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How the Christchurch earthquakes helped a toy collector follow his dreams

Alan Preston: “History gets lost.” Photo/Clare de Lore

For toy collector Alan Preston, the Christchurch earthquakes were a wake-up call.

Fifty years or so ago, when many of his friends were discarding their childhood toys, Dunedin schoolboy Alan Preston carefully packed his away for safekeeping. A few favourites remained on display in the youngster’s room, alongside posters of the All Blacks and the New Zealand cricket team.

In the decades that followed, Preston, now 61, worked as a motor mechanic and then as a teacher aide. He devoted his spare time and cash to collecting childhood memorabilia, including a vast number of Matchbox cars, Lego, stuffed toys, dolls and battle miniatures.

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Preston’s parents, Jimmy and Joan, encouraged their three children to follow their dreams. Alan excelled at rugby and cricket, and when not collecting wickets, he was collecting toys.

He and his partner, Ruth Fisher, a business consultant, took stock of their lives – and the toy collection – after the 2011 earthquake, which destroyed their Christchurch home. They had to make decisions about not only where next to live but also where to rehouse the toy collection, which had expanded so much that most was in storage. Preston decided to invest all his energies in his collection, finally opening the doors of the Toy Collector, a museum in the inner suburb of Waltham in 2016.

Shelves and display cabinets groan with old and new relics of childhood, many bought by Preston from auctions, antique shops and garage sales and others donated by people willing, finally, to share their toys.

A showpiece train set. Photo/The Toy Collector Museum

What’s your background with toys?

When I was six or seven, I got interested in Matchbox toys that were being imported from England. We used to have to line up to buy them. Queues of children and adults snaked along the footpath up to the door of the toy shop. When you got there, you were restricted to a maximum of four toys.

Even if you aren’t attached to the toys, there are great stories behind many of them. During the war, for example, it was hard to get toys in New Zealand, and then after the war there were tariffs. This led to some local toy manufacturing. Triang, for example, made tin trucks, trains and lots of people had the tricycles.

What role did the earthquakes play in your deciding to set up the Toy Collector?

A lot of people, like us, lost homes and possessions in the earthquakes. Stuff doesn’t really matter when you think about the loss of life, but I’m glad our collection mostly survived. We then had to decide whether to stay or to go – we could have moved out of Christchurch, but we made a conscious choice to stay. Once you do that, you are committing to a city that will never be as you first knew it. But think about children born since the quakes – this is their normal, they didn’t know Christchurch as it was and they don’t think that way. Setting up the Toy Collector is an optimistic move, a vote of confidence in Christchurch and our small attempt to add to the character of the new city. We wanted to encourage people to get their collections and treasures out – so many people had things boxed away and then ended up losing them in the quakes. We now have many other collectors’ items on loan for display. There’s a lot to love about Christchurch – like my golf club. I don’t want to start over with that either.

The museum has a Morris Minor in Noddy-car colours.

Who comes here and why?

All sorts, from young to old, collectors to those who are just curious. Nostalgia is a big factor. We have old ladies who come in and cry when they see the dolls or doll prams, just like the ones they used to play with. Anyone who came in would probably find something they’ve had at some time in their lives. It’s more than just looking at pretty things, and for older visitors, it’s a real step back into memories of their childhoods – it evokes thoughts of early family life, of friends, many of whom are now gone, and of good times. I had a 92-year-old man come in the other day who couldn’t believe what we have here, and now he wants to donate some special toys to me that he has kept for all those years. These toys, often stashed away in a dusty old attic, get a new life in here.

Who gives to you?

A lot of what we have here would have been thrown away if we hadn’t taken it. History gets lost that way. People don’t know what to do with the old toy cars and the dolls. Older generations collected and treasured them, but the younger ones aren’t necessarily interested or connected to them emotionally. People might not even have children to give them to. You find things just get thrown out and sometimes we get to save something valuable, but there must be a lot that end up in the landfill.

A vast collection of Matchbox vehicles.

Is there good reference material available to help you identify a toy’s history or value?

Quite often we can find something online if we don’t know much about the toy. But it’s really great getting people in the door, because often they will look at something we know little about and add to the history we are assembling about that piece. Generally, people will have developed knowledge about a particular type of thing. For example, you have Lego enthusiasts or Matchbox toy collectors and they will spot a rare piece. We already know a lot about Matchbox cars, because they are one of my favourites and I had collected hundreds of them over many years, well before we got the idea for the museum. We have a good collection of toy-related books at the museum and we couldn’t manage without them. They are invaluable for identifying toys’ ages and values, as well as for writing information sheets for the displays. The book Hello Girls and Boys: A New Zealand Toy Story, by David Veart, gives a great insight into just how much toys and play have changed. It includes fascinating information about Māori children and the toys they had before Europeans arrived and the influence of European settlers. It’s pretty comprehensive and quite a social history. Others we dive into quite often include Guide to Toy Collecting by Harry L Rinker, and The Yesteryear Book, published by Matchbox.

What’s the most popular toy or best investment for a toy collector?

The Lego. It’s the biggest selling and the best investment. People make big money selling Lego. They make some things for a while and then stop. For example, the individual shops I have in the Lego display town cost about $400 each brand new, but they are no longer made. They sell for at least twice their original price now.

Jimmy and Joan Preston with Alan, left, and Paul.

What motivates people to donate beloved toys or objects to you?

I’ll give you an example. A woman aged about 90 came in and gave us a small wooden doll’s bassinet. None of her children or grandchildren wanted it. Her father made the bassinet for her doll, so it is about 86 years old and very special for her. She gave me a big hug and was crying when she visited next time and saw how well it was cared for and being used for another doll. A lot of people just want to know their special childhood object is cared for. Those who lived through the war and shortages especially cherish the one or two special things they had.

Many toy baskets have a battered teddy bear. What’s the story behind this one you have here?

He’s particularly special for me because he belonged to my brother, Paul, who died aged only 39. He was my only brother, and my only sister, Deborah, also died relatively young at 49. Mum and Dad lived with us for several years until Mum died last year. My father is now in a rest home, but we see him a lot.

Paul’s treasured teddy.

Some children get frightened by the dolls, I gather. What scares them?

Usually the eyes, the glassy unblinking stare. When you see a realistic doll lying with its porcelain skin and eyes open but not moving, it can look dead. For little children, with their vivid imaginations, these dolls are more real than they are to us. Even though it’s hard to put yourself in the mind of a child, I can understand why they are sometimes wary of the dolls.

You have a few golliwogs. What do younger people especially make of them?

No one has yet objected to them, but if they did I would tell them where to go. They are clearly from another time, they are part of history. You can’t make things not exist.

Do museum visitors get to touch the dolls and other toys?

No, some are quite fragile, and even if we let them hold the ones that aren’t, they soon would be. Children generally understand that this is a place to see toys from long ago, played with by children who are either now grown-ups or no longer around to tell the story of their loved toy. We are planning to introduce a hands-on experience for our visitors, but it’s a little way off.

Shelves in the museum groan with old and new relics of different eras of childhood.

What about old children’s books?

We have quite a few, but they are often even more fragile than the toys, so again, they’re for looking at, rather than touching. Annuals used to be very popular as Christmas presents. They weathered better than the copies of the weekly magazines. We have quite a few in storage for when we eventually expand. We are running out of space.

If you had to sell it all, what one item would you hang onto?

The Chinese Star Checkers board game is rare. A guy found it in a garage sale and, when he checked its history, realised it was special. During Word War II, the Australian manufacturer of the game couldn’t import glass marbles, so instead they used the stones of the fruit of quandong (wild peach) trees – an Aussie answer to a wartime shortage. A museum in Canberra has the only other one we know of and offered to buy this one too. But we were given it instead, and I wouldn’t part with it.

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.