The Story of Binns, The Most Famous Store ever to exist in Sunderland

On Fawcett Street where Wilkinsons stands now, was perhaps the most famous store ever to exist within Sunderland. Its name and logo continues to live on as a local icon, defining itself through the advertising once imprinted on old trams. Its name was Binns, and at its height it did not just possess one, but two sides of Fawcett Street.

Like most department stores, and similar to its competitor Joplings, Binns started off as a family business and drapery which rapidly expanded into a wider business, having took upon the name of its creator. In this case, a man known as George Binns migrated to Sunderland from Yorkshire in 1804. He set up his first drapery business in 1807, before he acquired a larger wool and linen drapery store owned by Thomas Ellerby.

George operated the business until his death in 1836, handing it over to his son Henry. Of course at this period of time Fawcett was not yet built, and we must remember that the “core” of Sunderland town was situated to the East. In 1844, Henry Binns established the Binns stone on High Street, which was the centre of all retail and commerce in Sunderland at that time. In 1865, he then handed it to his son Joseph.

It would be in the year 1884 that the Binns store finally moved into its Fawcett Street home. Starting off with the merging of two units, the store gradually expanded to occupy the entire block (subsequently creating the single unit occupied by Wilkinsons today). Eventually, it even moved to occupy two sides of Fawcett Street simultaneously, which were eventually linked by a unique underground walkway. At its height, Binns employed up to 400 staff, making it presumably the single largest retailer employer in Sunderland.

In 1924, the store coined its famous “Shop at Binns” slogan and advertisement, which became an icon of Sunderland, sponsoring the tram service. Almost every old photo of the trams contains this advertisement, which has immortalized Binns in our consciousness more so than any past Sunderland institution. In 1941 however, the store was famously bombed during a German air raid. The blast and subsequent fire destroyed much of the old building, which forced it to be completely rebuilt from 1949 onwards.

Two Sunderland trams with the Binns advertisement

However, as with many things in Sunderland, the 2nd half of the 20th century seen the store’s fortunes decline to the economic decline the city experienced. In 1989, the East wing of the store was closed down, the retail space was converted into the William Jameson Pub, as well as the original Art Gallery and Library (before funding cuts shuttered it). But, the cutback was not enough. In 1993, Binns closed its doors for the last time and its former premises became Wilkinsons, bringing an end to perhaps the greatest store in the history of Sunderland.