Neil Abbott has a burning desire to have one of the best collections in the world – and he’s just about struck it.
The former Canberra public servant estimates he has more than a million matchboxes, covers and associated memorabilia, a collection he began as a teenager when his mother brought matchbooks home from the club where she worked.
“She would put them in a fishbowl, like lots of people did in those days, and I just got interested in them too. My friends were collecting stamps and coins back then, I guess I just wanted something different. I ended up taking over her collection,” he said.
It can safely be described as Australia’s largest collection and possibly even the world’s because it would take forever for someone to actually sit down and count them.
The collection, which dates back to the 1940s, has taken over two spare bedrooms in the Monash home he shares with his wife Lindy, and a shed out the back. One of the bedrooms is a “shrine” to his favourite matchbox brand, Redheads, while the other is “just full of boxes of stuff I’ve yet to go through”.
Neil has been collecting matchboxes, books and related memorabilia all his life. He sourced many while travelling overseas, but it became a bit tricky when airlines started banning passengers from carrying matches.
“Everywhere we went overseas in those days, I’d be looking for matchbooks. Las Vegas was like a dream for me, there were different matchbooks everywhere. We went to this little place in China where they had so many, too – if I’d had an empty suitcase, I would have filled it with them.”
With so many match companies closing down – including one that reportedly burnt down – collection items are in shorter supply today, but that hasn’t stopped Neil.
Branded items are almost as good. He’s amassed a Redheads roomful, including a bedspread, posters, clothes, hats and artwork. One of his favourites is the Dickhead brand, developed by Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith when the Redheads company was bought out by Swedish interests back in the 1990s.
A former smoker, Neil said when he did actually have to buy matches to light cigarettes, he always bought two of the same ones. One to use, the other to collect.
Neil and his wife Lindy, who were childhood sweethearts, have been together for almost 50 years and married for 43.
“You could say I had no idea what I let myself in for,” Lindy joked.
Neil and Lindy have two sons, three grandchildren and are expecting their fourth – none of whom, says Lindy, collect anything.
“Neil makes up for that,” she said. “No way am I a collector. But I have to say I do like some of the old Redhead labels Neil has, especially the Olympic series.
“We have a constant tug of war about his matches in the spare rooms. But our family and friends have got used to sleeping in the Redhead room.”
Their house also boasts a lot more fire alarms than the average home.
But there’s no doubt Neil can strike a romantic chord when required. For their 25th wedding anniversary, he gave Lindy an engraved silver match stick that reads, “You are my perfect match”.
“I was absolutely delighted,” Lindy said. “Shocked, but delighted.”
Even though Neil is running out of house for his million-plus match collection, he is always keen to add more. Is there anything particular on his wish list? No, he says, just anything he hasn’t already got.