An 80-year-obsession with plugs and switches
- 20 August 2010
- From the section Magazine
A youthful passion for all things electrical became a lifelong obsession for Gerry Wells, who has converted his home into a museum to accommodate his 1,200 old radio sets, says Nick Rankin of the BBC World Service.
Gerry Wells admits he was "a most peculiar child". He didn't play with toys, but plugs and sockets and switches.
In his earliest memories, he is looking for electrical fittings, light fittings or sockets - anything to do with electricity.
"When I was taken down to Margate for my first seaside holiday, when I was two or two-and-a-half, we stayed at a boarding house run by a Mrs Epps. I wasn't interested in the seaside, I was fascinated by the lovely, big, red lampshade that hung in the front hall of her boarding house. I would stare at it for hours."
As a toddler fascinated by lamps, he liked to drag an old light-bulb on a bit of flex behind him. He hoarded electrical junk and cached it in the shrubbery.
His mother once said: "If you don't buck your ideas up, you'll still be mucking about at the bottom of the garden in fifty years time!"
Mother knows best. Eighty years on, Gerry Wells continues to potter and tinker with valves and condensers and wiring in a huge shed at the bottom of the garden.
It's the same garden too, because he still lives in the house where he was born, a Victorian dwelling of red brick with the woodwork painted what Gerry calls "middle class green".
People say that an Englishman's home is his castle, and Gerry's seems like an ordinary house in south London until you step inside the gloomy hall and find yourself in a radio Tardis, a time-machine taking you back into the past.
Gerry has transformed his childhood home into the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum, where he lives with 1,200 old radio sets. None of them is digital, they still work, and he knows their history.
The English took to wireless from the start, of course. Guglielmo Marconi established the world's first permanent wireless telegraphy station in the Isle of Wight in 1897, and the English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling likened those early experiments to a spiritualist séance in his 1902 short story Wireless.
Thirty years later, the words of King George V's first Christmas broadcast on the BBC's new Empire Service - " I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all; to men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them" - were also written by Kipling.
Gerry grew up in the golden age of radio (before television, long before the internet) when music, talk and laughter came into people's homes via valve electronics housed in wooden sets with dials and an illuminated screen to help you scroll through the different stations.
These magical boxes inspired an overpowering lust in the young geek Gerry Wells. He stole a radio-set from a shop, escaping with it on his bicycle, although he was caught by the shopkeeper, who pursued by motor car.
Other misadventures followed from his obsession. Caught looting electrical fittings from houses bombed in the wartime Blitz, he was finally sent to a remand home for wayward youths.
A wise teacher found the cause of his troubles was only misdirected talent. Gerry actually had a genius for making and repairing wireless sets. What looked like criminality was passion, what seemed to be hopeless autism was an astonishing memory for detail.
He was safely steered into a livelihood in the wireless and sound-system trade, and his stealing transformed into the more respectable "collecting". The late eccentric millionaire John Paul Getty, who loved cricket and other English curiosities, gave Gerry Wells a 1939 combined radio and television cabinet, which he still watches.
Like many a bluff Englishman, Gerry Wells is a secret romantic. Beneath his boffin exterior - white hair and spectacles, screwdriver in the top pocket of a grubby lab-coat - beats the generous heart of a poet.
He can remember when and where he first heard every piece of music that he loves, and relate it to a craftsman's life that has known joy and sorrow.
Looking back, he believes he's been lucky. "Not everybody is like myself - doing for a living work that they like. Most people work to live. At school I was told quite severely that we can't do for a job things we like doing."
He says his working life has all been fun and there are no thoughts about bringing it to an end.
"I don't intend to retire. I'll die in the saddle, as it were. What would I do? Sit down and watch television? Not bloody likely!"