Shoppers' paradise

The "New Arcade" was almost a century old when it closed. Today we look at what affectionately became known to many Wearsiders as "Palmer's Arcade."

PRAMS, bikes, washing machines and beds – Palmer's was the first place many Wearsiders looked to when they wanted to buy something special.

But, what was to become the biggest privately-owned department store in the country, had its roots in something far more humble - a tiny music shop.

The New Arcade – the "Old" one being the East End market – was opened in 1874, in what was once the home of Sunderland's first telephone exchange.

Mrs S E Palmer set up the little store right at the beginning and, by 1900, the shopping complex was proving extremely popular with Wearsiders.

Flagpoles – hung with bunting and goods – adorned the building, which led from St Thomas Street to High Street East, and its shops opened until 9pm.

Toy shop Marks & Spencers, Marshall Brothers the Chemists, oyster seller T W Broadbent and milliners Cuthbertson's were among the arcade stores.

As shoppers flocked to the New Arcade in the 1920s and 30s, so Palmer's was expanded into a department store by Mrs Palmer's son, Frank.

His own son, Raymond, joined the business too, straight from Durham School, but, following the outbreak of war, Raymond signed up for the Army.

The New Arcade survived early German bombing raids, but suffered extensive blast damage on March 13, 1943. It was boarded up for the rest of the war.

Meanwhile, Raymond, seconded to the Indian Army, had met the woman who was to become his wife, Dilys, at a dance while docked in Capetown. His ship, which was en-route to India, stayed in port for only four days – just long enough for Raymond to persuade Dilys to become engaged.

The couple, who wed four years later in Capetown, returned to Sunderland on a troop ship after the war and, in 1951, the New Arcade re-opened.

Shop units were modernised and the building painted in brown, cream and white. A mix of old and new tenants soon helped bring it back to life.

Indeed, many Wearsiders may still recall the special sound effects the arcade offered – a hollow echo, best heard at night while walking past in High Street.

Palmer's was, by now, the largest retailer in the arcade – with premises at both ends of the building, as well as opposite the entrance in St Thomas Street. It affectionately became known as Palmer's Arcade within the town, instead of the New Arcade – and the name stuck.

Raymond took over the business in 1958, following the death of his father, but also spent much of his time helping out local organisations and charities.

Meanwhile, his wife, Dilys, became the only woman board member of Washington Development Corporation, and was later awarded the OBE.

Now living back in her native South Africa, she told the Echo: "I miss Sunderland; I'm homesick for it really, as I spent many happy years there.

"I have a lot of fond memories of Sunderland, and especially of some of the nice staff who used to work for us. I send my love to all my friends there."

Trade started falling away from the arcade in the late 1960s, however, as more shops were created around The Bridges shopping precinct.

Eventually, in January 1972, the gates closed for the final time. Ironically, a new telephone exchange was built on the site once the arcade was demolished. Raymond and Dilys later returned to South Africa, where they made their home near their son, Robin. Raymond died in 2000, at the age of 87.

Palmer's Arcade through the decades

1900: Lilac Bloom Perfume, the "most fashionable perfume of the day," was available at Marshall Bros in the arcade from just one shilling.

1903: R. Mills ran a barber shop in the arcade. He claimed "A shave is a shave, but a comfortable one is better."

1908: The store stocked 75,000 records and was a leading supplier of "talking machines" – gramaphones.

1908: John Smellie, a tobacconist based in the arcade, sold everything from pipes and cigarette tubes, to wallets and walking sticks.

1930: A solid oak bedstead with wire mattress, "hygenic" wool overlay, feather bolster and two pillows – 7 10 shillings of sixpence.

1938: Cycles were a speciality of Palmers and it was the North's largest cycle store: a new "Cruiser" could be bought for 3 and 15 shillings.

1950s: Willie Watson, who played for Sunderland, opened a sports shop in the arcade – where countless Wearsiders bought their footy boots.

1969: A record deck cost 32 at Palmers, while a stereo amplifier was 49. An Allwin pram – "for your new arrival" had a 29 price tag.

1969: People were urged to buy dad "shotguns, rifles or pistols" from Palmers for Christmas.

Publish Date: 25 July 2005