Memories of the devastating fire at Joplings brought back evocative memories for Tom Bennett.
We recently told how one of Sunderland’s largest and best-loved department stores was burned to the ground, with nothing remaining but twisted girders and smouldering rubble, on Tuesday, December 14, 1954.
Tom Bennett was there and part of the crew on the first machine to arrive. Here, he relives that dramatic night.
“I was on the crew of the first machine to arrive,” said Tom as he reflected on a night of drama.
It was just before Christmas and Joplings was ablaze.
Yet as he headed for the scene of the incident, there was no indication of what lay ahead.
There were flames shooting across the narrow back lane towards the premises of William Farrow, Ships’ Chandlers,Tom Bennett
“As we passed along the front of the building there was no sign of fire,” said Tom.
“It was only as we tried to turn into Williams Street that we met a wall of smoke with an ominous orange glow behind it.”
Joplings was already well alight at the rear “with flames shooting across the narrow back lane towards the premises of William Farrow, Ships’ Chandlers,” said Tom.
“As a precaution we broke into Farrow’s, taking a hose line in with us. Finding no fire there, I and my future brother-in-law were stationed at a first-floor window to direct a jet onto the fire in Joplings.
“It was not long before the situation become untenable and we were withdrawn to direct the water on Farrow’s itself as the stock, much of it flammable, began to ignite.”
Tom got in touch with us after our article from Philip Curtis of Sunderland Antiquarian Society earlier this month.
Philip recalled how one of the attending officers was Sidney Ord.
Sidney would eventually become a Divisional Commander of the brigade, but on December 14, 1954, he was a young fireman at Fulwell fire station.
Tom said: “Following the collapse of the front of Joplings, which narrowly missed Sid, we were deployed to High Street to try and protect the shops and offices on the south side, which were now exposed to the intense heat of the fire.
“The rest of the night was all hard work in hot and difficult conditions, and daylight was never more welcome.
“Joplings was a memorable night but, for me, it was also a memorable week.
“At that time, firemen worked an average 60-hour week, which was based on a rather complicated rota system.
“The shortest week was a mere 48 hours, but once every 14 weeks came the payback. A run of six 16-hour night shifts totalling 96 hours. Guess which week this huge fire occurred on for yours truly?”
The week started badly, as Tom explained.
“On the first night, Sunday, it was my turn to keep a wakeful watch in the Control Room (we had no separate Control Room staff then).
“On Monday, Joplings fire occurred, and for the rest of the week we worked in shifts on standby at the Joplings site to deal with any fresh outbreaks of fire which was still burning under the debris.
“I was 25 and quite fit, but I remember being shattered by the end of that week.”
Our original story included Sidney’s memories of the Deputy Chief Officer giving orders to move the fire appliance or potentially lose it - and possibly lose men as well.
“Sid mentions the Deputy Chief, whose foresight prompted the moving of the pump just before the collapse of the building,” said Tom.
“I would like to take pay tribute to Leslie Allinson, who took over as Chief Fire Officer in the following year. I have always considered him to be the best fireman I ever served with.
“If you think that describing a senior officer as a “good fireman” is a veiled insult, let me hasten to assure you that it is quite the opposite.
“It is like calling an admiral a good seaman, that is that he is not just a “book” man, but possesses the practical, hands-on skills to cope with any situation. Such was Leslie Allison.”
Six weeks after the fire it was business as usual for Joplings in temporary premises on the old High Street site, while a new store was built on a Second World War bomb site around the corner in John Street.
This was completed within 18 months and duly opened in May 1956, where it remained until its closure in June 2010.