He was told to move the fire engine or lose it, as the Joplings blaze raged in Sunderland

Earlier this week, we began the story of Joplings and the December night when it went up in flames.

Wednesday, 31st August 2016, 10:00 am
The blaze which devastated the store just before Christmas.

As Christmas fast approached, the unthinkable happened at one of Sunderland’s best known buildings.

Sidney Ord was a fireman at the scene and his first-hand account of the event remains in the archives of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

Sidney Ord.

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Sidney would eventually become a Divisional Commander of the brigade but on December 14, 1954, he was a young fireman at Fulwell Fire Station,

Philip Curtis, from the society, has shared Sidney’s eye-witness description with us - starting with him getting a fire pump into position.

Sidney Ord knew the risks as the fire raged.

It was so intense, it was affecting his fire engine and he needed to move.

Sidney Ord.

But moving the appliance came with its own risks and not just to machine. Potentially, the lives of his colleagues were in danger.

Sidney explained: “The radiated heat from the fire was becoming unbearable and was affecting me and damaging the bodywork of the appliance.

“I decided that I could not move without warning my two branchmen that they would lose water – their lives could even be dependent on having a water supply.”

That’s when he got a timely intervention.

He explained: “At that time the Deputy Chief Fire Officer became aware of my problem and, having informed me that my branchmen were not in the building, ordered me to disconnect and move or we would lose the machine.

“I had earlier draped the side of the machine with salvage sheets to stop the paintwork peeling with the heat from the fire. I quickly disconnected and, with salvage sheets still attached, drove further up the High Street and round into West Sunniside behind the limousine.”

Yet within the space of that short drive, there came a reminder of how fierce the fire was that he was fighting.

“As I got out of the cab, someone was hosing down my machine as the salvage sheets were blazing.”

He moved the fire pump and, as he was about to realise, he had done it in the nick of time.

“At that moment I looked back at the position I had just left in High Street and it was covered with huge coping stones from the collapse of the front of the building.

“It was my good luck that night that the Deputy Chief Officer’s order to ‘Move it or we will lose this machine!’ really meant ‘this machine and its driver!’”

Fortune was with these brave firefighters but it was a long and tough task to bring the Joplings blaze under control.

“The fire was eventually brought under control by 3a.m. but I didn’t arrive home until 11 o’clock after a memorable night.”

The dawning of a new day brought home the full effect of the blaze.

When dawn arrived the scene was one of utter devastation with the store completely gutted.

The fire began in the basement and spread rapidly. By the time the alarm was sounded the whole store was alight. When fire engines arrived at the scene the glow from the blaze could be seen from almost twenty miles away and crowds had flocked there to see the spectacle.

However, six weeks after the fire it was business as usual in temporary premises on the old High Street site while a brand new store was built on a Second Worldbombsite around the corner in John Street.

This was completed within eighteen months and duly opened in May 1956 where it remained until its closure in June 2010.

After clearance, the store’s previous site in High Street was for many years occupied by Bristol Street Motors but today a car park, bowling alley and apartments are there.

Who remembers the night of the Joplings blaze, just before Christmas in 1954.

Or perhaps you have other memories of one of Sunderland’s best loved department stores.

If so, get in touch and tell us more.