Collecting is a childhood hobby for some, but for others it’s a pursuit that develops later in life. Richard Spark, now 75 years old, started his collection in 1982 and since then has acquired an enormous variety of items detailing New Zealand’s social history from the turn of the 20th century. Kathy Catton spoke with Richard to uncover the delight of this man and his museum.

Sometimes in life, you meet characters that fill you with wonder. Richard Spark is one such individual. At 75 years old, he appears on first impression like a friendly dairy-farmer-type, doing the best he can to support his family. He keeps busy in retirement running the popular Rossburn Receptions function centre on his property just outside Rangiora, North Canterbury. However, after spending some time with Richard and visiting his Northbrook Colonial Museum, my eyes were opened to the incredible enthusiasm and dedication of this one man.

Richard Spark and his father’s jacket from the war

The story starts in a fairly ordinary fashion. In 1982 at the age of 38, Richard decided that he wanted to find himself a hobby.

“I didn’t want to play golf or go to the pub. With six children, I had to find something I could do at home,” says Richard. “So I decided to start collecting milk bottles. It may seem a little strange, but I was interested in them. There were so many variations and colours and moulds. I started by storing them on top of the piano at home, but I soon realised I needed more space.”

Clocks as they used to be

The ‘trouble’ really started when he got into collecting preserving jars. “That’s when I decided I was going to collect everything,” states Richard.

Little did he know (and nor was it ever his goal) that within 20 years he would have amassed a collection of well over 200,000 artefacts. An array not only of milk bottles and preserving jars, but almost every imaginable household item relating to New Zealand’s social history. From knitting machines and knife polishers to tobacco boxes and razor blades, Richard’s museum has it all. Spread over 2000 square metres within four purpose-built sheds, his collection is eccentricity at its best.

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Early number plates from Ashburton registered cars

With retirement looming in 2002 (aged 58), Richard and his wife Dawn opened the function centre. Countless weddings, funerals, scones and cups of tea later, and the duo have never looked back.

“I’ve been blessed with energy, all through my life,” says Richard. “I don’t believe in going to bed until I’m tired. With enthusiasm and time, I think you can do anything.” Richard has put this energy to good use in the creation of an incredibly special and unique museum.

The collection started with the hobby of milk bottle collecting

First up, Richard shows me around the function centre. Then, in a very understated manner, he walks me casually through a nondescript door that opens up to reveal a feast for the eyes, with shelves, cabinets and cupboards full of artefacts. I step back in time to experience some of the products, materials and technology of yesteryear.

The collection hosts old post office equipment, colonial washing machines, irons, fridges and children’s toys. Richard has created a colonial ‘street’ within one of the buildings, comprising grocery, pharmacy, hardware, photography and butcher shops, as well as a large (possibly the largest) collection of old bricks, an early working printing press, turn of the century clothing and many, many books.

The collection also includes vintage toys

To get a sense of it, think of children’s history books come to life with actual items; think of the Canterbury Museum’s street scene on steroids, or think of model village museums from the turn of the century.

What’s unique here, though, are the stories that come with every vintage item, stories that Richard remembers with clarity and precision. Like the old number plates issued by Ashburton Borough Council; “The owner bought the twenty-sixth car in Ashburton back in the 1920s, but he didn’t think he’d bother with registering his vehicle, so he made up a number plate. The Council soon caught up with him, and the owner was made to register the car, by which time it was vehicle number 96 in the town. The owner’s family brought the plates to me and told me that story,” says Richard.

Paper was in short supply many years ago, so the author wrote in both directions

And where does all the collection come from? Sometimes garage sales or markets. “But not auctions,” laughs Richard. “I don’t have the patience for those!”

Richard has gained himself a reputation; although some call him a fool, others call him up when they are moving or having a clear-out. And of course, sadly, when someone dies.

Chocolates past their use-by date

“With the weddings and funerals function centre I get a lot of people coming through our doors,” says Richard. Under the unfortunate circumstances, this is the best marketing strategy Richard could have asked for. People feel good about giving away their prized possessions to someone who cares about them and will remember the stories attached to them.

Richard tells me the story of the time about 20 years ago when he saw a digger about to demolish a building in Rangiora. He went and asked the driver if everything had been pulled out of the building, and the driver told him it had. But Richard’s intuition took him back the next day, and he asked if he could look in the roof of the property. Between the roof boards he found a collection of old sales notices selling sections in and around Rangiora, dating back to 1886. He couldn’t believe it. “These posters were evidence of how the land was originally divided. They are part of our history.” When he got back to his home, Richard framed some of them and they are still on display in the museum.

Shelves and shelves stacked with items of NZ social history

It seems that Richard cares about every item.

Without a doubt, he is not alone in New Zealand. But people’s reasons for collecting and their manner of collecting vary hugely.For some, it’s a way of expressing loyalty to a group or team (for example those that collect sports team memorabilia). For others, like the stamp collector proud of rare finds, it can indicate an obsessive streak.

Psychologists provide explanations for collecting, such as it being an extension of our identity living on, even though we do not. Or that we somehow seek comfort in accumulating belongings. I think Richard is unique in the way he collects items purely for the satisfaction of finding and owning them. And he certainly cares for the stories attached to them. “I like the contact with other people. I love to hear their stories. This is history unfolding in front of me. I want to be able to share that with others,” he says.

Kitchen supplies from yesteryear

Is there a limit, or is this just a severe case of hoarding? Richard is quite clear about his boundaries, “Anything pre-decimal currency, and I’m interested.” Of course, when Sanitarium offered him its collection of old and current Weetbix tins, he couldn’t refuse. So there are the odd exceptions to the rule.

Most significant in the collection is perhaps Charles Torlesse’s map-carrying case and Arthur Dudley Dobson’s 66-foot measuring chain, used in Arthur’s Pass when he was surveying the area. Both items came to Richard by chance. “Life has these little breaks. You don’t know where they come from, but you’ve got to take them when they come,” smiles Richard.

Storage and cataloguing are, of course, a considerable undertaking. “I had to learn to be a cabinet maker,” says Richard. “There is no way I could afford to buy this number of cabinets to display all the items I have here.” Using secondhand glass and recycled timber, Richard has crafted multiple cabinets to display the collection.

Tins and Boxes.

And what do his family think of it all? “They tolerate me,” says Richard. “I’ve made a couple of the sheds with my sons, and my wife Dawn helped with some of the labelling. I couldn’t have done it without them. It’s a big task.”

Perhaps most poignant of all Richard’s stories of his collection was the one he saves for the end of my visit. He shows me a cabinet containing a First World War uniform that came to him from his father.

“My Dad wore this [uniform] in France. He was posted to the Somme during World War One, and he was one of the lucky ones who did return. He kept his Bible in one of the pockets and his diary in the other. On April 8, 1918, it reads, ‘Today I lost my dear brother Eddie. Blown to bits. Buried where he fell.’” Richard was fortunate enough to visit the Somme last May, to pay his respects. “I’m glad I got a chance to do that. It was very emotional for me, but I needed to go.”

Richard occasionally gets requests from film production companies to borrow items as props or scenery. “I don’t mind lending them out, but I do stress a little about that. I want them to come back to me in good condition. They are precious, and for some strange reason, I’m attached to them.”

More than just a collector of items, Richard is a collector of stories and memories. The pieces are an expression of our social history. They provide a valuable resource to educational groups and anyone interested in our past. But it’s the stories that are the real treasure – the soul behind the objects, the magic in the museum.