Sunderland store Joplings is set to close

THE end of an era is set to come for one of the North East's oldest stores this weekend.

Joplings, Sunderland

THE end of an era is set to come for one of the North East's oldest stores this weekend. Staff at Joplings in Sunderland have been told that the 206-year-old store is closing on Saturday and signs outside the store in John Street say Saturday is the last day of trading.

Owners Liverpool-based Vergo Retail Ltd yesterday confirmed that Saturday is the last day the historic store will be open.

But administrators appointed to look for a new buyer after Vergo went into receivership last month say they are still looking for an 11th hour rescue.

A spokesman for MCR, given the task of hunting for a buyer for Vergo’s 19 stores nationwide including Joplings, said: “No date has been earmarked and there is always a chance of a rescue. But the closure is expected this month unless there is a rescue.”

With time running out, the announcement has left the 100 workforce confused. One member of staff said: “We were definitely told that Saturday is the last day and we’ve got signs up outside telling people that we are closing. Everyone is very sad.”

Another staff member added: “We are closing to the public on Saturday. But there will be some staff in the store until the following Friday, clearing out.”

Joplings’ sister store Robbs in Hexham, Northumberland, faced a similar fate but has been bought by the JE Beale retail group. This has led to Jopling staff wondering if a last-minute rescue might be possible. One staff member said: “I’m expecting to leave on Saturday. But it would be wonderful if a buyer came forward. We can always hope.”

The store’s demise is another blow to the city which has seen the closure of a number of stores due to the economic downturn and brings to an end the store’s long-established link with Sunderland. The Napoleonic War was under way and England was protecting itself against a French invasion when Joplings opened for business in 1804.

But after 206 years in business, the tills will be quiet and the floors deserted as shoppers bid a last farewell to Sunderland’s oldest department store.

It was the year when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France, when William Pitt the Younger began his second term as UK prime minister and Thomas Jefferson was re-elected US president when Thomas Jopling and Joseph Tuer opened their humble drapery store on High Street East.

The pair weathered the ups and downs of the economy, managing to expand despite lean years, and their family owned the business until it was bought in 1882 by Stephen Moriaty Swan and Robert Hedley. They changed the name to Hedley, Swan and Co but store was always known as Joplings.

Smith and Swan continued to trade and the store continued to flourish, moving to bigger premises on High Street West in 1919, when police had to be called to control the crowds on opening day who turned out for the biggest half-price sale Sunderland had ever seen.

In the 1950s the ever expanding store became a limited company employing 500 people. The future looked bright but in December 1954 there was a huge fire which completely destroyed the store and all its contents. All that was left was twisted girders and smoldering rubble, but Joplings rose from the ashes and was soon back in business. After trading from a temporary base, the new four-storey department store in John Street opened in 1956.

Joplings was considered the Harrods of Sunderland and boasted the first escalator ever seen in the city, which at the time could only go up.

Then three years ago, the future of the much-loved store was in jeopardy but it was saved in a rescue package by Vergo Retail after the collapse of the previous parent company Owen Owen.

Now unless a new buyer can come forward, the death knell will sound for the famous old store.

Today, the first 50 customers and staff were being given a bag for life to be carried around Sunderland as a reminder of the much-loved store.

The limited edition bags have been created by artists from art initiative Rednile Projects Ltd in collaboration with Joplings to celebrate the iconic store’s history.

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