Fond memories of the old Echo office

THE news that the old Sunderland Echo building, next to Wearmouth Bridge, was to be demolished to make way for a luxury apartment block, provoked a few memories of the old building from Echo production editor Rob Ford, who worked there from 1969.

PEOPLE loved to peer into the front windows of the old Echo Office in Bridge Street, to look at the latest photographs on display there and see who, what, or where they could recognise.

They would stop and look in on their way back from the match at Roker Park, or during a shopping trip to the town centre.

That lovely warm old stone facade, with the bowed window of the managing director's room above the front office entrance, was the public face of the Echo.

Above the front door was a flagpole and the famous clock with the model of Sunderland's old iron bridge on top. It was saved when the "front office" was demolished in the early 1970s and the Echo "town office" was opened in High Street West.

The clock now hangs outside the Echo's main offices at Pennywell, where the rest of the Echo moved to in 1976 when the huge building at the corner of Bridge Street and West Wear Street was vacated.

The solid stone Echo front was in perfect keeping with the elegant stone frontage of the massive Grand Hotel, a few doors further up Bridge Street. But it looked a bit out of place with the brick shop fronts that flanked either side, one of which had a notice in the window stating "French spoken here" – for the benefit of visiting seamen.

Inside the old front office, it seemed not much had changed since it first opened. There was a parquet floor with coconut mats and all the furniture was made out of solid carved wood. Every night the cleaners polished it until you could see your face reflected in it.

There was a huge sweeping curved counter housing ranks of small drawers for stationery and with high office chairs for the staff.

There was a little table and chairs for the public to write out their adverts for insertion. Back copies of the Echo were spread out on one part of the counter. And there was even a little "cubby-hole" where people could make "Box Office Inquiries".

It was all very Dickensian, but reassuringly solid and dependable.

We young reporters were at the opposite end of the building, well away from the front office and we had our own separate staff entrance, next to the Argo Frigate pub. The pub was cheek-by-jowl with the Echo, it seemed almost within the Echo building. Certainly a lot of Echo people were often within the Argo.

But when we were on night shift we sometimes had to come back to the office via the front office door late at night. It was always a bit spooky coming back from a late job to type up a report.

You had to enter a darkened empty front office, then climb up a long flight of creaking old wooden stairs, walk through a long dark passage with unlit rooms of either side, and along a dimly-lit corridor to the editorial department. It was no wonder there were stories of a front office ghost.

We had superb views across the river

SUNDERLAND printers Edward Thompson moved into the empty Echo building after Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers moved out to Pennywell in 1976.

But now the building is scheduled for demolition to make way for apartments.

It will be a sad day for me when the old Echo building finally goes ... and I suspect a sad day for many other older Echo ex-employees.

I used to be able to point to the building as we went across the bridge and tell my two children "I used to work in there". Then I'd bore them with tales of what I used to get up to when I was younger and dafter. I won't be able to bore my two grandchildren in quite the same way once the building has gone.

Life moves on. Another little bit of my past life disappears to fade into just a memory and a few old photographs.

The great thing about that Echo building was its imposing location, high above the river. Our editorial office windows overlooked Austin's pontoon, with superb views across the ever-busy river to Monkwearmouth.

It was the kind of river panorama that people have to pay a lot of money for these days, when they buy a riverside flat or penthouse.

We had great views of the Wearmouth Bridge and JL Thompson's shipyard, up river past Lambton Staiths and Wearmouth Colliery staiths, almost to Laing's shipyard. Down river was the broad sweep to the fish quay.

Every day was a fresh revelation. There was always something different to see when you glanced out of the window, from dawn to dusk – and through the night if you were working a night shift.

Gigantic tankers occasionally slid down the slipway at JL's then spent months being fitted out and painted, keeping swarms of men busy.

Sounds of activity on Austin's pontoon drifted up from just below the Echo windows and traffic buzzed over the bridge.

There was always something happening on the river; colliers coming and going to the staiths; the dredger Vedra and its hoppers passing by; and many small boats chugged up and down, some of them ferrying items between shipyards other just weekend hobby boats.

Newly-launched ships from the shipyards upriver were expertly guided under the bridge by the busy tugs that later in the day were moored near the fish quay.

Sometimes the police launch would speed past. Now and then it would be to fish out a body from the river or the docks. Then one of us young reporters would be sent to find out the details from the River Police.

One day the police recovered just the bottom half of some poor soul's body, clad in expensive pin-stripe trousers. They never did find the top half.

On the banks near the bridge every day you could see fishermen casting into the river or looking for bait.

Cormorants would fly in from their roosts at Marsden Rock and dive into the river over and over again until finally emerging with a glistening fish in their beak.

Then news editor Tony Crangle would bark: "Hey! Stop looking out of that window and come and answer this phone."

Back to reality.

Publish Date: 16 June 2005