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Last Updated: Monday, 10 April 2006, 23:57 GMT 00:57 UK
Timeless appeal of antique gadgets
Emma Griffiths
BBC News website, London

Maurice Collins
Mr Collins is a man with a passion
Maurice Collins, 71, is a man obsessed, with bizarre antique gadgets.

His house in Muswell Hill, north London, creaks under the weight of them.

As he talks, he flips through a book he has written on the subject, picking out one contraption, before flitting to another.

He gestures to a Skirt Lifter, c.1888, which helped the long-skirted lady step over puddles with dignity and dance unobstructed.

Turning the page he explains how the phrase "spending a penny" dates back to WC innovator George Jennings's decision to charge visitors to use his product in 1851.

Fascinated by items powered by anything other than electricity, Mr Collins's collection largely dates from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the Festival of Britain in 1951.

From a coachman's belly warmer and a pistol purse, to a clockwork fly scarer and a shoe heater, Mr Collins likes to collect them all.

Some, like the tennis ball cleaner seem curiously specific, others, like the "cure-all electric belt", hopelessly optimistic.

Crazy contraptions from the late 19th and early 20th Century

He has a particular passion for the clockwork teas made which, triggered by an alarm, sets off levers which light a match, which boils the water, then tips up to pour out one's tea.

He is the proud owner of six self-pouring tea pots.

Mr Collins's eccentric pastime began in the 1970s, when he went bottle digging with his son Paul.

It was there he discovered a genuine Hiram Codd bottle, complete with marble to stop the contents' gas escaping.

Thus began a 30-year craze that has seen Mr Collins pick up, roughly, 1,000 items at antiques fairs and, more recently, on eBay.

"Everybody laughed at me because nobody else collects thingy-me-bobs from the past, to my knowledge," he said.

Now he has so many items, he's got three exhibitions on at once, one in Peterborough, Beaulieu and one at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in west London.

But although Mr Collins appears to be the only serious collector of weird labour-saving devices from the past - there is no shortage of interest in them.

For us it's really been quite a blockbuster
Lesley Bossine
In Kew, some of Mr Collins's items are displayed in old-fashioned wooden cabinets, against the rather bizarre backdrop of the museum's own antique washing machines and toilets.

Despite its simplicity, museum director Lesley Bossine has been bowled over by the exhibition's success.

More than 5,000 people have seen it since it opened in January - double the numbers expected.

A lecture by Mr Collins was so popular they had to use a different room and stop selling tickets in advance.

A Jennings water closet dating from about 1890
George Jennings's WC was behind the phrase "spending a penny"

Visitors include children, old people, families, and college trips for art students studying design.

"What has surprised me is the number of younger people in their early 20s, the sort of people you would expect to be at the Tate Modern on a Sunday," said Mrs Bossine.

"They perhaps wouldn't normally head to the steam museum, but the exhibition has intrigued them."

"For us it's really been quite a blockbuster."

Among visitors to the exhibition was TV producer Kip Katesmark, 45, who lives in nearby Chiswick.

"I find gadgets and crazy contraptions absolutely fascinating," she told the BBC News website.

Moustache preserver

"When they told me there was a 'moustache preserver' that ensures your moustache doesn't get covered in beer foam while you're drinking a pint, I thought: 'I have got to see that'."

Mr Collins will be happy with the exhibition's success.

Any money raised through his ventures, which include two books, Ingenious Gadgets and Eccentric Contraptions, goes towards his charity Kith and Kids, which supports the families of children and adults with learning disabilities.

And he would like to open a small museum in Hackney, which will inevitably prove popular with his wife. Do the gadgets encroach on his house? "A bit," he smiles.

"When the museum takes my gadgets, they pay my charity. My son insists my wife should pay the museum."

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