Harrods of Brighton
Interview with Charles Draycott, by Hannah Carter
Once dubbed the Harrods of Brighton, Hanningtons might now be thought of as a building to the memory of the once prestigious department store, but its legacy lives on in the stories told of its nearly 200 year history.
One person who knows more than most about Hanningtons and its rich history is Charles Draycott, whose Grandfather – Charles Hunnisett – ran the famous department store. Mr Draycott is now Executive Chairman of the Brighton based property company the Centurion Group but as a young man, keen to earn a shilling, he started work at Hanningtons. He kindly took time out of his busy schedule to chat about his memories of the famous store.
“I was just 17 when I started at Hanningtons, working as a junior salesman on commission. It was quite interesting because I would balance the grass roots, shop floor level of being completely at the bottom of the ladder with, the next day, sitting in the boardroom and listening to the directors and chairman talking about the figures and the takings and what was going on. It was very, very interesting balancing those two extremes.
“Hannington’s had over 70 departments and I worked in several of them starting in Clocks and Watches. I also tried Furniture, Radio and TV – and I put in the accounts too. My Grandfather pushed me through as much as he could. It was a lot of fun. I wanted to go on the vans – but he wouldn’t let me!”
So, as a young man working for the family business – did you get up to any pranks on the shop floor?
“We had a lot of grandfather and grandmother clocks in the Clocks and Watches department as you can imagine and I decided to set them all to the same time one day. Obviously I had done this surreptitiously and the noise at midday was tremendous with them all going off! My grandfather had a good sense of humour and thought it was terribly funny but all the senior staff got rather upset. There must have been about fifteen to twenty clocks all going off at the same time.
“It was a very ‘proper’ store and amusingly similar to Grace Brothers (the BBC1 sitcom). We had characters just like them. Even my grandfather wore the coat and the trilby just like Mr Grace.”
How was it that your family came to Brighton and to Hannington’s?
“My Grandfather had been developing very large buildings on the south bank of the Thames, but after a couple of strokes and ill-health, decided try his hand at running a department store instead and so bought Hannington’s.
“It had been left to the hospital following the death of its lady owner, Mrs Hannington, and my grandfather bought it from the hospital in 1973 just after the crash. Edward Heath was in power, the miners strikes were happening and, incredibly, he bought it for cash.
“I remember driving up North Street in his Jaguar, which I now own, and badgering him about how much he had paid. He finally gave in and told me. “£1.75m – but don’t tell anybody!” I must have been about 13 at the time.”
Clearly cars are a somewhat central piece of the story as Charles’ Grandfather had another – a Rolls Royce, 1962, Cloud II. A car that was very well recognised around Brighton at the time. He says it was an unusual car – which had an even more unusual exit from Hannington’s.
“The Rolls Royce was my grandfathers which he bought from new. It joined the wedding fleet at Hannington’s limousine hire. Some years later I actually bought the department – which had 13 cars at the time and the Rolls was part of that. When the time came to sell, a local antique dealer friend of mine, Peter Burdett, showed interest and we did a deal. We swapped – I gave him the car and he gave me a string of South Pacific pearls. It was as simple as that! I’m not sure where it is now as it was sold again some time later – Holland I believe. Amusingly, the car doubled in value and the pearls halved! You win some, you lose some I suppose!”
Was Hannington’s a family business – or was it just you and your grandfather who worked/ran it?
“Oh no – it wasn’t just me and my Grandfather – there was my uncle too, Derek Hunnisett, his children and my mother was also a Director. We were all there really – until it was sold in 2002. A proper family business. When it was sold nobody followed my Grandfathers lead into department stores though – we all went our separate business ways.”
Charles now owns and manages Brighton Square, which he had bought whilst Hannington’s was still open – however, his Grandfather had some interest in this area too as he had been responsible for building it in 1964.
“My Grandfather (Charles Hunnisett) was from the east end of London – so we weren’t all Brighton born and bred. He came to Brighton largely because he liked it! There used to be a church in Brighton Square and my Grandfather and Uncle (Derek Hunnisett) bought this from the church commissioners, knocked it down and developed it largely to what you see today. They did a similar thing to Huntington House.”
What other memories do you have of growing up in and around Hannington’s?
“For many a year we would stand on the balcony of Hannington’s and watch the Red Arrows fly past. I suppose I remember that happening from about 12 or 13. We had to be careful though as that area was often covered in pigeon droppings due to the working pigeon house that you can still see today. So much care and attention was put into building places then – one wonders why an architect might have added such a thing – although it looks wonderful. The architecture of these old buildings was largely due to circumstance though. For example, there are a lot of tunnels underneath Hannington’s going all over the place. They are all interconnected and you used to be able to walk from one end almost to the other sub ground. There were boilers underground in the tunnels that fed the heating for the building above and the tunnels provided the access for coal deliveries. So you see – they were a part of its inner workings – and very much served a purpose.
“Mr Hannington actually started buying up the street from one end. He didn’t get the whole thing as one. As he bought each section he would knock through. Of course today, the walls are now back up making the different shops again. Likewise, there used to be rooms at the top of the building running all along. Fairly derelict with dead pigeons and such and I used to play all over it as a small child. It was where furniture would get stored. Some of it had been there for absolutely years when the store was sold and much of it made a pretty penny at the closing down auction.”
So do you miss being involved with Hannington’s?
“The store was such a lot of fun to run. The politics of the different people and learning to manage those – and it was obviously an excellent schooling for how to run a business.
And finally, how do you feel about the redevelopment of the Hannington site – is it exciting for you to see your old concern brought back to life for 2018 and beyond?
“I think one of the fabulous things about Brighton is its diversity and vibrancy. The redevelopment of Hannington’s is very exciting as it tows the line with this. A city can only be as diverse as its offering and the people in it. The redevelopment is great as it is bringing a tired part of the town into the modern world giving it life. This little area of Brighton Square and the Hannington lane area will reap the reward certainly by bringing the critical mass back this way from the North Laines. I very much look forward to the coming months to see what and how things happen.”