(This article first published in the Fortean Times No 390, dated March 2020)
For almost 70 years, John Townsend amassed an extraordinary collection of 20th century ephemera that has now inspired a new book, Wrappers Delight. Bob Fischer carefully unwraps the story, then puts the packaging to one side for safe-keeping
“He was collecting on a different level,” says Jonny Trunk. “Relentless. Absolutely relentless. It’s so hardcore.”
This is quite something coming from Jonny, a irrepressible gatherer of vintage curiosities himself. His label, Trunk Records, has become the stuff of legend; breathing new life into musical obscurities of the mid-20th century. But his new book, Wrappers Delight, shines a spotlight on one of the most prolific collectors of British ephemera ever to have lived. The late John Townsend lived in the suburbs of Stockport, dedicating his entire life to a house-filling (and, indeed, shed, caravan and summerhouse-filling) collection of cards, stickers, wrappers, packaging, tins, junk mail… pretty much anything that ordinary households would routinely throw away.
The story of the book began with promotional flexi-discs. A friend of John Townsend’s son Robin borrowed a boxful from the house, and uploaded an audio mix of them onto Youtube; before alerting Jonny Trunk, who has a profound interest in such matters. “There was the Barbara Moore Singers doing a Tango advert; there was a Bryant & May ‘Message from the Chairman’, that sort of thing,” remembers Jonny. “Just my sort of advertising rubbish! I went up and offered Robin a good sum of money for the box, and I said ‘Let’s have a look around the house’. And from there… “
“It was an Aladdin’s Cave. Hanging in the hall was a Weetabix T-shirt, and I thought ‘What?! Why is there a Weetabix t-shirt there?’ It was the one where they turned the Weetabix into little skinheads, remember that? And on every shelf there was a thing, a tin can that was a promotional item that had been turned into a radio… wherever you looked there was something. He had loads of mugs, and I love mugs. And they were everywhere… mugs from Robertson’s Jam or the Swizzels factory.
“There were bags, and in the bags were boxes, and in the boxes were more bags, and in the bags was more stuff. I’m a collector, and I know how much time, energy and effort it’s taken to collect the roomful of records I’ve got. And he did it with postcards, cigarette cards, tobacco silks, first day covers… everything. What most people spend their life doing for one thing, he did across several. I got really excited by the possibilities.“
The book is a sumptuous affair, with 500 of John Townsend’s most vividly evocative items scanned and photographed in loving detail. From Pink Panther candy to Yellow Submarine sweet cigarettes, from Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs to Kung Fuey crisps, they provide a direct portal to an era when luridly-packaged treats would be eagerly snaffled by grubby-faced kids all over the country, queuing in pokey sweetshops and street corner newsagents alike.
Three days after speaking with Jonny Trunk, I travel to Stockport to visit the Townsend household itself, finding myself at the door of an impressive, five-bedroomed house in a leafy cul-de-sac: the very epitome of unassuming suburbia. I’m greeted by Robin, a whiskery blues musician now known universally as Robin Sunflower (“It was chosen for me by the people of Ashton-Under-Lyne”, he smiles, enigmatically). His wife Paula is also there, as are two incredibly excited dogs, one of whom is called Elvis.
Immediately, I get a sense of what Jonny has described as a “strange energy”; John Townsend’s collection, although depleted since his death in 2014, still dominates every available space. The house is a riot of ephemera, a museum of 20th century pop culture and packaging that is still piled halfway to the ceiling in some rooms. As we settle down by the fireside, Robin begins to tell me his father’s life story.
“He was born in Surrey in 1937,” he says. “His dad died quite young, and his mum got another man, so he ended up going into a children’s home. And he spotted that the milk that was delivered there every day had different patterns on the cardboard bottle tops. And he started collecting them. It was something that he could have, something that made him different to everybody else. And from there he went onto collecting cigarette cards, tea cards… and then anything.”
“He had an eye for design, and logos…” adds Paula. “They would have appealed to him…”
“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Logos fascinated him. So he went from cigarette cards, to bubble gum cards, and then the actual packaging. Everything that came into the house was planned. It wasn’t just a case of ‘We need some beans, we need some Cornflakes.’ He’d be in the shop, and he’d say ‘We’re going to get these beans, because they’re advertising this film…'”
John moved from Surrey to Stockport in the late 1950s, and into the current house in the early 1970s. He spent his entire working life as a rep for Bird’s Eye (“We were never short of frozen peas,” deadpans Paula), weaving his love of collecting into his regular family life, with wife Brenda and three young sons – Martin, Robin, and Christopher.
“Me and my older brother Martin were very much employed, at not fantastic rates!” laughs Robin. “My dad would regularly come back with boxes of bubble gum… 144 packets in each box. And in each packet there’d be one piece of bubble gum and four or five cards of whatever series it was; footballers or pop stars. We would flatten all the wrappers, then get all the cards and put them into order, onto boards. There’s No 7 from that series, and there’s No 22…”
What comes over strongly is that John’s hobby wasn’t merely collecting for collecting’s sake: he felt a overpowering duty to preserve the minutiae of 20th century life for future generations to enjoy, and had a visionary sense that eventually these throwaway items would amass great cultural importance, simply because most households were throwing them away.
“There was definitely a social history angle,” nods Robin.
Paula agrees. “Everything to do with disposable life fascinated him,” she says. “He was always going on about the throwaway society, and how it was wrong and he should keep everything. And how one day it was all going to be in this glorious museum. He never got round to that… he never gave himself time, because he was always just collecting more and more.”
“People would bring him things as well,” adds Robin. “He’d say ‘Please collect all your empty cereal boxes and bring them to me… all your junk mail, all your phone cards, all your bus and train tickets…'”
And some of John’s collection has accrued remarkable value.
“There were two boxes full of flattened cereal packets, mostly from the 1970s,” says Robin. “I looked through, and said ‘This one’s got Star Wars on it…’. So we put two Star Wars Shreddies boxes onto eBay with a starting bid of a fiver. Someone got in touch, and asked ‘Would you take £300 for the two?’ It was like… right, OK… let’s tread a bit more carefully now. We’ve also got Battlestar Galactica, Superman, The Black Hole…
“And the Doctor Who Weetabix boxes, we just couldn’t believe. One bloke bought three of the four, on the same day. He spent over £1,000 on three empty Weetabix boxes.”
So objects that were designed to be collectible are now worth less than the packaging that housed them, simply because people kept the former, but not the latter?
“Yeah,” nods Robin. “People might have kept the little plastic figures or the cards, but not the box. That’s the nature of ephemera.”
“Your dad knew that all along,” says Paula. “He understood that immediately.”
The presence of John’s wife Brenda seems to have tempered the scale of the collection, but the intensity of his hobby escalated following her death in 1989. “It was different when Mum was alive,” agrees Robin. “There were certain areas where his collection was, and certain areas where it wasn’t. But once there was only him, there was no need for any demarcation lines.”
This change in circumstances led John’s fascination with printed matter into some unexpected new territories, too: notably, a notorious Manchester nightclub whose name become synonymous with 1990s rave culture.
“Haçienda club flyers,” says Paula. “He loved those.”
Robin nods. “He used to go into Manchester with a rucksack, a shopping trolley and a couple of shoulder bags, and he would go round Affleck’s Palace and Eastern Bloc Records, picking up huge stacks of them. His bag would weigh a ton!”
This new direction prompted John to put his collecting on a more formal footing, with the foundation of an official society. “He was running a club called the M.I.C.E. club,” explains Robin. “All about club flyers, tourist information cards, free postcards… things that were given away as promotional items.”
At this point, he retrieves from the shelf a book that gives an indication of the level of attention that John’s collection began to attract. The Ultimate Guide To Unusual Leisure, by Stephen Jarvis, was published by Robson Books in 1997. It includes an entry on M.I.C.E, the “Modern Information Collectors Exchange”, founded by John to swap promotional flyers with similar enthusiasts dotted around the country.
“What would life be like if you saved every piece of junk mail?” the book speculates. “Probably like John Townsend’s life, who has boxfuls of the stuff all over the house. It’s even on the staircase. He says: ‘There’s a gap down the middle of the hall, where I walk…'”
Robin closes the book, proudly. “It’s also got entries on Zen Archery, the Friends of the Museum of Bad Art, The Flying Nun Fan Club, and barbed wire collecting.”
“I’m surprised your dad didn’t get into that,” smiles Paula.
So did the collection take over the house as spectacularly the book suggests?
“It was quite extreme at one point,” says Paula. “You could sort of shuffle around, but you had to do it really slowly. Sometimes you would actually have to climb over boxes. If you laid flat, you could sort of slide over them. And I don’t remember going upstairs for the first few years. I don’t think it was accessible upstairs.”
“Sometimes you’d hear a sort of rumble upstairs, as something collapsed…” remembers Robin, wistfully.
“But there was never any shame over it,” adds Paula. “He was always ‘Take me as you find me, this his how I want to live’. And everybody accepted that, because it was just… John.”
Both Robin and Paula recall John’s sense of humour and gregarious nature, describing a funny and sociable man who was entirely aware of his own idiosyncrasies. “He liked the thought of being the eccentric English gent,” nods Paula. “He loved being the centre of attention, and if he got the opportunity to be on the radio or the telly, then he loved that, too.”
And the dawn of the 21st century provided the opportunity for John to expand his collecting habits even further. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was an enthusiastic early adopter of eBay.
“He had his own van that the Post Office would send out specifically to come here,” recalls Paula. “Nowhere else. A massive box of condiments, free sachets of brown sauce, turned up one day. We said ‘Why have you bought this?’ He said ‘Because I’m collecting free giveaway condiments, obviously.’ He never used them, they just sat there for years in the box, then got totally moused…”
Robin laughs. “He ran a M.I.C.E club, and them some real mice joined…”
“The kitchen was really scary,” laughs Paula. “Remember that big tin of Mango Purée that exploded?”
Both agree that the collection reached its peak in 2007, by which stage the house was so dominated by bags and boxes that John moved into the garden summerhouse. And shortly before his death in 2014, he was still ordering eBay items from his nursing home: they would arrive unexpectedly at the house, much to Robin and Paula’s surprise.
The couple moved into the house when John died, and began the bittersweet task of gently dismantling the collection. As the family sift through what John once conservatively estimated to be 34,000 items (“Possibly 34,000 squared!”, jokes Robin), older brother Martin has been tasked with listing the more interesting items on eBay.
“It feels strange, it all going out of the house,” admits Paula. “Because the house and the collection have kind of become one. And it is Robin’s dad. Having had years of arguing with him, I now feel that I understand where he was coming from, and why he couldn’t let it go. I thought it would be easy just to get rid of it, but it’s really not. When stuff goes out of the house, it does tug on your heartstrings a bit, because we’re never going to see it again. But realistically, we can’t keep hold of it.”
Robin agrees. “It’s a shame that he spent a lot of time gathering these things together, and now they’ve been fragmented. Maybe out there now, there’s someone desperately trying to gather them together again…”
Wrappers Delight, of course, immortalises a corner of the collection, and cements John Townsend’s visionary status: Jonny Trunk’s 2019 crowdfunding campaign to finance the book reached its £20,000 goal in 36 hours, proving that the world has finally come round to John’s way of thinking. We now positively delight in the disposable ephemera of decades past. And Jonny Trunk himself is rightly proud of the finished product. “On every page I’ll see something I like,” he says. “There’s a lot of illustration which I think is really quite charming. Some of it’s brilliant, and some of it’s not very good at all… that slightly ‘outsider’ art of badly drawn pop stars, you know. But there’s something on every page I’d buy.”
Meanwhile, Robin and Paula are a delightful couple, and inexhaustibly welcoming. As we potter around the house, I get an overwhelming impression of their love for John, and their willingness to share and celebrate his story. Touchingly, on top of a drinks cabinet in the front room, are the modest pile of 1940s cardboard milk bottle tops that sparked the whole collection. They graciously offer them for me to inspect; the faded remnants of a traumatic, wartime childhood. I’m subsumed by a feeling of incredible sadness.
“He lost everything when he was a kid,” says Paula. “But these were something that he could take, that he could just have. It was like everything he’d lost, he put into his collecting. I think a lot of it was about him taking control of his life.”
“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Existing on his own terms.”
And as we pass the foot of the staircase, John’s story has one final, heart-rending twist. Posing for photographs beside a promotional cardboard cut-out of a beaming 1970s schoolboy sporting a Superman t-shirt and a chequered flat cap, Robin smiles. “If we stand here, my parents are in the picture, too”, he says. And he points out two charcoal-grey cardboard boxes, nestling almost unnoticed beneath a fluffy, sleeping toy cat.
John Townsend has become part of his own collection. It’s impossible not to conclude that it’s what he would have wanted.
Wrappers Delight, by Jonny Trunk, is available from FUEL Publishing, RRP £24.95. It’s here…
And if you’d like a slice of John Townsend’s collection… look for the eBay ID “oldtom85”.
Thanks to Robin and Paula, Jonny Trunk, and to ace photographer Andrew T. Smith; gratitude to FUEL Publishing too, for providing images from the book.
The new Fortean Times (Issue 391) is now available, and has the latest printed Haunted Generation column, featuring reviews of new albums by Keith Seatman, Plone, The Heartwood Institute & Panamint Manse and Capac with Tom Harding. It looks like this: