brought about by the Great Fire of Sunderland in 1898.
The blaze on July 18, 1898, destroyed the eastern half of the premises. The corner, however, somehow survived – and John Brown Stott, of West Park, rebuilt the rest.
“Nearby Havelock House, a large drapery store, had to be rebuilt too, as did several other shops and businesses,” said John, a member of Living History North East.
“One of the longest serving shops of Sunderland, J.Risdon & Co, which stood on the corner of High Street West and John Street, also needed to be rebuilt after the blaze.
“Under the ownership of Norman Risdon, the store then started to specialise in babywear, prams and cots. It continued trading until 1977 and was very well known.”
John has many fond memories of Mackie’s Corner while growing up in the 1950s and 60s, including trips to the Havelock Cinema to see films such as Reach for the Sky.
“The Havelock opened in 1915 and was the first to have sound. The Singing Fool, starring Al Jolson, was the first talkie to be shown in Sunderland 1929,” said John. “Mackie’s Corner was always so busy, packed with shops and people. All that hustle and bustle has almost gone now, but at least Mackie’s Corner still remains,” said John.
Great Fire of Sunderland
CROWDS gathered as flames ripped through the shops at Mackie’s Corner on the evening of July 18, 1898.
The blaze – which became known as the Great Fire of Sunderland – started at Havelock House, a drapery store owned by George Henry Robinson opposite Mackie’s.
But, within hours, flames had destroyed 12 businesses in High Street West, 11 in Fawcett Street, 22 shops and offices in John Street and three shops in Bridge Street.
“It was to become the most significant fire in the history of Sunderland, and prompted radical changes in the organisation of fire services nationally,” said John.
“Until then, responsibility for fire services lay with the Borough Police, who had to use old Parish fire engines. Even the water supply was owned by a private firm.
“But the destruction witnessed during the Great Fire led to sweeping changes – including the launch of a fire brigade and the purchase of two steam fire engines.”
The alarm was raised on the evening of July 18 by a breathless young lad, who ran to the local police station to report that Havelock House was “well away.”
Sub-Inspector Sanderson hurried to get out a fire barrow but, after arriving at the scene, found the whole store ablaze. His one hose had little impact on the inferno.
The officer quickly realised there was no hope for Havelock House. Instead, after consulting fellow officers, a plan was drawn up to try and limit the spread of the fire.
“The plan was good, but doomed,” said John. “The officers needed water pumped at speed and force from a proper fire engine. Instead, they only had hand hoses.”
Even the help of firefighting river vessel Fire Queen proved too little, too late. As crowds gathered to watch the flames, so part of Sunderland’s history burned away.
Miraculously, however, Mackie’s Corner survived – although it was days before the flames in the surrounding buildings were finally extinguished.
“It was never conclusively proved what started the fire, although it was thought that a cigarette may have fallen down a pavement grating into the store’s cellar,” said John.
“Buildings as far away as the Winter Gardens and Victoria Hall were damaged by smouldering debris and sparks, while the area around Mackie’s Corner was left devastated.
“The cost of the damage was estimated at £400,000 – a colossal sum at a time when the total rateable value of the town was not more than £500,000.”