We revealed on Friday how an empty former Debenhams store is set to become Kent’s mass vaccination hub in the fight against Covid-19.
The large scale vaccine site will open in Folkestone on Tuesday and operate from 8am until 8pm to deliver thousands of vaccines seven days a week.
But the site at numbers 44-68 Sandgate Road has a long and interesting history as a department store and played an important role in the First World War.
Before it was a Debenhams, the site was another department store known as Bobby, which had other stores in east Kent.
In 1906, Frederick Bobby acquired C.J. Saunders drapers in Rendezvous Street, Folkestone, which proved a success and he soon outgrew the building.
In 1914, seven homes at numbers 48-60 Sandgate Road were purchased by the company with the intention of demolishing them and building new premises for the shop.
But with the outbreak of the First World War in July that year, Mr Bobby put his plans on hold.
Hundreds of soldiers marched through Folkestone before embarking on their journey to the trenches.
Folkestone also became a haven for thousands of Belgian refugees fleeing the German invasion of their country.
During a single day in August 1914, around 16,000 Belgian refugees landed in Folkestone Harbour, instantly doubling the number of people in the town.
Frederick Bobby offered the houses he had planned to demolish to the authorities assisting thousands of refugees arriving in the town.
Work to pull down the homes eventually started six years later, in 1920.
The new building was not completed until 1931, due to a shortage of labour and a series of disputes with the local authority.
Bobby’s expanded in 1935 to become more of a department store than a drapers, selling a wide range of goods. It even had a restaurant and its own resident orchestra.
Bobby’s stores also existed in Margate, Cliftonville, Bournemouth, Eastbourne, Exeter and Torquay.
A royal cavalcade passed the shop during a visit to Folkestone by The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in 1958. They were on their way to visit the town’s Leas Cliff Hall.
Bobby’s were replaced by the Debenhams name in the 1970s, the chain having had a share in the stores for a number of years.
Folkestone’s store took the Debenhams name in 1972.
One Bobby’s staff member recalled: “I liken it to the television comedy Are You Being Served?
“The shop was luxurious, with deep pile carpets. It was a place you couldn’t afford to shop in.”
Debenhams left the large unit in January last year as part of its downsizing strategy.
In total, four Debenhams closed across Kent in 2020, the others being in Canterbury, Ashford and Folkestone.
Folkestone and Hythe District Council purchased the town centre site for £2million in May and has re-branded it ‘Folca’ but the shop has remained empty ever since.
Plans for the future of the site are unknown.
The new name, chosen by the council in October after a competition, was inspired by ‘Folca’s stone’ which is said to have once stood marking a meeting place for local people and is the origin of the name Folkestone.
Initially the council unveiled plans to transform it into a mixed use development, which could include a health centre, leisure facilities, flexible work space and residential properties.
The council is now working behind the scenes and ideas include using it for community facilities and workspace.
During a council meeting last year, council leader Cllr David Monk revealed it could temporarily be turned into a souk, an Arab market or marketplace but added that this idea “has not been necessarily well received by the existing traders of the town”.
While the building remains empty, a vinyl ‘window wrap’ designed to promote the town was installed to brighten it up.