Wearside Echoes: Don’t Binn our history!

SAVE OUR SHOP: Sunderland Civic Society is campaigning to save one of the first Binns Store in Sunderland in High Street West. Outside the building are, from left;  David Owens, Connie Bulmer, David Bridge and Doug Knox
SAVE OUR SHOP: Sunderland Civic Society is campaigning to save one of the first Binns Store in Sunderland in High Street West. Outside the building are, from left; David Owens, Connie Bulmer, David Bridge and Doug Knox
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A CAMPAIGN has been launched to save a derelict relic of Sunderland’s shopping history.

SHOP at Binns for Everything. That was the legend generations of Wearsiders grew up with – writ large on every bus, tram and Echo front page.

But the arson-hit Grade II-listed building which laid the foundation for the Binns shopping empire is now under threat, prompting Sunderland Civic Society to launch a campaign to save it.

“An application has been submitted to Sunderland City Council to demolish the property, and the buildings next to it, then grass over the land,” said chairman David Bridge.

“But No 173 High Street West was where George Binns had one his earliest drapery stores, and we should do all we can to save this 18th century building. It is part of Sunderland’s history.”

Lancashire-born businessman George moved to Sunderland in 1804, opening a small High Street drapery before acquiring Thomas Ellerby’s larger drapery and haberdashery at No 173 in 1811.

The store proved a success and, following George’s death in 1836, it passed to his eldest son, Henry. Within just a few years, Henry was able to retire comfortably on the profits of his hard work.

“Henry re-named the store H. Binns and was so successful he retired and moved to Croydon,” said David. “His son, Henry Jnr, took over, making No 173 one of Sunderland’s most popular shops.”

The family firm continued trading as H. Binns, Son and Co even after passing to Henry Jnr’s son, Joseph John, in 1865. Two decades later, in 1884, H. Binns was on the move again.

Two houses in Fawcett Street, then at the heart of the shopping district, were leased for the major expansion and, after Binns was floated as a limited company in 1897, these were bought outright.

Additional shops were later rented in other premises and, by the outbreak of the First World War, the capital of H. Binns stood at a very healthy £65,000 – around £20million in today’s money.

“After H. Binns expanded into Fawcett Street in the 19th century, the firm just kept on expanding; becoming one of the largest and best-known department stores in the north,” said David.

“By 1924 the slogan Shop at Binns was on the front of all the trams in Sunderland. This would remain a noted slogan on trams and buses for almost 70 years.”

The H. Binns brand continued to thrive in the post-war years of the 1920s, with the first branch opening in Darlington in 1922. Others in Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Carlisle and South Shields followed.

The “Hungry Thirties” saw Binns – which now traded on both sides of Fawcett Street – survive by aggressive marketing, even chartering special trains to bring in customers. And, as other shops and businesses folded, so Binns became a household name – chalking up capital of over £1million by 1935 and employing 5,000 staff across the North East and Scotland.

Even the Second World War, which saw both Sunderland Binns stores bombed, could not halt the success. The firm was trading again within three days, and a new five-storey store opened in 1953.

“Binns was known at one time as the ‘Harrods of Sunderland’,” said David. “But the ‘empire’ was eventually taken over by House of Fraser, and the last Binns store in Sunderland closed in 1993.

“We do still have a link to this history through the old building in High Street though. We know the internal and back of the building may be too far gone, but maybe we could still save the shell.”

Hopes of restoring the building to its former glory were sparked in 2004, when plans for a grant-based £524,920 revamp were unveiled. The scheme, however, never went ahead. Further plans were released in 2009, when developers applied to partly demolish the property and create an apartment block within the historic shell. Again, this did not go ahead.

“We believe this is a building of great historical interest and should be saved,” said David. “It laid the foundations for the Binns empire and, as such, it is an important part of Sunderland’s heritage.

“I feel that too many of our historic buildings have already disappeared. This is a building which dates to the late 18th century, a little part of our history, which is another reason it should be saved.

“At the very least it should be taken down brick by brick and transported to Beamish. One day it could be reconstructed there – as an example of one of Sunderland’s greatest retail achievements.”

The Civic Society’s campaign to save the original Binns store is backed by Living History North East. Project director Janette Hilton said: “The old Binns store, and the buildings next to it, are very important and should be saved. They represent part of our heritage as a thriving and bustling Victorian town.

“We have very little left of our built heritage. These buildings are a reminder of how busy the High Street used to be, and how influential this town was as a growing and thriving industrial town.

“The remnants of older buildings are a doorway into the past, a link that connects us and reminds us about our heritage and culture and, consequently, our identity as a community.”

Members of Sunderland Civic Society are now hoping Wearsiders with an interest in history will back their call to save the building, and let Sunderland City Council know their views.

“Surely there must be some way we can save it,” said David.

Coun Mel Speding, Cabinet Secretary, said: “Sunderland City Council received an application for listed building consent to demolish numbers 170-173 High Street West and conservation area consent to demolish 174 and 175 High Street West.

“Consultation on this application is ongoing and the Council is still waiting to hear the views of English Heritage. However a number of objections have been received, including one from the Ancient Monuments Society.

“If English Heritage formally objects to the listed building consent application and/or the Ancient Monument Society sustains its objection, consent for the demolition can only be granted by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.”

* What do you think? Leave your comments below, or write to: Letters Page, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.