Gerry Wells, who has died aged 85, was a self-confessed obsessive whose life was dominated by his fascination with radio apparatus.
By the time of his death he had amassed a collection of more than 1,300 radio and television sets and associated equipment, covering the entire pre-transistor history of broadcasting. This had become the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum, and today it occupies his lifelong home, a substantial Edwardian house in Dulwich, south-east London.
The collection contains many working examples, most of them found and brought back to life by Wells himself. Visitors can have the unique and somewhat unsettling experience of watching live television programmes in the old 405-line, black-and-white format, abandoned in 1984. Wells rescued the converter from the nearby Crystal Palace transmitter. He was a bit short of space at the time, so he set it up in his bedroom.
Gerald Lloyd Wells was born in the same Dulwich house on September 18 1929, the son of an insurance clerk. His future obsession with things electrical made itself known early when, aged three, he carefully inserted a piece of tinfoil into a power socket and blew every fuse in the house. Thereafter, electricity, radio especially, became his overwhelming interest.
As an unconventional child, the young Gerry was alternately ostracised and bullied at school. This, combined with difficulties at home, led him to play truant at the age of 11. He occupied his illicit free time in exploring bombed houses, scavenging for electrical switches, fuse boxes and other bits and pieces. From this he graduated to stealing radios from neighbouring flats. These he dismantled and hid in the attic; but he was found out and sent to a remand home.
This pattern of behaviour was repeated several times until, at 15, he was sent to an Approved School in Lancashire. There his skills found a legitimate outlet, and he was soon happily employed on electrical tasks, including renovating the local cinema’s projector. It was correctly judged that his life of crime was over and he was released on licence.
With television starting up again after the war, and everything in short supply, he found his skills in great demand. It was a good time to set up in the repair business. The Coronation made 1953 a particularly busy and profitable year. He even designed and manufactured his own television sets.
With increasing affluence, the demand for small-scale repair work fell away, and in the early 1960s Wells turned to general electrical contracting. Never an astute businessman, he was an even worse employer, and his business struggled. That, plus a back injury, finally brought it to an end in 1974.
This was when (encouraged by friends who told him “If Lord Montagu could do it with cars, you can do it with radios”) he determined to turn his home into a wireless museum. In a very short time it had taken over every room in the house, including the attic, and spread to a sizeable wooden structure that he built in the garden. The collection continued to grow until it became necessary to purchase a strip of garden from the house next door, for a further building.
The establishment, now a registered charity, is closed at present, while his devoted team of helpers reorganise it – not least to get some of the weight off the upper floor before it gives way. But it will reopen to visitors, always by prior arrangement. No doubt its annual summer garden party will take place again this year, at which people will crowd into a darkened room to watch BBC television “Interludes” from the early 1950s in glorious black and white.
Gerry Wells is survived by a daughter.
Gerry Wells, born September 18 1929, died December 22 2014