Four generations of a family business

Photo:Outside 99 Church Street - Walter Dockerill (Malcolm's father) is on the left

Outside 99 Church Street - Walter Dockerill (Malcolm's father) is on the left

Photo from Malcolm Dockerill's collection

Photo:The shop at 3a Church Street

The shop at 3a Church Street

Photo from Malcolm Dockerill's collection

Photo:The shop at Nos 5&6 Gardner Street, May 1960

The shop at Nos 5&6 Gardner Street, May 1960

Photo from Malcolm Dockerill's collection

Photo:The cellars at the Church Street shop

The cellars at the Church Street shop

Photo from Malcolm Dockerill's collection

Dockerill's in Church Street

By Malcolm Dockerill and Peter Crowhurst


For well over 100 years, from the 1820s to the 1940s, North Laine was Brighton's industrial quarter and when the Conservation Area was created in 1977, it was because enough of the area's industrial heritage remained to justify the conservation area status. What did remain of the Victorian North Laine was its mixed use nature - the mix of industry, commerce, warehousing, shops and homes all existing cheek by jowl. Shops catered for local residents and businesses. Most of these businesses have gone but some remain as a reminder of what North Laine used to be like before the era of out of town shops and inner town malls. One of the shops that still exists to remind us of a former time is Dockerill's of Church Street.

I (Peter Crowhurst) recently met with Malcolm Dockerill, the grandson of the founder, to talk about how the business has developed since its foundation in 1920 and what it has done to come to terms with today's business environment.

It moved to Church Street just before World War II

The business began at 31a Edward Street and remained there until a shop was opened in the North Laine area at 99 Church Street just before World War II. A second North Laine shop was opened up at 7 Church Street in 1954 just a couple of years before the Edward Street premises closed and the business was concentrated in the North Laine area. Over the next 25 years Dockerill's shops opened and closed in the North Laine as premises became available: in the 1960s there were shops at 101-103 Church Street, 1 Gardner Street, 5/6 Gardner Street, 50 Gardner Street and also 98 Church Street before 3a Church Street was bought around 1970 and the adjoining properties bought around 1980 to create the shop we have today.

In this first extract from the interview with Malcolm Dockerill, Malcolm describes how Dockerill's came to be consolidated at its present premises No 3a,b,c Church Street.

The beginnings

It started in Edward Street. My grandfatherand grandmother had 3-4 shops together, mostly doing bicycles, and as the years rolled on they changed its image to an ironmongers and hardware store. The shops in Edward Street were next to the Salvation Army - the site is now American Express. 

My grandmother ran the shop

My grandmother ran the shop mainly and she was quite a character. In those days, just after the war, Edward Street was a criminal part of town.

She was a peacemaker

My grandmother was known as the 'godmother'  and she used to sort out lots of problems that were going on in families. She knew everybody - she was a peacemaker - people would go to her for advice and she was a lovely lady apparently although I didn't know her that well.

It was a bicycle tyre shop

It [the Edward Street shop] was a bicycle tyre shop. We then moved down to Gardner Street/Church Street, although the shop is not there any more [1] as it was knocked down to widen Church Street. Although Church Street was two way it was very narrow and our shop was knocked down and it is now an ice cream parlour, Gelato Gusto, on the end of Gardner Street [2014].

It was a family concern

My grandfather probably scraped together some money and shops were not that expensive to rent and he was looking for something to do after the war. The shop (cycles and accessories) was a family concern and my dad worked there. My grandfather moved the business from Edward Street with a lot of pushing from my dad.

My grandfather was a character

My grandfather was a character. My dad and he fell out and it was only the accountant they both shared who persuaded my granddad to sell the business to my dad. My dad was close to his grandmother and I think there was an affair between my grandfather and an ex-Bluebell lady, which upset my dad enormously. He was close to his mother. This destroyed their relationship.

Family relationships never what they could be

In a family business relationships are never what they could be and I have made an effort with my girls and son-in-law and my wife to make sure that things which happened to me and my dad did not happen to us.

From father to son

Edward Street went on for another 15-20 years after the move to Church Street.[2] We moved to be more in the town as opposed to being on the outskirts. It was the late 1940s when the move took place and my dad eventually ran the business. Dad became involved straight from school and probably even before then.

My dad bought the business

Dad bought the business although my grandfather was trying to sell the business above my dad's head. He wasn't popular in the family for trying to do that.

It became a hardware store selling paraffin

By the war it was more a hardware store than just a tool shop. In those days oil companies used to sell big amounts of paraffin to people to warm their houses. Each company had its own brand and its own colour - Esso Blue, Shell Pink, and there was also green. We sold thousands of gallons a week. We also sold all the by-products of petrol, like linseed oil - all loose. If there had been a fire our place would have gone - the fire brigade would never have been able to put it out.

Buying the present premises

We had a second hand tool shop on our present site [3] and one day two gentlemen arrived, asking if they could measure up the shop for Mr Crabb.[4] We asked why and they said Mr Crabb was selling the building.

I wanted to buy the freehold 

I didn't know anything about that yet although I was interested in buying the freehold of the shop we operated out of - a quarter of what we have today. 

The cellars were a flying freehold

I phoned Mr Crabb and asked if he was interested in selling the building. He said he might be interested in selling our shop. He agreed to sell our shop. Months went by and we heard nothing. When I contacted him he asked 'Surely our solicitor has told you it's not happening. We can't sell you the property because of the cellars.' The cellars were part of the corner shop and were a flying freehold.  He said, 'I have sold the premises - it is a done thing.' I was disappointed as we had been long standing friends. I then inquired about buying the property.

The property had been left in trust

A friend who was an estate agent found out that Bernard Crabb and his sister had the property left in trust for them. Trust laws stipulate that property must be sold to the highest bidder.

He had shaken hands on the deal

I phoned Mr Crabb - he was getting fed up with me. He was a gentleman who had shaken hands on the deal and did not want to go back on his word. I told him I knew about the property being left in trust and asked whether his sister shouldn't benefit from a higher price. He didn't want to tell me the price and he was slowly getting more fed up with us!

I was a bit out of my depth

We didn't have the funds and nor had we even arranged a mortgage. He wouldn't talk further and asked me to contact his solicitor whom I then phoned. I reminded the solicitor of the situation regarding the trust. I was a bit out of my depth as I had never done anything like this before but I was determined to try and find a way of buying these premises.

Barclay's agreed to lend some money

I found out the price through and I offered another £10,000 - a lot of money. The solicitor was reluctant to accept the increased offer. I said how appalled I was at his response and I said to him 'I will have a courier outside your office with a written offer for £10,000 more and if you do not accept it I will take you to the Law Society because I think you have behaved deplorably.' He put the phone down on me and the next morning I had a courier there with the increased offer. I went to Barclay's and they agreed to let me have the money. Dad did not want to change banks and he was not interested in buying it but if we hadn't bought the property then, we would not have been able to afford to be here now. Soon after, Dad, who had a few health issues, decided to retire.

So we bought the property

The bank manager at Barclay's, Gordon Steptoe, said to me, 'Malcolm, I am looking at the figures for the business that your father has been running and to be quite honest I should not be lending you the money. But I like you and I like the way you presented yourself to the bank. I'll come up with three quarters of the money and if you raise the rest, we'll go ahead on that basis.' I raised some money on my own house and we bought the property.

I nearly fell flat on my face

When I was telling Mr Crabb I would be buying it, I was afraid that I would fall on my face because I didn't have the extra money at that point. Fortunately I was able to find the funds though.

The building wasn't fully utilised

I realised the building was not being fully utilised. I reckoned we could break the building up into retail units from the stores that there were here. There was a lady's hairdresser next to our shop, which had been there for many years. Then there was Richard's the gents' hairdressers, my brother-in-law’s business, so he had to move out of his shop, but I managed to swop with a shop we had further up the road. It caused a bit of friction at the time.

Consolidation of our shops

We had different shops for different things. For example, where Surf & Ski now is [2014] we had a Gardening shop [5]and one of the biggest selection of lawnmowers in Sussex. We consolidated and put all the shops together. We ceased doing tools then, we gave up the paint business and started concentrating on key cutting and security, and that has become a big part of our business now. There was and still is growth in the local business.

You can read Part 2 of this article here.


[1] This was 99 Church Street, which operated as Dockerill's from around 1939 to 1964.

[2] 31a Edward Street closed around 1956.

[3] Malcolm is describing 3a Church Street, which was acquired around 1970.

[4] Mr Crabb ran a wine business from No 2 Church Street and owned No 3a, 3b, 3c Church Street including the wine cellars below all the properties.

[5] This is 101-103 Church Street and existed from 1966-c1971.


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 226, January/February 2014]

This page was added on 05/02/2014.

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