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The Mr Selfridge story is not dissimilar to the Mr Vokins story. My Great Grandfather, William Henry Vokins opened his store in Brighton in 1882, having worked at the Peter Robinson department store in Oxford Street London.

WHV 21Born in Oxfordshire in 1860, four years before Harry Gordon Selfridge, William Henry Vokins’ physician recommended the sea air for his repertory problems, so he moved to Brighton. They weren’t that severe as he lived until 1955!

Like Selfridges, Vokins started out as a fashion store and general drapers and had been trading successfully in Brighton for 27 years when Selfridges opened in 1909.

William Henry Vokins was joined in the business by my Grandfather, Gerald Vokins at the end of the 1920’s.

Vokins was to thrive during the War years as they invested heavily in stock items that would become in short supply and demand was high. The Vokins philosophy was ‘the customer is always right’, a quote often attributed to Harry Selfridge.

My father Anthony joined the business in the late 1950’s, shortly after the death of the founder.

Like Selfridges, Vokins diversified into selling other products and soon had the finest bedding and soft furnishing department in Brighton. These household departments were to be joined by carpets, beds, mattresses, furniture and much more.

Stephen Vokins joined the business in 1977 and then went to work for John Lewis in Oxford Street, London between 1978-1983; one hundred years after William Henry Vokins left Oxford Street.

Unlike Selfridges, the Vokins Store in North Street, Brighton was to thrive under 4 generations of the family, before finally being sold in 1996, when Anthony retired.

Stephen Vokins continued trading and still does, from Ash Lane, Rustington and now on the internet. The company was rebranded as [email protected], with the e commerce division trading as Big Brand Beds.

We will follow the Selfridges series with interest and see how many similarities there are between the two families. There will be many, I’m sure, some of which I might not be able to admit to. Watch this space for updates.

Episode 1

I thoroughly enjoyed the programme although one or two critics were left dissappointed. My main problem with the show is the never ending adverts! Anyway, as I have said previously, I will be following the series and seeing  how similar the life and times of Mr Harry Selfridge and Mr William Henry Vokins were.

Interesting to see that Mr Selfridge was left high and dry by his financial backer, Mr Samuel Waring, he of Waring & Gillow fame, the furniture makers. In 1980 Waring and Gillow joined with the cabinet making firm Maple & Co, to become Maple, Waring and Gillow, However in his cavalier way, Harry Selfridge didn’t let this minor problem hinder him and he stormed ahead and opened his store on time.

Like Harry Selfridge, William Vokins also went into business with an equity partner. In 1882 they opened a drapery store, Leeson & Vokins  at 33 North Street, Brighton. Mr W T Leeson stayed with Mr Vokins until 1925 when the partnership was dissolved.

WHV family 1912Clearly Selfridges was and is a much bigger and grander store than the Vokins store ever was or has been, but the path that these 2 entrepreneurs took have many similarities. The photograph on the right is of William Henry Vokins, his wife Emily Clara and my Grandfather Gerald Vokins taken in 1912, a couple of years after Selfridges opened.

Initially, Leeson & Vokins traded very much from hand to mouth. William Vokins travelled to London several times a week to buy merchandise for his store. This was all paid for in cash. After several months, the proprietor of the wholesaler, who was very impressed by the young Vokins’ endeavour, offered him a line of credit. This gave him the chance to buy ever more stock and reduce his costly and time consuming trips to London.

With more stock, William Vokins had to use his home for storage, something he would continue to do for many years. If he found a bargain, he would invest heavily and if there wasn’t enough room to store it at the shop, then it would be kept at home.

I think William Henry Vokins would be very pleased to know that all his hard work is continued today by his family in the form of [email protected] and Big Brand Beds.

Sadly I will have to record episode 2, but will be writing regular updates as the series progresses

Episode 2 & 3

Harry Gordon SelfridgeWilliam Henry Vokins, like Harry Selfridge was a merchant, not an accountant. His philosiphy was to make sure there was plenty of stock to satisfy the customers. However, where Selfridge appears to be slightly cavalier and wreckless, WHV adopted a more cautious approach.

We see Mr Crab, Selfridge’s book keeper / accountant worrying about the profitability of the business as he continues his quest for profile for his business with evermore extravagance.

As with any new business, the first few months can prove challenging and it is evident that Mr Selfridge (pictured) is inwardly concerned at the lack of customers in his magnificent store, even though he puts on a brave facade for his staff.

Securing the plane used by Monsieur Bleriot, the first ever airplane to cross the Channel, to display in the store seems to be a stroke of genius as the exhibition draws in a huge number of potential customers.

Vokins 1925Vokins have never had anything quite so grand on display to draw the customers, but in my time working for the family, which started in 1974 with a school holiday job, I can remember having a Mini in the window. We also had an outside broadcast (by what was then Southern Sound radio station) from our window. My favourite going back 30 + years was having a model sit in a chest style deep freeze, with nothing but a Slumberdown goose down duvet to keep her warm.

I have to say all the promotions worked very well, but the combination of pretty girl and goose down duvets was the most original.

In Episode 3 we see evidence of Harry’s womanising. I couldn’t possible comment on whether my Great Grandfather had extra marital liaisons. However times were very different then and wives appeared to be very much more tolerant. Goodness knows why?

Mr Selfridge’s introduction of a perfumery and cosmetics department to the front of the store and relocation of lady’s accessories to be with the perfumery is something that is still practised today. When Vokins introduced the perfumery department into our store in North Street, Brighton, it was positioned at the very front of the store.

The picture above shows the interior of one of the Vokins fashion halls taken sometime before 1925.

Episode 4 & 5

I’m not sure if Vokins have ever courted celebrity in the way that Harry Selfridge did. To my knowledge we have never paid a star to be present in store, but the list of actors, actresses, footballers, cricketers that have visited the stores as customers or otherwise is enormous.

We did employ Pauline Collins, the star of Shirley Valentine and more recently Quartet to do the voice over’s for a radio advertising campaign. I remember travelling to the studio in London to meet her and how incredibly professional she was, delivering what we wanted almost immediately.

At the time we were promoting Vokins Linens & Beds Supercentres and the ranges of bedding, divan beds, duvets and upholstery that we sold. Pauline Collins voice was very recognisable and we got tremendous feedback from our customers.

Vokins Carnival Float 1923In episode 5 we see Mr Selfridge has bought a motor car to put on display in a window. He is incredibly proud of his new toy, but it ends in disaster.

In 1923 William Henry Vokins entered a large float into the Brighton Carnival, which several employees travelled on through Brighton. This was an early example of Vokins using different forms of media to promote the business.

Mr Vokins put a motor car in one of his window displays, but nothing as grand as the Selfridge’s car. It was Mini which one of our customers could win. I can’t remember the exact details of the promotion, but it caused quite a stir and no one drove off in it in a drunken rage!

Nowadays our promotions are very much more merchandise led without the gimmicks. When we promote Die Zudecke Canadian White Snow Goose Down duvets, we don’t put models wrapped in duvets in freezers anymore. We promote the great service and great prices we offer.

Episode 6 & 7

Episodes 6 and 7 start to show a marked difference between Harry Gordon Selfridge and William Henry Vokins. Like Mr Selfridge, Mr Vokins was a great caring boss, but expected loyalty and hard work. He did not however court publicity like HGS.

As mentioned in the blog for episodes 4 & 5, we had our share of celebrity in the store and we did have a car on display in the window. Fortunately it was never driven as due to strict insurance clauses, the fuel tank was near empty.

It was interesting to see that after his accident Harry had many flashbacks to his father, who he appeared to have had a bad time with. He wasn’t the war hero that Harry’s mother had portrayed him as, but a rather aggressive bully, who liked the bottle and the ladies.

VokinsWell William Henry Vokins father, Henry Vokins (my Great Great Grandfather) had a colourful life. Well at least what I know of it. He was born into a privileged life, but his excesses would cause him to lose the lot. He became involved with the local County Set and as a result of imprudent living and gambling debts, was forced to sell the family estate, which we know had been in the family since the 1700’s.

It was at this time that William Henry Vokins moved to London to start his career in retail.

William Henry Vokins’ successes in Brighton as a retailer enabled him to buy the family home back in the 1920’s. Unfortunately Henry Vokins died in 1919 aged 87 and wasn’t alive to see this happen. When WHV died in 1955 aged 94, he left the property and land to his 2 daughters, as the retail business was left to his 2 sons.

Sadly I have no knowledge of the relationship WHV had with his father, but would conclude that the relationship had broken down.

Attached are photographs of the main family home, taken during the 1930’s, 1945 and 2012, when I was invited to visit by the current owners, non less than W G Grace’s Great Great Grandson.

Since our family owned the property, the land has been hived off and dwellings sold off. However it was lovely to see one of the houses was called The Vokins.

Episode 8 & 9

FW Woolworth comes to town in episode 8. Having a hugely successful business in America, he opens his first store outside the USA in Liverpool in November 1909. His appearance in London clearly rattles Harry, but prompts him into a highly successful Mid Season Sale.

It’s interesting to see an upmarket establishment such as Selfridges go head to head with a thrupence and sixpence (3d & 6d) fixed price store. In todays money 3d is 1.25p and 6d is 2.5p. Clearly Harry wanted Selfridges to appeal to all.

Vokins bedding hallMeanwhile, back in Brighton, William Henry Vokins main competition was Hanningtons. Smith Hannington opened his drapery shop at the bottom of North Street Brighton in 1808, so was well established when Leeson & Vokins opened in 1882.

We were to remain close business rivals until the store closed in 1996. Close in terms of proximity – a hundred yards and working together for the greater good of Brighton and the local community.

The Vokins Sales became a firm favourite with the people of Brighton & Hove. The Winter Sale and Summer Sale would attract enormous queues, with people racing in to get the bargains. The bedding hall, pictured right (1972) in the basement was always extremely popular, with lots of cheap beds, cheap mattresses and cheap bedding and bed linen. It was always the time to buy and you can see from the picture how the stock was piled high.

We have carried on that tradition and now can offer year round great value on any beds, mattresses, duvets, pillows and bedding online.

Episode 10

Well, it all happened in Episode 10. King Edward VII’s shopping spree, romances blossom and end, a key member of staff leaves and a humiliating trip to the theatre.

GGF RoyalThroughout the series I have been trying to look at the similarities between Harry Selfridge and his business and my Great Grandfather, William Henry Vokins. There have been many in episodes 1 through to 9. However the similarities between our family and the Selfridges in episode 10 are more tenuous.

Let’s start with royalty. We have had minor Royals visit our store in Brighton, but not for a shopping spree. Several members of my family have been privileged to meet Royalty. In April 1928 my Great Grandfather met the Duke & Duchess of York (pictured right), the Duke who was later to become King George VI, the current Queen’s father.

Moving forward a hundred years or so after Harry Selfridge’s audience with King Edward VII, I was lucky enough to be introduced to HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh in 2007.

Over 130 years, you are bound to have key members of staff leave and Vokins was and would have been no different to Selfridges in that regard.

SJV & QE2We have never been the subject of a play, but [email protected] and Big Brand Beds have been very involved with the theatre, particularly the Theatre Royal in Brighton. [email protected] and Big Brand Beds were the first company to get involved in sponsoring productions and had the pleasure of being involved in (sponsoring) 4 pantomimes and Sweeny Todd starring Jason Donovan.

I told you it was tenuous, but I hope you have enjoyed reading a few snippets of the history of Vokins and Big Brand Beds.

We continue to trade from our store in Burgess Hill and are continually growing our online offer on bigbrandbeds.co.uk.

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