Tucked away on a shelf in the archives of Puke Ariki are hundreds of wallpaper covered novels. The books are pasted with birth and death notices from local newspapers - covering decades. This is a giant family tree of the early settlers in New Plymouth, carefully cut and pasted into the upside-down novels. The colourful books are a slice of New Plymouth history.
A set of drawers in the Taranaki Research Centre houses 20,000 little cards, each with a name and a reference number written carefully in black ink, the spidery writing crawling across the card. These cards are cross referenced to the books in the back rooms of Puke Ariki.
What kind of person would spend the time and effort required to do such a thing?
Not much is known about Fred Butler the man. What little we do know could fit easily onto a handful of his little index cards.
A search through the index under 'B' will find 'Frederick Burdett Butler' written in spidery hand writing - the indexer has indexed himself. But the book containing his birth details has gone missing - perhaps Fred keeping his private life just that.
A 1970 photograph of Fred shows a slight, small man, balding on top, wearing large glasses perched on his nose. He wears a baggy tracksuit top, trousers and a pair of well-worn slippers.
The Sunday Express newspaper described him as a small, quick, kindly man who was an author, historian, narrator, and patchwork quilt and rug maker. In later years people described him as an outsider, a man with a quirky sense of humour, an eccentric who loved his collection of antiquities like the children he never had.
Fred was born in 1904 and lived with his parents and sister, Alice Ivy, in the family home on Gill Street, New Plymouth. His father, Frederick Samuel, owned the Aurora Icecream Factory.
We don't know what Fred the boy was like - going by his later life the young Fred may have been a stickler for detail, very precise about his work, and perhaps not one of the ‘in’ crowd. But he had a passion for collecting things. "Every schoolboy collects things - stamps, butterflies, match boxes. When I left school I just went on collecting, and I never stopped" Fred explained to a Bay of Plenty Times reporter many years later.
Fred collected fascinating objects, antiques and filled scrapbooks with articles from newspapers. He trawled through the local papers, cutting and pasting articles on subjects of interest to himself and historical interest to the local community - from his beloved Mount Taranaki (Fred was a keen mountain climber) to the births and deaths. He continued this for 60 years, building up substantial collections of scrapbooks, cross referencing each article in an index for easy access.
For years he continued the practice of buying every book about New Zealand as soon as it came from the publisher. In his enthusiasm he founded the New Plymouth Historical Society, helping save important pieces of New Plymouth's and New Zealand's history for future generations. Sometimes, he told the Bay of Plenty Times in 1978, he went to great length to save artefacts for his collection.
When the New Plymouth provincial chambers were about to be demolished he rescued lorry loads of documents no one else wanted. Members of the New Plymouth Historical Society had assured him there was nothing of value left in the building. One night he ‘borrowed’ a long ladder from a builder's site and carried it into the deserted and derelict building. He climbed up into the attic and found, under inches of dust, tonnes of documents relating to the early years of New Plymouth's history.
It's thought much of Fred's collection was funded through his income from an inheritance and investment in the Aurora ice Cream factory, and property he owned in the Devon flats. He is listed in the 1959 Electoral Role as a ‘clerk’.
He continued living at Gill Street into his adulthood but when his mother died in the late 1950s, Fred moved the entire house to near Sentry Hill, just south of Waitara. The five acres surrounding the house allowed his 13 cats to roam and gave him room to expand the house.
It had been cut in two for removal, and when it was re-erected Fred had a two-storied addition added, including pieces from a variety of old buildings in New Plymouth that had been demolished or renovated. These included a set of four-metre-high doors from the old BNZ in New Plymouth.
Fred undertook the huge task of shifting the contents himself. It took him five months, working from 5am to 11pm, with 11 trips a day. He stored the collection in onsite sheds and catalogued them as they were placed in his home. The resulting house and contents were described by The Sunday Express as ‘a potpourri of objects’.
"This is no ordinary home. Every shelf wall and table has a collection of objects. Glass fronted book cases with fine books, two grand pianos, china, paintings, curios, inlaid tables, stone jars. Lanterns and muskets, historical records, original negatives of photographs from the 1860s, letters written in the earliest days of the settlement, a plate from the dinner set brought to New Zealand by surveyor Frederick Carrington, a sword of one of the officers commanding the HMS Niger in March 1860...
"Mr Butler has an estimated 80,000 books, wherever you look there are shelves of them. Nearly all about New Zealand, or by New Zealanders. Several of the books were ones he had written himself. Upstairs galleries hold trunks of 19th Century clothes sealed against moth and mildew."
Fred had stitched fine patchwork quilts that covered the beds and hung on the walls of his house. Handmade woollen floor rugs scattered the floor and diaries of early New Plymouth settlers lay on tables. Each item had a story to it.
A slab of smoothly polished greenstone, standing over a foot high, stood in the middle of a table: "tipped off a Maori canoe off Opunake. Must have been in the sea bed for 80 or 90 years before they retrieved it," he told the Express.
The most bizarre relics were in his bedroom: two human skulls sat on a window sill behind a set of curtains. One was Māori - found in a paddock; the other was Chinese, possibly from the Suez. Opposite Fred's bed was an age-blackened door with iron bars at the top and a circular peep hole burnt into the wood below. The door was from the first jail built in New Plymouth.
Surrounded by the fantastical and bizarre, Fred's favourite possession was dainty and delicate, a thing of beauty - one of the grand pianos made by J. Doring and Co in 1789 with a solid rosewood top and fretwork panels.
Fred wanted his one-man treasury of New Zealand history kept safe for the people of New Plymouth when he died. He attempted to establish a trust to care for his collection but, despite approaching many local bodies and societies, both in New Plymouth and nationally, he wasn't successful.
In later years Fred became protective of his work, accusing people, and libraries, of stealing his collection and plagiarising his work. A letter to the Alexander Turnbull Library accuses the librarian of trying to ‘put one over him’. At one stage he stuck a notice to his door - banning a local man he claimed had plagiarised his precious work.
Fred often went to great length to gain works for his collection, and began to suffer financially. He offered his collection for sale to libraries both locally and nationally, but was unable to find anyone who would agree to his terms and conditions of sale, that stipulated he stay on as curator of the entire collection, and the proviso that nothing was to be sold.
In 1961 the New Plymouth City Council, with the help of city librarian Anne Shipherd, purchased part of the collection historically important to New Plymouth, including several pieces of furniture, letters written by early settlers and the scrapbooks on Mount Egmont. But Fred was still keen to sell the rest of the collection to someone who would take care of it and him. He became increasingly frustrated at what he perceived to be people's lack of interest.
He vented his feelings to a Daily News reporter in 1970: "I hope you publish this - it's the first time in 20 years I've had a chance to clear my name in Taranaki. I'm one of those crazy fellows who have an obsession for collecting things. I've built up my collection over 50 years and people have always poked fun at me - at the stuff I've collected and at the waste of time and money."
Fred subsequently sold part of his collection of transcripts to the Hocken Library at Otago University in Dunedin. But the librarian at Hocken believed the collection should be retained in New Plymouth and offered the material to the New Plymouth City Council, at cost, the same year.
Russell Standish lived near Eltham at the time and recalls the Eltham Historical Society investigating the possibility of housing all of Fred's collection. "But he chose instead an offer from the Tauranga Museum." The museum came and packed up the collection - seven truckloads in all - and Fred was installed at the Tauranga Historic Village.
The Bay of Plenty Times ran an article on the new treasures the city had gained - and the ‘spry and lively’ 75-year-old owner. Fred played his favourite ‘square’ for the reporter, who waxed lyrical about the instrument and the owner: "He can play his piano like an angel - it is an instrument made in 1789, halfway between a piano, which has three strings to each key, and a harpsichord, which has one. Mr Butler's instrument has two…the player must get sound effects from the way he uses his fingers. Mr Butler played Caesar Frank so it sounded like organ music, then took a Schubert prelude which sang and rippled in true piano style."
But things did not go well at the historic village. "Fred did not fit in well there being the eccentric he was" recalls Russell Standish. "One of the problems being his insistence of sunbathing in the nude on the veranda of the house he was provided at the Historic Village."
Within the year Fred and his collection had moved on to Thames, where he battled with his failing health. He died of a stroke in 1982. Much of his beloved collection was sold to the Wagner Collection in Northland and dispersed around the country and the world.
Fred Butler - an eccentric with an obsession for collecting the interesting and odd, a man with a passion for his local town and its history. A man who has preserved an important slice of New Plymouth's history for future generations.
Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: Fred Butler collectionLink