History enthusiast talks about his lifetime of collecting

John Blake, chair of Barking District Historical Society, reveals his lifetime passion for collecting things

�When I do the occasional talk on my lifetime of collecting, people are usually surprised that they are not hearing about priceless antiques but the more mundane items of everyday life.

I guess my passion for collecting (hoarding?) comes from my mother Joyce and other family members whose precious items are now in my possession.

I must have caught the bug at a very young age as I still have birthday cards from the 1950s, including one from the former Odeon Cinema in Whalebone Lane South (I also have my Odeon Boys and Girls badge and membership card for Saturday morning pictures).

I also remember waiting impatiently for the next box of Kellogg’s to arrive with its plastic toy soldier lurking somewhere among the cornflakes. No doubt ‘elf and safety would have something to say about that today.


One relative I would have liked to have met was my great-uncle Alfred Armitage – I feel he was a kindred spirit.

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Like all other members of the armed forces in South Africa, he received a tin of chocolate from Queen Victoria at Christmas in 1900.

He never ate the chocolate and it remains, albeit in a sorry state, in the tin decorated with a cameo portrait of the Queen and her royal cipher.

He also saved a very interesting special edition of the Natal Mercury announcing the Relief of Mafeking.

Both items came to me through his nephew Alfred.

Postcard collecting has always been a big favourite of mine but prices are now way out of my league – I recently saw a postcard of the Ford plant at Dagenham on sale for �40 – when you consider that it would have cost virtually nothing to produce it seems a ridiculously high price to pay.

In 1960 a school friend sent me a chain letter (I still have it!) asking if I would send a picture postcard to the first person listed in the letter and four plain ones to my own friends – the missive proudly boasted that I would receive 256 picture postcards within 26 days.

I managed to find some picture postcards in the Chadwell Heath branch of Woolworth’s and duly sent them off.

More than 50 years later I am still waiting for the first card to arrive. However, it did lead to a lifetime of postcard collecting.


Saving junk mail gets me a lot of stick as everyone hates the stuff and discards it – to me the items are precious pieces of social history.

Mind you, I once rashly wrote an article in the Friends of Valence newsletter confessing to my addiction and I received junk mail by the sackload!

Sometimes you can find interesting items by accident. I was rummaging through a box in a Norfolk junk shop and found a 1945 official programme for Barking’s carnival week.

I paid a few pence for it but the shop owner had not noticed that it was signed by Vera Lynn and I did not enlighten him as, no doubt, the price would have risen sharply.

Now I am getting nearer to the checking out time, the Herculean task to sort the material that will befall my family and friends fills me such with horror that I have now disposed of numerous items.