I recently stumbled on an archive of old photos and documents relating to a fancy looking department, called Vokins, which turns out was open in Brighton for over 100 years, yet I’d never heard of it. I’m sure this snippet of information is likely to come as a surprise to Brightonians other than me, and seeing as most of us love looking at old pictures, what better activity to indulge in today than a bit of time travelling to the golden era of the high street for some virtual vintage shopping at Brighton’s forgotten department store.

The Vokins Archive is a fascinating look at the history of the shop and includes a variety of records: photographs, documents, press cuttings, ledgers, plans, and correspondence. These relate to staff, sales, stock, store development and promotion.

brighton's forgotten department store

It all started in 1882 when Mr WH Vokins left his job at famous London store, Peter Robinson on Oxford Street, and teamed up with his friend Mr WT Leeson, to open a fashion store, silk mercers and general drapers at 32-33 North Street, called Leeson & Vokins. Over the years, they expanded into more shops on North Street to become one giant department store with an extensive fashion collection, as well as a soft furnishings department, haberdashery and fitting room.

Advert for the autumn and winter fashions, 1906
Inside the fitting floor, circa 1922
Leeson and Vokins’ staff take part in the Brighton Carnival, July 1 1922
At the Brighton Carnival again the followng year, this time on a float

The business thrived until 1925 when Mr Leeson and Mr Vokins went their separate ways although Vokins retained the original premises, and continued doing business in Brighton until 1997 as WH Vokins. In fact, he was still active in the business well into his 80s, working alongside his two sons, Howard and Gerald.

Its new-style shopfront, as EH Vokins
A Vokins ladies’ wear department, circa 1936
In the 1960s, the entire ground floor was devoted to gloves!
Coats! Date unknown
Housecoat anybody? A haze of pastel colours in the ladies underwear department, circa 1960
A strip-lit bedding hall, 1972
First day of the holiday sales, Saturday 28 December 1974
Sometime in the 1980s just before it closed

Discover the Vokins Archive within the University of Brighton Design Archives, a little-known internationally significant research collection on British design hidden in the basement of the university,  which features in my book, Secret Brighton. 

The End.

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