Today, the area known as John Street is one of the quieter areas of Sunderland City Centre. It’s seen better days, to say the least. Most noticeable on that street is the large consolidated building known as “Jopling House”- it’s student accommodation. A Premier convenience store once opened on the bottom floor, but it didn’t last very long. To older locals, this building is a shadow of its former self. That’s because it once stood as a grandeur department store called Joplings.
In Britain, department stores, all apart from the most luxurious and iconic locations such as Harrods, are increasingly a thing of the past. That’s because the British economy is leveraged against high street retail due to high rates, poor income growth and a preference for cheaper online shopping. While Debenhams were forced to close scores of branches in the past two years, even Newcastle’s Fenwicks was struck with heavy job losses. Thus it was in 2010, that Sunderland’s Joplings closed its doors for the last time.
Although not continuously in one location, the enterprise of Joplings in Sunderland emerged in the beginning of the 19th century in the year 1804. Founded by James Jopling and his partner Joseph Tuer, the first business created was known as “Jopling & Tuer” and was based on High Street East 174-178 (then the centre of the town). It was a drapery business which sold clothes and textiles.
The new business boomed in popularity, and soon expanded its size. By the turn of the 20th century, it now employed over 100 people and had shifted to a new premises on High Street West, where it occupied a four storey building by 1921. With a new café also opening, the turn of the new century marked its de-facto transition into a department store. Joplings became one of the most successful and renowned stores in Sunderland.
The current building
Joplings would remain in its high street west home until the 1950s. Although it survived World War II, on December 14th, 1954, the store was completely destroyed by a fire which started at 1am. Firefighters were unable to save it. Sunderland residents believed this was the end of the store. However, as a phoenix rises from the flames, the business survived this catastrophe and plans were soon made to build a new home for it. While being temporarily rehoused in High Street West, plans were tabled to construct what was then a luxurious new facility on John Street, the building we know today, which opened in 1956.
The new Joplings had it all, a fancy clock on the front, escalators and lifts. It was a state of the art department store of that era, and cemented itself as a Sunderland icon. It would live on for 54 additional years in that site, until the impact of the great recession of 2008 and changing consumer habits ultimately drove it out of business, bringing an end to the store’s glorious history which spanned 206 years.
Joplings also became famous for what was known as its “Joplings Money” which was a unique in store currency which could be used as a form of loan or guarantee to pay for items across a longer period. A funny story is that on the day the store closed, a woman from Farringdon believed that because it was going out of business, she could take the store’s credit to purchase a number of luxury items and not have to pay it back! Little did she account for was that the store’s debt of course was transferred to another owner, imagine the shock she got when she discovered that!
After the store shut down, Joplings remained vacant for a nearly decade. It deteriorated and became an eyesore. Plans to make it into a hotel never materialized. Then from 2018-2020, it was acquired by new owners who redeveloped it into student accommodation, calling it “Jopling House“. The building’s exterior was painted with a black trim. However, plans to make new shop units underneath it withered, meaning for some the renaissance of this grand institution was never quite recaptured, and thus it remains so today.