Photo: Blandford Street in 2020, during the era of covid lockdown (taken by SGM)
The Spencer-Churchill family is one of Britain’s most famous aristocratic families. Seated at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, amongst those bearing this heritage include of course Winston Spencer-Churchill and Lady Diana Spencer (Princess Diana). The direct lineage of the family bares a number of titles to go with it, including the Duke of Marlborough.
As it happens, the Duke of Marlborough’s son is known as the Marquess of Blandford and his grandson The Earl of Sunderland. The most recent individual to hold these titles is the current heir apparent, George Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (b. 1992). To cut a long story short, he has nothing to do with Wearside, with the title having been first created in the 16th century for Emanuel Scope, Lord President of the King’s Council in the North.
However, the legacy of these titles are of course found in Sunderland itself. Now where in the city might you find a reference to such an aristocratic lineage? That’s right, Blandford Street in the city centre is named after the Marquess of Blandford, which ironically is the least likely place you’d expect to find an aristocrat here. Created in 1840, the street was created to honour this title as the town of Sunderland underwent a period of rapid expansion. As old maps show, it was not a shopping street, but consisted of a row of houses
Towards the latter half of the 19th century, Blandford Street evolved into a destination for traders and retail as the opening of the new railway station in 1879 (which moved from Burdon road) made it a prime spot for business. A few years later, the Blandford House pub opened.
This shift commenced the “Golden Age of Blandford Street” in which the road dominated the city as one of its prime retail locations. Most of these shops were family owned small businesses, which ranged from grocers, to Jewelry shops, to bookstores, music, chemists, fashion and so on. This boom would last until the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1980s, the street was paved over.
However, the Blandford Street we know today is a far cry from what it was. It is objectively true that the area has suffered from decline more than other areas of the city centre. The bustling scene of family business is long gone, and the street today is filled with charity shops. What went wrong exactly?
First, the economic structure of the UK has changed in a way that disadvantages single and small traders. The latter half of the 20th century seen the rise of gigantic supermarkets and retail conglomerates, which placed the kind of traders found on Blandford Street at a critical disadvantage.
This, combined with the creation of The Bridges Shopping Centre in the 1980s, changed the centre of shopping gravity in the city, isolating Blandford Street and reducing its clout. For example, if the Bridges has Superdrug and Boots, a family chemist on Blandford Street is going to struggle. Or on the other hand, the rise of Next, Primark, etc is going to kill small independent clothing stores.
Likewise, these decades were unkind to Sunderland as a whole. The economy declined due to the decimation of its coal and shipbuilding industries, unemployment rise and the population dropped for several decades. The City Centre as a whole throughout this period deteriorated, and Blandford Street was no exception.
As a result, modern Blandford Street has become a place for businesses that cannot afford the “primetime” retail space of The Bridges. This naturally, has laden it with Charity Shops and cheaper stores such as Home Bargains.
Blandford Street is of course, not doomed forever, but it desperately needs a new lease of life. In recent years, several of its buildings were destroyed by fire, while others are showing signs of aging and decline. In order to make it an attractive retail space again, the street desperately needs a makeover and a new sense of purpose. Otherwise, it will linger as Sunderland’s “worst” shopping street for a long time to come.