The Sunderland shop worker who spend decades serving in city’s top stores

Joplings Millinery department in the 1950s
Joplings Millinery department in the 1950s
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The archives of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society include many memoirs written by Wearsiders.

Many are keen on documenting their lives in Sunderland.

Gertie Books

Gertie Books

One of these was written by Jean Williamson who spent most of her working life in the department stores of the town.

Starting in 1944 at the age of 14 in Joplings of High Street West, Jean also worked at Blacketts, Marks & Spencers, Books Fashions, Kennedy’s and Binns.

She recalled her working years with fondness.

Your first job is always an exciting job and so it was for Jean Williamson.

Jean Williamson

Jean Williamson

It was in 1944 that she began working in the millinery department of Joplings in High Street West.

At the time, she was a teenager of a mere 14 years old.

Yet she recalls it fondly and still remembers the days when she was one of 13 girls all employed to work in millinery.

They did it under the expert supervision of Mrs Ward who was also the buyer.

But Mrs Ward was so good, she demanded a lot from her girls.

Jean recalled: “She ran the department brilliantly but demanded the highest standards from her girls and every morning inspected nails, hair and shoes.

“Our uniform was black dress and black shoes which we had to provide ourselves.”

They were the days when department stores were full of wonderment for the keen shopper.

The days when you were treated to products of the highest order.

Jean said: “The millinery department was very high class and included the French Salon, a room within the department where very expensive hats were displayed.

“They were priced up to five guineas – at that time I was earning 7/6d (37p) per week.

Many grand ladies bought hats from this salon.”

Once the customers had left at the end of the shopping day, there was still work to do for the younger employees.

“At the end of the working day, the juniors had to sweep all the floors and, once a fortnight, wash the net curtains,” said Jean.

“We also took up onto the roof the large Chinese carpet from the department for cleaning.

“This we did by hanging it over a line and beating the dust out of it.”

Hard work, yes. But they were wonderful times.

Jean added: “ Joplings was a very friendly place to work and the staff was just like a large family.”

But soon, she was moving up in the world and her life in department stores expanded.

“I worked for a while in the bed linen of Blacketts (second floor) before moving across the street to the Marks & Spencer’s food counter for half a crown more per week.

“In 1956 I began working on Saturdays at Books Fashions in Holmeside for 25/- (£1.25). The shop was run by Gertie Book. “

She worked in the outsize department and added: “The shop had a ‘Model Room’ for the sophisticated woman.”

The owners of Books Fashions certainly liked to keep up with the latest trend.

“Mr and Mrs Book often went to Italy and France in order to purchase clothes for the Model Room. In those days the shop was frequented by young ladies (not known then as teenagers), middle-class and upper-class ladies.

“The dresses in the Model Room were really top class and expensive.

“In 1960 I joined Kennedy’s store which was then in Maritime Place and worked in the curtains and bed linen department. The staff at this store was, like Joplings, one big happy family.

“I then moved to a new boutique in Binns called The Young Set.”

She hailed the store as the ‘Harrods of Sunderland” in the 1960s and 70s and Jean eventually ran the Polly Peck department.

“This was expensive designer clothing from London designer, Sybil Zelca,” she said. “It wasn’t unusual in the mid 1970s for a wealthy lady to spend up to £400 in an afternoon.

“After a short period working in the Wallis Boutique in the store I moved to the Wallis shop in Newcastle in Eldon Square until my retirement.”

Tell us your experiences of working in department stores.

Contact chris.cordner@jpress.co.uk