IT is curious how we don’t really record things until they’ve gone. So it is with Marks & Spencer in Darlington. Even though the M&S name has been integral part of all of our lifetimes, we have tended to rush on by without noting any changes.

For instance, the date in which the M&S in Northgate opened its landmark building, which is now seen as a crucial cornerstone of the Darlington shopping offer, appears to have been lost.

As was told earlier in the week when the news broke about the Darlington and Stockton branches being threatened with closure, founder Michael Marks probably arrived at West Hartlepool docks in his early twenties unable to speak English in about 1881.

He was a Polish Jew, fleeing pogroms, who spent a couple of years peddling on the markets of Durham and Yorkshire – Stockton market is said to have been one of his earliest haunts – before in 1884 he opened his first stall on Leeds market.

In 1894, he partnered up with Skipton-born cashier Thomas Spencer, and M&S was born.

The Darlington shop opened at 8, Prospect Place, in 1911, overlooking Pease’s statue, with Miss Violet Rutter as the first manager. It was a “penny bazaar” – everything cost just a penny (it is said that because Mr Marks couldn’t speak English, he hung a sign above his first market stall saying “don’t ask the price, it’s a penny”).

It had eight staff, and it had electric lighting over some of the counters, which was quite a talking point, but it had no windows.

“I well remember that old shop, especially in the cold winter months,” Winnie Anderson, who started work there as a 15-year-old in 1912, told a reporter in 1971. “The shop front was completely open and it used to be so cold sometimes we were serving customers with our mits on.”

These penny bazaars had evolved from market stalls and so were open to the elements like market stalls.

Although we like to think that our modern world is 24/7, shops in the olden days were also open all hours. Staff at Prospect Place opened up at 9am and on busy days did not shut until 11pm, the girls working a 13-hour shift – and then having to clean to the brass rail which ran around the front of the empty windows. For this they earned five shillings a week, three pennies of which was deducted for the new National Insurance, introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1911.

“Every pay day without fail, when we got our money we used to say: “Curse Lloyd George” because he was the one who started the welfare scheme,” said Winnie in 1971. “But now we’re seeing the benefits of it, we know that it was all worthwhile.”

In 1922, M&S moved out of Prospect Place and a few years later its original home was demolished so that the HSBC bank could be built on the corner with Northgate.

It reopened a couple of hundreds yard up Northgate on the site where it remains to this day, but it was still very much a bazaar with household goods piled high in the window.

Its next door neighbour was another retail institution whose name can still be seen high up in the stonework. “Montague Burton Buildings” says the elevation that now looks down on the inner ring-road.

Just like M&S was started by an entrepreneurial immigrant, so was Burton the tailor’s. Meshe David Osinsky was a Lithuanian Jew who also fled anti-Semitic pogroms. He arrived in this country in 1900 aged 15 and was also unable to speak English.

But by 1913, he had Anglicised his name to “Montague Burton”, and he had five men’s tailors shops in Sheffield and Leeds; by 1929, he had 400, and in Leeds, he had the largest factory – with the largest canteen – in Europe.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Burton went into property development. He acquired corner sites on which he built grand art deco shops, with powerful pilasters, usually out of white stone – he was going for the giant American emporium effect that Selfridges in London’s Oxford Street had made fashionable.

In August 1929, his house architect, Harry Wilson of Leeds, submitted a planning application for the corner of Northgate and Russell Street in Darlington. This is the building that looks down on the ring road today. Because it says “Montague Burton Buildings” in the stonework suggests it was more than just a tailor’s shop – often Burton’s buildings had billiards and snooker clubs on the first floor.

M&S next door soon followed suit, turning itself from an old-fashioned penny bazaar into a proper department store in a Selfridges-style building. Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, Northgate had a nice run of new, fashionable stores occupied by British Home Stores, Woolworths, M&S and Burtons, all of which still have quite interesting art deco-y details, although none of them are listed.

The reign of these big name big stores lasted into the 21st Century, the only blips being Woolies moving into bigger premises and being replaced by Mothercare in the 1960s, and Burtons moving out in the late 1980s, which allowed M&S to expand to fill the whole corner.

The 21st Century has been a graveyard of the big name stores: Woolies closed in 2009, Mothercare in 2014, BHS in 2016 and now M&S is also facing the final curtain.

It could create a long, bleak stretch of empty, or semi-used, 1930s emporiums which are leftovers from a lost age of retail.

MISS VIOLET RUTTER, the opening manager of Darlington M&S, knew founder Michael Marks. Born in 1885, she was an assistant in M&S South Bank branch on Teesside, before being promoted to open Darlington. In 1913, she was moved to Bishop Auckland to open its branch – a branch which closed in 2012, despite a 6,000-name petition demanding that it stay open.

If you know any history of the big name stores of Northgate, we’d love to hear from you. Or do you have any M&S (or, for that matter, Woolies) “penny bazaar” implements still hanging around. Do you have a M&S penny potato masher or a penny sewing basket, for instance? Please email