The first ever Trunk / Fuel crowd-funded book, based on the amazing collection of wrappers owned by John Townsend. It was an extraordinary experience, not just putting the book together but also marveling at the enthusiasm and generosity of people who got us fully funded in less than 36 hours. Amazing.
It all began when I got an email from a Mr Rick Weedon in December 2016. It was a link to a musical mix he’d made using some old advertising flexi discs.
Now, anyone who knows me or Trunk Records (my record company) will know that this would push a lot of my buttons. I looked online. I listened. The mix was fascinating, mainly because I’d never come across most of the flexi discs featured, and I thought I knew that scene pretty well. So I contacted Rick and asked him where he got them all. He told me that they belonged to John Townsend, the father of his friend Robin. John had passed away recently and the house he left was full of boxes of all sorts of things, including the flexi discs.
John Townsend had been a big collector of ephemera and Robin, with his wife Paula, had started the huge task of sifting and sorting through the collection and even selling some of it. So I asked for Robin’s number to see if I could buy the discs.
Pretty much the next day I was sitting with Robin, in his father’s house in Stockport, listening to BBC Radio 2’s Pop Master and having some coffee. I’d driven up from London to come and have a look at the records – which I bought, and also to see the rest of his father’s collection.
Nothing quite prepared me for what I saw. The five bedroomed house was full of boxes. With boxes on top of boxes, and more on top of that. And there were bags everywhere. And all the shelves everywhere were full too. And some rooms you couldn’t get in. And every inch of everywhere there was something. And the attic was full. And the summerhouse outside was full. And the caravan outside was full too.
Robin was up for letting me have a little look about, once I’d explained to him that I could maybe make things with his father’s ephemera before he sold it – like a book or some art or some tee shirts – and so bring in a bit of money for him at the same time. Also, I’d always wanted to do a book with crisp packets in it. Robin said that his father had a crisp packet file somewhere.
So, my first dig about with Robin was very exciting but also strangely intense. There was so much stuff everywhere, and looking through even one box full of things would lead to a sit down and another cuppa. That’s because one box could well be full of files, envelopes, plastic bags and boxes, each one being full of another micro collection of things, or things that were part of another collection, or just random things. And these were all small items too – cards, tickets, packets, badges, pamphlets, labels, leaflets. Or there would be a small box, and inside there would be three mini collections in rubber bands of labeled cards from football or outer space or the local petrol station.
There were also 1970s ice cream tubs full of unfiled paper and packets, there were bin bags, boxes and more files full of stuff everywhere. And chests of drawers full too. And the odd suitcase. At times it felt like the intensity and focus required to collect such an extraordinary amount of material was being released from the collection and was rubbing off on us digging about in it.
It was easy to realise that John Townsend was no ordinary collector. Having spent a full day looking about I came to the conclusion that his collection of printed silk items was world class. His collection of tobacco and cigarette flags and silks was world class too. His collection of old soap related advertising, of first day covers, of Port Sunlight postcards, of early cigarette cards and even playing cards were all world class. But I wasn’t interested in any of that. For me it was all about the sweets. Well mostly about the sweets.
Behind a series of boxes and running into a tall but thin chest of drawers were a set of blue folders. These were all labeled with Dymo tape in alphabetical order. They were filed by brand and were his collection of sweet related wrappers. But not the usual Mars, Marathon and Milky Way packets. No. This was far more obscure. And exciting. Companies I had never heard of, chews I’d not seen for four decades. Dad’s Army sweet cigarettes. Punk gum. Lollygobblechocbomb. This had to be a book.
Robin allowed me to take the files and folders back home and document them. I then came back two more times for further roots about and for a couple more boxes of material. Over these extraordinary visits I got to learn a lot more about the man who’d amassed everything.
John Townsend was born in Sutton, Surrey in 1937. He was orphaned at an early age and spent his childhood at a children’s home in Woking. It was here that he started collecting cardboard milk bottle tops, because he’d noticed that they were different everyday.
By the 1960s he’d got married to Brenda, had moved North and his collecting interests had moved into cigarette silks. He rose to be a leading light in the cartophilic scene (cartophilia being the collecting of cigarette cards and related ephemera). But his collecting passions knew no bounds. His early obsession with cigar and cigarette material was soon spilling into areas of the unknown and undocumented – anything with a brand name or somehow related to a brand was considered, collected and in many cases, catalogued. And this never, ever stopped.
A good job as a rep for Birds Eye was secured in the 1970s, John covering an area from South Manchester to North Birmingham. He would often return home from regular business trips with boxes full of packets of gum he’d bought or traded in shops he’d visited, then pass them to his children to sort on his behalf. The sorting procedure went as follows: the children had to unwrap the gum, flatten the wrappers and separate the gum from the free cards. The flattened wrappers were filed, the cards stacked and the gum placed in several top shelf biscuit tins out of reach and were carefully rationed. Large A0 size boards were set up around the house, on each board several large gridded squares were drawn, onto which gum card sets were gradually collated. As soon as a card set was complete, it would be taken down, wrapped in the relevant wrapper and filed.
Also, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when petrol stations were often running promotional campaigns to collect little badges, glasses, flags or football stickers John would fill up the car with fuel then send in his children to be a bit cheeky with the cashier and ask for more tokens or stickers than they were supposed to have. Which often worked.
And whilst out and about with the family, any opportunity to stop the car outside a junk shop or antiques emporium was taken, regardless of anyone else’s opinion or schedule in the car at the time. Off he’d go, on the hunt for more things.
As far as the family house was concerned, the collecting seemed to just fit how the family lived. The collection was always there, always expanding, but never taking over the living spaces. But once the children grew up and left home, their rooms were then taken over as new places to establish different collections or filing.
John retired in 1984, carried on collecting and became a researcher and archivist for brands including Unilever. By the late 1990s the internet had really started to take shape, giving John 24 hour access to auction sites and forums – so his collecting really exploded. Every day for the rest of his life he’d be buying, so much so that the post office organized a van to come and deliver the mass of incoming envelopes and parcels to him twice a week. He’d also started a collecting group known as Mice Club (Modern Information Collector’s Exchange), spreading the idea of collecting contemporary ephemera and knowledge for future generations.
The MICE Club motto was "collecting seriously just for fun", a phrase that really nails the whole motivation behind the John Townsend collection. Money and financial value was never considered, it was all about the objects, all about the future.
As well as relentless internet activities throughout the 1990s John would also be out most days in Manchester on the hunt for more MICE Club material. He’d hit the town with his shopping trolley looking for flyers, recipe cards, phone cards, free postcards, new newspapers, anything printed now for the future. And he’d come back with a trolly load.
By the time of his death in 2014 aged 77, John Townsend had amassed an extraordinary amount of material. Some of it catalogued, some of it hidden, much of it beyond belief.
When I started digging about and seeing just a small visible fraction of it all I asked Robin how on earth his father had put together such a lot of extraordinary things, as well as having a job and two children, Robin simply replied that his father never did any washing up. Every spare minute he had was spent collecting.
It was clear to me that once John had moved away from the slightly stuffy cartophilic scene, he had developed a very specific focus on packaging that either came with an item to collect or trade, or he was keen on items that featured a "special offer". So, any "collect four packet tops and send off to the address below" packaging (particularly fashionable throughout the 1970s) was voraciously collected; he’d even write to the companies who were making the offer to ensure he’d get the promised item or the full set, or to secure any missing offer items just so he didn’t miss anything. One of his major tactics was to write letters to companies who had just finished special offers and enquire if they had anything surplus. This often worked. Also, if special offer packaging was spotted early on in its run, John would take the opportunity to buy all relevant packets / items on the same day, to get them all quickly simply because he knew many of these special offer packets would disappear just as suddenly as they’d arrive.
If something had been missed in a set or a series, information would then be created, a picture found or photocopies sorted in order to simply document that the missing object existed. This would remain filed until the actual missing object was found.
And once into a new collecting scene or genre John would explore it intensely, finding out about manufacturers, writing to them for material or stats or just raw facts about what, when and how many they made of something, then visiting them too. On one visit to the house Robin showed me the file of seaside rock labels (if it was up to me I would have just made a book about the mass of seaside rock labels, but anyway…). This rock label folder contained hundreds and hundreds of seaside rock labels that all looked exactly the same, but on closer inspection they were all different, with slightly varied views of Blackpool Tower on each one. Also in the file were sheets of A4 with addresses of all seaside rock manufacturers, bus timetables and routes planned showing how John had visited them all in order, gone there and got all their labels.
Another method of collecting simply involved asking. Asking friends, friends of friends, work colleagues, shopkeepers he’d meet whilst out repping. He’d ask anyone if they had any old wrappers, packets, cards, anything. He’d even ask people visiting the house – if, say, Robin’s school friend was around and was eating a lolly, John would ask if could he have the wrapper when he was done with it. And as a result of all this relentless asking, family members, neighbours, work colleagues, all sorts of folk would turn up at the house with bags full of stuff for John to go through and sort. This would explain the varied condition of items across the collection, and also the boxes and bags full of boxes and bags of incongruous items that had been brought around, were dropped off and were simply awaiting John's attention and eventual filing.
Visitors to the house could also get a glimpse of John's amazing collection and collecting brain. If as part of a conversation John would hear some kind of relevant trigger or connection he would spring into action. An example could be a conversation about someone’s daughter being in The Girl Guides. On hearing this John would shoot upstairs and bring down a set of cigarette cards all about the history of The Girl Guides, and he’d know all about the origins of the set, issue numbers and more. His knowledge and expertise brought him small features in collecting magazines, books and newspapers and even a show at the Free Trade Hall.
And always John would see his collection as a social, historical necessity and an important resource that could be referred to at any time now and in the future.
Well, this is the future for John. And a very small corner of his collection now makes up Wrappers Delight.
It has been a three year process to get the book made. Lots of travel, lots of research, lots of photography and heaps of scanning. Decisions for what went in the book were based on just three parameters set by Fuel and myself. 1) we had to like the item for nostalgic reasons 2) we had to like it for graphic reasons 3) we had to have room in this 240 page book which was looking problematic as we had well over 1500 items I had selected to deal with at the beginning.
So what you have here is the final cut. I’ve supplied a little information where available, but researching some of the more curious brands was very hard indeed. They just seem to have disappeared. In some cases, when some history was found, the brand stories were a little sad – mergers, private equity interventions and buy-outs seemed to leave a trail of closed businesses and empty or demolished factories all across the UK. The book accidentally seems to capture a time where large communities were involved in making creative sweets, drinks and snacks all across the land. You can whittle that business down now to a handful of giants. But it’s good to see companies like Swizzels that began in 1928 – and are just down the road from John Townsend's home - are still going strong.
As far as collating and indexing the imagery, we chose to employ John Townsend's alphabetical system so everything is by brand, and not by product name. For example Double Agents are not under “D”, they are under “T” for Trebor. He used this filing system consistently as it’s just the simplest way to find anything quickly.
Please also note that Wrappers Delight does not claim to be a complete collection of anything, but it is a rare and fabulous mass of gum, drinks, cool confectionary, lollies and weird old memories in one totally delicious book.
I know John Townsend is no longer here, but his endless and very sweet vision of keeping little things for the future to see, to enjoy and to remember has ended up like this, and I’d like to think he’d be delighted.
SPECIAL thanks must be given to Robin Sunflower, his wife Paula and Martin Townsend who all let me just get on with it and trusted me to turn it into something.
SPECIAL thanks must also go to Martin Green, who came up with Wrappers Delight as the title. It was way better than my original title (The Rubbish I Have Eaten), which I thought was really quite good until he trumped it.