Friday, 27 July 2007

Wonderfully weird

Michael Collins OBE and I have something in common, but sadly it’s not the gong he was awarded in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee birthday honours, or that he’s just published his first book.

No, it’s how he and I both started to get interested in antiques and collecting: down a hole in a Victorian rubbish dump.

For me, it was the discovery that an area of my home town, romantically called Fol Hollow, was actually a derivation of Foul Hollow, because a century or more ago that was where the residents dumped all their waste.

Alerted to the story as a young reporter on the local newspaper, I was amazed to see the clay pipes, pot lids, ginger beer bottles and other collectables being unearthed by the wheelbarrow load.

Until then, I thought all stuff that dated from the 1800s was in museums.

So it was for Mr Collins. In his amusing little coffee table book “Eccentric Contraptions*”, he writes: “It all started down a five-foot trench in an old rubbish dump in Sittingbourne in Kent.

“My son Paul, then aged 12, pulled from the side wall of the 'dig' a pointed bottle that had an embossed surface.

“We both looked at this peculiar container, unable to fathom its use. A few minutes later; another embossed bottle emerged, this time with a marble in its neck - and that was the beginning of my interest in everyday, labour-saving and plain weird contraptions from the past.”

Mr Collins did some research, and found that in the early 1800s fizzy drinks manufacturers had a problem stopping gas escaping from their products.

In I814, in a patent application for a bottle-filling machine, William Hamilton sketched a bottle with a pointed bottom that had to lie on its side, ensuring that the cork always remained wet and didn't shrink, allowing the gas to escape.

This remained the common method of bottling until 1875, when Hiram Codd patented the marble stopper; which had to be hit into a recess in the bottle to allow the contents to be poured or drunk - hence the phrase “a load of codswallop”.

So the mystery of the bottles in the rubbish dump was solved.

He writes: “Thus began a 30-year passion for finding quirky, everyday gadgets used by people in the past; the more eccentric and unusual the better; the more effort for less reward, the more satisfying; the more ingenuity used to solve the simplest problems - often in the hope of making a fortune - the more exciting.”

The result is a collection of more than 400 weird and wonderful objects, many of which are featured in Eccentric Contraptions and Amazing Gadgets, Gizmos and Thingamabobs, published by David & Charles, Brunel House, Newton Abbot, Devon, TQ12 4ZZ, price £9.99.

Maurice Collins was awarded the OBE in 2002 for a lifetime of work with the disabled.

In 1969, he and his wife Doreen and another family member founded the charity Kith and Kids, an organisation which provides services to families with children who have disabilities, and he remains a trustee

He lives in Haringey, South London, and is a former chairman of both the local and London branch of Mencap.

A business marketing expert, he runs workshops and seminars across the country in return for donations to disability organisations and all royalties from Eccentric Contraptions will be donated to Kith and Kids.

He said: “I have used the gadgets to great effect helping young entrepreneurs to brainstorm new products and potential business ideas.

“There are probably thousands of weird gadgets still out there. Don't throw them away - there will be someone just around the corner waiting to see them and put them on show so that everyone can enjoy the ingenuity of the human race in its unceasing search for a problem-free life.”

Pictures show

Michael Collins’ book, the cover of which is decorated with a Victorian teasmade

A Victorian cherry pipper that did speed up a tedious process. Place cherries in the hopper and the twin spikes pierce a pair at a time, which were then pushed off automatically minus their stones

Reynolds of Chicago patented this envelope sealer in the late 19th century. As the lever is cranked, a roller drives an open envelope through a wetting process and a second roller seals it

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