How a New Zealand literary gem was found, then lost, then found again

A painterly illustration of a large, old, white weatherboard house with a red roof. It sits on a large block of land surrounded by overgrown grass and bush. The word 'HOTEL' is neatly painted on the side of one wall towards the top. It's a sunny day but the house looks eerie and a little ominous.

For decades, a rundown house in Christchurch secretly harboured one of New Zealand’s greatest literary treasures. This is the story of the reclusive hoarder who hid it, the woman who wrote it, and the man who rediscovered it.

Cutout of an ornate clock face with a gold surround. The numbers on the clock face are a decorative serif font. Three gold finial details protrude from the top of the clock surround.

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PHILIP

An old black and white photograph of Philip Wright, aged in about his mid-twenties wearing a clean, crisp white shirt and thin black tie. He sits at a desk with his hands hovering over the keys of an antique typewriter. He looks straight to camera with a slight smile and bright eyes. He wears thick, black-rimmed glasses and has slightly foppish hair. In the background is an old wood-framed photo of a portrait of a bearded man and suited man. A washbasin and jug sits on a small bench, also in the background.

Philip Wright died in bed on August 2, 2015. A second-hand dealer found him; rang the cops. It was a small bedroom at the back of a small hut, next to a grand old house right on the bank of the Heathcote River in Christchurch. But the section was overgrown and the house was dilapidated. Wright had relocated to the hut years earlier when part of a ceiling rotted through. 

Someone, probably one of the cops, called Trevor Swainson. Swainson was one of Wright’s oldest friends. He’d been driving past the house one day in the 1980s and saw a sign – plants and shrubs for sale. He pulled in, bought some plants, and kept coming back. He was impressed by Wright’s passion for and vast knowledge of the history of the area.

Philip sits cross-legged wearing blue trousers and a blue jumper, a dark hat and large, clear glasses. One hand is in his pocket and the other arm is bent and perched on a table next to him. His hand holds up his head and he smiles to camera. Behind him is a messy-looking office cabinet with a couple of old clocks sitting awkwardly on top.

Philip Wright, the former owner of Ferrymead House, pictured at home. SUPPLIED

Philip Wright, the former owner of Ferrymead House, pictured at home. SUPPLIED

Wright bought Ferrymead House in 1972. Built in 1851, it was one of the oldest homes in Christchurch, on the original Bridle Path, which connected the new city to Lyttelton Harbour. Over the years, the building had been a post office, store and hotel. For a time in the 1860s it was part of a small village that grew around the wharf on the riverbank. Settlers trekking over the Port Hills could cross the marshy Heathcote River mouth on a ferry that departed from the firm meadow on which the house was built – Ferrymead.

An archival black and white photo showing Ferrymead Station in 1863. Ferrymead Hotel is in the centre-left and is a new-looking, two-storey wooden house with double gables and a brick chimney at one end. The word 'HOTEL' is painted on one end of the house in large letters, next to the chimney. The house sits very close to the water, just off an unpaved, open road. Several other buildings are visible, including a large open warehouse to the right of Ferrymead House, with a crane or similar type of machinery behind it. Some bare-looking hills are in the background.

Ferrymead Station, 1863. Ferrymead House, a hotel at that point, is in the centre. DR A C BARKER COLLECTION, CANTERBURY MUSEUM

Ferrymead Station, 1863. Ferrymead House, a hotel at that point, is in the centre. DR A C BARKER COLLECTION, CANTERBURY MUSEUM

Another archival photo of Ferrymead landing, showing the Heathcote River, some farmland, several large glasshouses and a handful of wooden buildings, including Ferrymead House.

Ferrymead House (obscured, closest to river) and glasshouses viewed from viewed from hills above the Avon-Heathcote estuary. Riverslea house, where the family of Heathcote River ferryman William Dale lived, is in the foreground. SUPPLIED

Ferrymead House (obscured, closest to river) and glasshouses viewed from viewed from hills above the Avon-Heathcote estuary. Riverslea house, where the family of Heathcote River ferryman William Dale lived, is in the foreground. SUPPLIED

Ferrymead House shown as it is today, from a high angle above the house shot with a drone camera. The house is painted cream. The red paint on the corrugated iron roof has nearly rusted off and in some places the roof has been patched. The house is surrounded by large mature trees and opens out onto a large lawn. A huge red shipping container is on the lawn to the right of the house, adjacent to some railway tracks that run past the house. Next to the railway tracks is the bank of the Heathcote River. Several out-buildings are behind the main house.

Ferrymead House and grounds, July 2021. The two north-facing dormer windows were merged to form the unusually-shaped gable during renovations in the early twentieth century.

Ferrymead House and grounds, July 2021. The two north-facing dormer windows were merged to form the unusually-shaped gable during renovations in the early twentieth century.

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An archival black and white photo showing Ferrymead Station in 1863. Ferrymead Hotel is in the centre-left and is a new-looking, two-storey wooden house with double gables and a brick chimney at one end. The word 'HOTEL' is painted on one end of the house in large letters, next to the chimney. The house sits very close to the water, just off an unpaved, open road. Several other buildings are visible, including a large open warehouse to the right of Ferrymead House, with a crane or similar type of machinery behind it. Some bare-looking hills are in the background.

Ferrymead Station, 1863. Ferrymead House, a hotel at that point, is in the centre. DR A C BARKER COLLECTION, CANTERBURY MUSEUM

Ferrymead Station, 1863. Ferrymead House, a hotel at that point, is in the centre. DR A C BARKER COLLECTION, CANTERBURY MUSEUM

Another archival photo of Ferrymead landing, showing the Heathcote River, some farmland, several large glasshouses and a handful of wooden buildings, including Ferrymead House.

Ferrymead House (obscured, closest to river) and glasshouses viewed from viewed from hills above the Avon-Heathcote estuary. Riverslea house, where the family of Heathcote River ferryman William Dale lived, is in the foreground. SUPPLIED

Ferrymead House (obscured, closest to river) and glasshouses viewed from viewed from hills above the Avon-Heathcote estuary. Riverslea house, where the family of Heathcote River ferryman William Dale lived, is in the foreground. SUPPLIED

Ferrymead House shown as it is today, from a high angle above the house shot with a drone camera. The house is painted cream. The red paint on the corrugated iron roof has nearly rusted off and in some places the roof has been patched. The house is surrounded by large mature trees and opens out onto a large lawn. A huge red shipping container is on the lawn to the right of the house, adjacent to some railway tracks that run past the house. Next to the railway tracks is the bank of the Heathcote River. Several out-buildings are behind the main house.

Ferrymead House and grounds, July 2021. The two north-facing dormer windows were merged to form the unusually-shaped gable during renovations in the early twentieth century.

Ferrymead House and grounds, July 2021. The two north-facing dormer windows were merged to form the unusually-shaped gable during renovations in the early twentieth century.

Later, the property became a nursery and orchard and Wright kept it up – selling plants to people like Trevor Swainson. But he became reclusive in his later years and the place got away from him. His immense general knowledge and desire to share it sometimes came across as didactic. If people pushed back, Wright would get annoyed. 

Eventually he shut them out altogether. “I don't want to see people. I don't want to talk to people,” he told Swainson. If callers came looking for the owner, Wright would withdraw, say he was “Bill” the gardener, and refer them to Swainson. He disliked the noise of the lawnmower and wouldn’t let anyone use it. The grass around the house grew wild, tangling with the vines and creepers.

So when he died in that bedroom, alone, a refugee from his own home, it seemed like a dismal coda. A solitary man in a solitary life who, just like his rundown house and gardens, had been overwhelmed by the circumstances. But Philip Wright’s story had an epilogue: one final chapter made up of thousands of clocks, one more death, and a remarkable piece of New Zealand literary history.

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Philip Wright's friend Trevor Swainson stands in the middle of the cluttered lounge surrounded by many boxes filled with hundreds clocks and assorted paraphernalia.

Philip Wright's friend Trevor Swainson with the vestiges of Wright’s clock collection. He hopes to restore Ferrymead House: “It’s a bloody big daunting task, but it’s a promise I made a good friend of mine and I will keep it.”

Philip Wright's friend Trevor Swainson with the vestiges of Wright’s clock collection. He hopes to restore Ferrymead House: “It’s a bloody big daunting task, but it’s a promise I made a good friend of mine and I will keep it.”

The job of picking through Philip Wright’s life fell to Christchurch antique dealer Deric Blackler. Blackler was well known in the city. He had run antique and second-hand stores since the 1980s and for years had an Antiques Roadshow-style column in The Press newspaper. Readers would supply photos of their treasures and some details; Blackler gave an assessment and a value.

Ferrymead House would prove the ultimate challenge. Philip Wright was, by all accounts, a hoarder; fond of going to garage sales and buying up everything that hadn’t sold. Every room in the house was crammed full. Toys, crockery, silverware, furniture, dolls, gramophones, phonographs, boxes and boxes of records, books, piles of newspapers, stereos, VCRs, VHS tapes, and boxes full of wrist watches and pocket watches. Wright liked trophies, too: cheap, brassy things won in faraway glory by other people. Kiwi Bowling League, January-April 1981, read the inscription on one that protruded from the top of a box in the living room. League runner-up. Flyers – Roy Whatarangi.

Then there were the clocks. Countless clocks. Squeezed onto every available horizontal and vertical surface. Carriage clocks, cuckoo clocks, torsion clocks, marble clocks, grandfather clocks, crappy little plastic clocks. Wright had been a clock repairer at one time. “I’ve added a few as I’ve gone along,” he told one visitor. He’d built a large concrete block shed on the property as a museum to exhibit his collection, but it quickly became full to bursting.

Long wooden shelves line the walls of a long room made from concrete breeze blocks. Dozens of clocks are visible on the shelves, most of them tarnished, damaged, or covered in dust. A ladder leans against one of the shelves, which reach up to the ceiling.

Long shelves inside Philip Wright's 'clock museum', which he built behind the Ferrymead House, housed thousands of clocks.

Long shelves inside Philip Wright's 'clock museum', which he built behind the Ferrymead House, housed thousands of clocks.

In the face of all of this, Blackler went to work. The main house was cold and dark and the rooms inexplicably small for such a large building. Piled high with junk they seemed smaller still. On top of everything else, the place was filthy. Nature and wildlife had started reclaiming what Wright had relinquished. Despite wearing a boiler suit and face mask as he worked, Blackler still developed a nasty rash. It was worth it, though, to find the treasure. 

Probably the best finds were the watches. There were some early Rolexes, quite valuable. All up, the watches fetched more than $80,000. Several of the gramophones went for reasonable money, too – more than $1000 each. Ten sterling silver teapots Blackler thought would be worth at least $6000. There was plenty of scrap gold, too: broken or leftover parts of jewellery from empty watch cases and the like. Tens of thousands of dollars worth all up.

The clocks, though, were confounding. Even now, no-one is quite sure how many there were, only that there were thousands. When Blackler and the workers he’d enlisted to help go through everything entered the clock museum they saw at least 1000 in there alone, lining the walls. Some extremely valuable, many not at all. Wright liked to hide his valuable possessions among many decidedly non-valuable ones. 

Blackler didn’t waste time. Everything he deemed of little value was sent to Bells Auctions in Kaiapoi to be sold. For months, the auction house was inundated with box after box of clocks from Wright’s estate. Most people in the antique trade regarded it as junk.

Where was the treasure, then?

The front of Ferrymead House. The cream paint is weathered and the red paint has nearly rusted off the corrugated iron roof. Creepers are growing up the house and have overtaken the upper lefthand corner of the building. An entranceway to the covered porch has been covered up with plywood and a jumble of old timber and metal fencing sits in a pile next to the house.
A chapel-like building, which Philip Wright used to house objects and photographs related to the history of Ferrymead. The building is painted white with a grey iron roof and there is intricate wooden lacing adorning the eaves of the building and two dormer windows at ground level. The building is in a state of disrepair and creepers have overtaken one entire side. A newer-looking wooden out-building is attached to one side of the chapel but that is also overgrown with creepers.
Philip Wright's old bedroom in Ferrymead house. A bed with wooden bed ends is piled with cardboard boxes, ring binders, and bags of belongings. More cardboard boxes are stacked high in the foreground. Several chests of wooden drawers on the right are visibly full of clothing, which is overflowing from unclosed drawers. Two clocks hang above the bed on peach-coloured walls. There is barely any floor space visible under all the objects and junk in the room.
Another of the bedrooms, which is full of boxes of records and other junk.
The front of Ferrymead House. The cream paint is weathered and the red paint has nearly rusted off the corrugated iron roof. Creepers are growing up the house and have overtaken the upper lefthand corner of the building. An entranceway to the covered porch has been covered up with plywood and a jumble of old timber and metal fencing sits in a pile next to the house.
A chapel-like building, which Philip Wright used to house objects and photographs related to the history of Ferrymead. The building is painted white with a grey iron roof and there is intricate wooden lacing adorning the eaves of the building and two dormer windows at ground level. The building is in a state of disrepair and creepers have overtaken one entire side. A newer-looking wooden out-building is attached to one side of the chapel but that is also overgrown with creepers.
Philip Wright's old bedroom in Ferrymead house. A bed with wooden bed ends is piled with cardboard boxes, ring binders, and bags of belongings. More cardboard boxes are stacked high in the foreground. Several chests of wooden drawers on the right are visibly full of clothing, which is overflowing from unclosed drawers. Two clocks hang above the bed on peach-coloured walls. There is barely any floor space visible under all the objects and junk in the room.
Another of the bedrooms, which is full of boxes of records and other junk.

Ferrymead House fell into disrepair in Philip Wright’s later years, and after his death.

Overgrown gardens now cover many buildings. The chapel-like building pictured houses a historical museum. A separate, concrete-block building housed the clock museum.

Philip Wright’s old bedroom in Ferrymead House. After the ceiling rotted through, he moved to the adjacent hut.

Wright liked to collect old gramophones and amassed a huge record collection.

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Philip Wright hoarded all manner of junk, and a few treasures, in Ferrymead House. For decades, a New Zealand literary gem sat deep within.

When Blackler pulled back the plywood walls of the clock museum, he couldn’t quite believe it. Behind the wall of a thousand clocks was another wall of a thousand clocks. Wright had so many clocks that when the shelves of the museum were full, he had erected false walls, built more shelves and filled those with clocks too. In some places, the walls and clocks went three layers deep.

Here was even more treasure. Wright’s tendency to bury it among junk meant many of his most valuable clocks were on the enclosed back shelves where, alas, they had succumbed to the damp. The back-most wall was a sea of sodden wood and corroded metal, all shrouded in a grey blanket of mould. Blackler recovered what he could, and left the rest to eternity.

A grainy photograph showing Deric Blackler, with his back to the camera. He wears a yellow hard hat and a dark-coloured boiler suit and is removing a false wall inside Philip Wright's clock museum, revealing about 20 old-style grandmother clock of various shapes and sizes.

Deric Blackler pulls away a false wall in the clock museum, revealing hundreds more hidden clocks. SUPPLIED

Deric Blackler pulls away a false wall in the clock museum, revealing hundreds more hidden clocks. SUPPLIED

About this time, Blackler’s relationship with the beneficiaries of Wright’s estate started to deteriorate.

Trevor Swainson, Wright’s friend, took a dim view of Blackler’s somewhat haphazard approach to assessing and moving items out of the house for sale. Swainson organised for a shipping container to be placed on site so nothing would leave the property until it had been catalogued. At one point he went so far as to change the locks on the container to ensure this would happen.

Things were about to get even messier. Because Blackler was about to find the single most valuable item in Ferrymead House: the original typescript of Owls Do Cry, perhaps the most acclaimed novel by perhaps New Zealand’s most acclaimed novelist, Janet Frame. 

How on earth did it get there?

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JANET

Black and white photo of Janet Frame standing in the foreground on a treelined promenade next to the Thames River in London. She wears a heavy tweed coat and looks slightly out to the river on the right. In the background in the top right is an old boat moored next to the walkway. To the left people promenade in the distance.

Janet Frame was born in Dunedin, in 1924, into a working-class family. Her childhood was marred by the drowning of two of her sisters in separate incidents and her brother’s epilepsy. At school, she was studious and already captivated by literature. As an adult, growing anxieties led to a suicide attempt and saw her admitted to several psychiatric hospitals where she was diagnosed, wrongly, as schizophrenic and subjected to terrifying bouts of electro-convulsive therapy.

In 1952, while a patient at Seacliff Hospital near Dunedin, she narrowly avoided a lobotomy – a debilitating brain operation intended to minimise the symptoms of mental illness – after the hospital superintendent read in a newspaper that a book of her short stories had won a prestigious literary prize. 

In 1955 she met the author Frank Sargeson while holidaying in Auckland. Sargeson, long at the vanguard of New Zealand fiction, was among her most ardent admirers, and took Frame under his wing. She became, famously, writer in residence in the army hut in Sargeson’s garden at 14 Esmonde Rd, Takapuna. There, over the winter, she wrote her first novel. “Pictures of great treasure in the midst of sadness and waste haunted me,” she later wrote of it in her autobiography. “I began to think, in fiction, of a childhood, home life, hospital life, using people known to me as a base for the main characters, and inventing minor characters.” The working title was Talk of Treasure.

Frame’s first book had been published by Caxton Press – a Christchurch-based printing company established in part by the poet Denis Glover. Caxton had been a vital outlet for the nascent New Zealand literature scene since the 1930s but by the 50s it was declining in concert with Glover’s personal life. Wracked by alcohol and a failing marriage, he left Caxton and went to work for Pegasus Press, a new player on the Christchurch publishing scene, started by his old navy buddy – Albion Wright. 

So it was to Pegasus Press, not Caxton, that Frame chose to submit her latest work. Fiercely private, Frame had refused to share any of it with Sargeson, and there was a keen sense of anticipation when she wrote to Albion Wright in September, 1955, telling him that she had written a work of 65,000 words, and hoped he would consider reading it:

If it were up to standard, maybe it could be published ... shall I send it to you?
Janet Frame's signature.

Wright replied that he would like that very much. After reading, he declared it “an extraordinarily fine work”. “I would like to congratulate you in having written a long story of such sustained power and interest,” he wrote to Frame. “We would like to publish your novel and I am quite sure you will not regret having sent it to us.”

The copyright receipt granting Pegasus Press permission to publish Owls Do Cry.

The copyright receipt granting Pegasus Press permission to publish Owls Do Cry. CANTERBURY MUSEUM, PEGASUS PRESS COLLECTION

The copyright receipt granting Pegasus Press permission to publish Owls Do Cry. CANTERBURY MUSEUM, PEGASUS PRESS COLLECTION

Another photo of Janet Frame, evidently taken at the same time as the other photo of her shown in this article. She is framed against a dark archway and wears the same heavy woollen coat. Her face is framed by short curly hair and she glances to the right with a slightly nervous expression.

Janet Frame in London, 1962. JERRY BAUER/CANTERBURY MUSEUM, PEGASUS PRESS COLLECTION

Janet Frame in London, 1962. JERRY BAUER/CANTERBURY MUSEUM, PEGASUS PRESS COLLECTION

Talk of Treasure told the story of the Withers family of Waimaru. Though fictional, it borrowed heavily from Frame’s own life, including her childhood in Oamaru. Daphne, the stand-in for Frame, delivers long, poetic monologues and spends time in a psychiatric hospital not unlike Seacliff. 

It was a work unlike almost any other written by a New Zealander to that point. “That it will become a ‘best seller’ or even ‘reasonably popular’ reading is perhaps too much to expect,” Wright wrote to Frame. “But we do believe that this will be an important book in New Zealand letters.”

Wright didn’t love the title, though. He and Frame exchanged ideas, all variations on a theme: at its core, the novel explored the struggle between the inner self (where true ‘treasure’ could be found) and the external self (concerned with the false treasures of money, possessions and social status). It was Wright who eventually suggested Owls Do Cry, repurposing a phrase from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that Frame quoted in the novel:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cowslip’s bell I lie; 
There I couch when owls do cry;

The sanctuary under the petal of the cowslip represented the inner self. The world of the predatory, crying owl was the external.

A night scene looking down on a Wellington street lined with the buildings of a theatre, a bank, a milk bar and a store. The theatre is open and the lights are on, as is the milk bar which shows silhouettes of people socialising inside and a man standing outside. On the opposite corner from the bar stands a man silhouetted by a street lamp shining down onto the street. He carries a suitcase in his left hand and his overcoat in the other. In the top righthand corner in the midnight blue night sky is the cursive hand-painted lettering of the title "OWLS DO CRY". Bottom right, but smaller and also hand-painted, is Janet Frame's name credit.

Dennis Beytagh’s original artwork for the first edition of Owls Do Cry, based on a sketch of a Wellington intersection drawn by Albion Wright. Wright originally placed an owl in the curl of the ‘y’. CANTERBURY MUSEUM, PEGASUS PRESS COLLECTION

Dennis Beytagh’s original artwork for the first edition of Owls Do Cry, based on a sketch of a Wellington intersection drawn by Albion Wright. Wright originally placed an owl in the curl of the ‘y’. CANTERBURY MUSEUM, PEGASUS PRESS COLLECTION

Wright stayed hands-on throughout publication. When the artist commissioned to produce a cover design submitted several options featuring literal owls (not the point), Wright sketched a nighttime streetscape to evoke a scene where one character wanders a city after dark: “So he walked all night, carrying his suitcase and overcoat, up and down the streets of the city they called a jungle.”

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Albion Wright rejected Beytagh’s early cover ideas: “They tend to illustrate the title, which is not what we require for this book,” he wrote to the artist, “I am not certain that the bird is required at all”. CANTERBURY MUSEUM, PEGASUS PRESS COLLECTION

Owls Do Cry was published in 1957. While not all the critics warmed to Frame’s style, its brilliance was undeniable. The poet and historian W H Oliver wrote in The Listener that it was “probably the best novel yet written by a New Zealander”. The first run of more than 900 copies sold out. Pegasus printed a second edition of 2000 copies in 1958.

Frame, by now in London, was flattered but unmoved and wrote to Wright:

In the cold smoky light of the north, my southern three hundred pages or so are quite unbearable. 
Janet Frame's signature.

She was almost alone in her distaste for her own work. Owls Do Cry was published in the United States in 1960 and later in Britain and Europe and enjoyed favourable international reviews.

Pegasus Press went on to publish a host of Frame’s works, including Faces in the Water (1961) and The Edge of the Alphabet (1962), which together with Owls Do Cry formed a loose trilogy. It had already published work by Denis Glover, Alistair Campbell and James K Baxter and, briefly, became the outlet of choice for the literary arm of The Group: a remarkable artistic set in Christchurch that included Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Ngaio Marsh and Douglas Lilburn.

Portrait painting of Albion Wright wearing a yellow sweater over the top of a white shirt. Over the sweating he wears a red jacket. In the background is a scene of distant ochre-coloured cliffs and green-coloured sea scene.

Artist Leo Bensemann joined The Group in the late 1930s. Albion Wright (1947) was considered one of his finest portraits. COLLECTION OF CHRISTCHURCH ART GALLERY TE PUNA O WAIWHETŪ

Artist Leo Bensemann joined The Group in the late 1930s. Albion Wright (1947) was considered one of his finest portraits. COLLECTION OF CHRISTCHURCH ART GALLERY TE PUNA O WAIWHETŪ

Albion Wright was at the heart of it. While not a noted artist or author himself he was, according to Frame biographer Michael King, a “handsome and urbane man, [who] cut a dashing figure in person and in correspondence”. An ex-Navy man, Wright was a keen sailor and reportedly fond of taking his literary clients out on the waters around Banks Peninsula. Despite Pegasus Press eclipsing Caxton, he and Glover remained friends. In his memoir, Glover recalled reuniting with Wright after WWII, when both their ships were returning to Lyttelton Harbour. On learning Wright was nearby, Glover, in his excitement, stepped overboard and had to be fished out. Wright saw the whole episode, and bided his time while Glover’s vessel sailed towards his. “As we went alongside,” Glover wrote, “Albion said, ‘Gloves!’ stretched out his hand, and stepped straight overboard.”

A montage of two photos of Albion Wright. One photo shows a young Albion Wright and the poet Denis Glover, both in formal naval uniforms including double-breasted jackets with brass buttons and brocade trim on the cuffs. They both wear naval caps and are standing in front of a wooden building with French doors, apparently in conversation. The second photo shows Albion Wright helming a gaff-rigged wooden yacht. He appears to be older in this photo, with longer, greying hair underneath a dark cap with a brim. He wears a white jersey and looks back over the stern of the boat at the person taking the photo. Several other people are aboard the yacht, which is heeled over and creating a frothy wake in the water.

Top: Denis Glover, left, and Albion Wright in navy uniform, 1940s. LAURIS EDMOND COLLECTION, ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY. Bottom: Albion Wright aboard his yacht Pastime. McKENDRICK COLLECTION

Top: Denis Glover, left, and Albion Wright in navy uniform, 1940s. LAURIS EDMOND COLLECTION, ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY. Bottom: Albion Wright aboard his yacht Pastime. McKENDRICK COLLECTION

Albion Wright died in 1982, a pillar of the Christchurch arts and business circles. Tributes were directed to the Royal New Zealand Navy Benevolent Fund. In a somewhat staid obituary, The Press newspaper noted he was survived by his wife Betty, daughter Karin, and son: Philip. 

Four years later, the archives of Pegasus Press were gifted to the Canterbury Museum.

A few items, though, were missing.

Decorative geometric motif.

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DERIC

A slightly smiling, bald, bespectacled Deric Blackler wearing a tweed jacket stands in the centre of his shop surrounded by cabinets full of antiques and an eclectic mixture of collectables hung on the back wall.

Deric Blackler loved a good story. When he got the call to lend his expertise to the estate of a man who had died, leaving a house full of untold treasures, he was in. The property was in his favourite part of the city – Blackler’s own shop, Portobello Antiques, was at the Tannery complex in nearby Woolston. He liked the industrial southeast corner of Christchurch, with its history as the young city’s lifeline. He imagined trains coming and going along the long defunct Ferrymead railway; the little punt carrying people and goods across the river. This was where Christchurch was born and now he would get to look through the building at the heart of it all.

A young Deric Blackler, maybe aged about six in this photo, with his two younger sisters Judy and Fay, who appear to be preschoolers. The trio are standing against the wall of a stucco house. Deric smiles directly at the camera with his hands in the pockets of his shorts. He is also wearing a knitted jersey over a collared shirt.

A young Deric Blackler with sisters Judy and Fay. SUPPLIED

A young Deric Blackler with sisters Judy and Fay. SUPPLIED

As a boy growing up in Southland, young Deric was obsessed with collecting and selling antiques. He opened his first antique shop in Beckenham, in Christchurch, in the 1980s, then established Portobello Antiques in the central city. It relocated several times before being displaced, like so many others, by the devastating 2011 earthquake. Blackler bounced around the suburbs for a while before starting again at the Tannery. Antiques were his life.

His friend, Gavin East, was a frequent visitor to Blackler’s various shops, always keen to see what new finds his friend had made.

Once the Ferrymead House job started, it loomed large in conversation. 

“It seemed to be something that really preoccupied Deric,” East said. “Every time I went in to see Deric he always seemed to have some more news about Ferrymead.”

The feeling peaked with the discovery of the crown jewel of Philip Wright’s estate: the original typescript for Owls Do Cry.

The typescript of Owls Do Cry, opened to show the title page. The pale green paper is yellowing along the edges. Janet Frame has written her address in the lower righthand corner and the book's title, along with the words 'A novel by Janet Frame' and 'The Pegasus Press' have been added in pencil in someone else's handwriting.

The title page of the original typescript of Owls Do Cry. The handwritten address is Frank Sargeson's home in Auckland, where Frame wrote her novel. MICHAEL WRIGHT/STUFF

The title page of the original typescript of Owls Do Cry. The handwritten address is Frank Sargeson's home in Auckland, where Frame wrote her novel. MICHAEL WRIGHT/STUFF

“It was probably one of the things he was most excited about in all the time I met him,” East said. “I just remember him telling me a lot about it and showing it to me in the shop in the Tannery. Going on about how significant it was.”

Blackler told East he found the typescript in a safe, somewhere deep inside Ferrymead House. No-one, except Blackler, knew its value, or that it was even there, which made the find all the more remarkable - if that account were true. He told a similarly alluring tale about the discovery of the clocks: that a faint ticking from behind the wall betrayed their hiding place.

“Deric said he went in with a sort of Sherlock Holmes mentality,” East said, “assessing the evidence and figuring out where Philip might have kept things.”

“[He] was brilliant at telling good stories and I think there are a few things about [the] estate that there’s possibly more than one version of.”

Trevor Swainson, Philip Wright’s friend, was one who disputed Blackler’s versions of events. For one, it was not the biggest surprise that a Janet Frame typescript was found at Ferrymead House. Anyone who knew Wright probably also knew he was the son of Albion Wright, who ran Pegasus Press, which published many of Frame’s novels. And the hidden clocks had been in the walls for years. Many of them were ridden with mould, or, at the very least, had run flat. None of them would have made a sound.

Inside the clock museum showing a section of shelving with five levels and about four to five clocks sitting on each shelve. They are mostly broken and covered in dust and cobwebs.

More than 1000 clocks were found hidden behind false walls in Philip Wright's clock museum. Some are still there.

More than 1000 clocks were found hidden behind false walls in Philip Wright's clock museum. Some are still there.

There was no doubting the value of the Janet Frame find, though. There was another typescript found with it – The Edge of the Alphabet – but that was a carbon copy. Owls was the “top copy” – where typewriter struck paper – and included handwritten notes from Frame, Albion Wright, and possibly others. That was the notable one; the one that media, and collectors, would be interested in. 

Not that Blackler would confirm any of this. When I first spoke to him in 2017 after hearing about the discovery, he was very cagey. All he would say at that point, off the record, was that the typescript was for Owls Do Cry and he was negotiating its sale. In early 2018, he said the Hocken Library in Dunedin – already the repository of a large Frame archive – was interested. Then later, that the deal was all but complete. On November 30, he emailed me: “They have paid but it is still sitting here waiting collection."

Deric Blacker died in a suspected suicide on December 16, 2018. He was 63 years old. The Press obituary described him as “eccentric and witty”. “It was said … Deric Blackler would rather spend time around interesting objects than boring people.”

Blackler was a chameleon. According to his daughter, Laura Blackler, he went through a number of stages. There was the “shiny pants and hip-hop T-shirts” stage; the “beard” stage; the “Crayola” stage (tight jeans and loud T-shirts); and, finally, the “Where’s Wally” stage, so-named for the round, horn-rimmed glasses he wore, just like the elusive children’s book character. It was almost as if he had adopted a persona for the different circles he moved in.

“I’ve met people who saw themselves as close friends of Dad’s but didn’t know he had children,” Laura Blacker said. “That wasn’t surprising for me.”

“I didn’t realise how quirky he was until I got older. He could be wearing Comme des Garçons and having dinner with gallery owners and artists and then in the morning be wearing a lavalava, eating sardines on toast and complaining about the price of gumboots at Kmart.

“I guess that was him. All of that combined was the true Deric.”

Like Philip Wright before him, Deric Blackler left at least one puzzle behind. A few weeks before he died, he had received $17,250 from the University of Otago in exchange for the original typescript of the Janet Frame novel, Owls Do Cry. But he hadn’t sent them the typescript. No one knew where it was.

Another photo of Deric Blackler in his shop, Portobello Antiques. He is a bald, middle-aged man in this photo, with black-rimmed round glasses. He smiles with his hands clasped in front of him and is dressed in a tan coloured jacket over a yellow t-shirt. Two ornate antique clocks and a crystal model of a train sit on a wooden sideboard next to him.

Deric Blackler in his shop, Portobello Antiques. “He could let his imagination run away with him at times,” one friend said. DAVID WALKER/STUFF

Deric Blackler in his shop, Portobello Antiques. “He could let his imagination run away with him at times,” one friend said. DAVID WALKER/STUFF

Derek Blacker closely inspecting an antique vase.

"I don’t think Dad ever considered himself to be someone who would live for a long time,” Laura Blackler said. DAVID WALKER/STUFF

"I don’t think Dad ever considered himself to be someone who would live for a long time,” Laura Blackler said. DAVID WALKER/STUFF

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Another photo of Deric Blackler in his shop, Portobello Antiques. He is a bald, middle-aged man in this photo, with black-rimmed round glasses. He smiles with his hands clasped in front of him and is dressed in a tan coloured jacket over a yellow t-shirt. Two ornate antique clocks and a crystal model of a train sit on a wooden sideboard next to him.

Deric Blackler in his shop, Portobello Antiques. “He could let his imagination run away with him at times,” one friend said. DAVID WALKER/STUFF

Deric Blackler in his shop, Portobello Antiques. “He could let his imagination run away with him at times,” one friend said. DAVID WALKER/STUFF

Derek Blacker closely inspecting an antique vase.

"I don’t think Dad ever considered himself to be someone who would live for a long time,” Laura Blackler said. DAVID WALKER/STUFF

"I don’t think Dad ever considered himself to be someone who would live for a long time,” Laura Blackler said. DAVID WALKER/STUFF

In the end, it fell to Laura Blackler to solve the final mystery. The Hocken Library, upon learning of her father's death a week before Christmas, didn’t immediately know who to contact. It was February 2019 before they tracked her down, through her lawyer. She replied that the typescript would probably be in the Christchurch offices of one of the law firms handling Philip Wright’s estate. 

It wasn’t there. Portobello Antiques, Blackler’s shop, was the only other place it could really be, but it had been closed after his death and access was limited. Laura Blackler eventually talked her way in and was confronted with her father’s legacy. Not unlike Ferrymead House, the store was full to bursting with stuff. She walked in and sat down at her father’s old writing desk. She knew – and shared – many of his mannerisms. If the typescript was here, she thought, it wouldn’t be buried in some dark corner. It would be in the laziest, most convenient place where it was still safe. 

She found what she was looking for under the writing desk, wedged behind a printer. The typescript was bubble-wrapped and inside a cardboard box secured with duct tape. The box even had the Hocken Library’s address written on it. Her father just hadn’t posted it.

The manuscript lies open showing Janet Frame's typing, including mistakes which she typed out.

The original typescript of Owls Do Cry, by Janet Frame, now held by the Hocken Library. MICHAEL WRIGHT/STUFF

The original typescript of Owls Do Cry, by Janet Frame, now held by the Hocken Library. MICHAEL WRIGHT/STUFF

The package was immediately sent to the Hocken Library, where it lives today. A neat volume typed on plain green paper – a habit Frame picked up from Frank Sargeson –  it offers a glimpse at the unglamorous graft behind literary beauty. The text is littered with deletions and corrected typographical errors. At one point it almost disappears off the page, presumably the legacy of Frame’s typewriter roller going rogue.

Janet Frame negotiated the sale of her papers to the Hocken Library, part of the University of Otago, in the 1990s. As well as typescripts and manuscripts, the archive includes letters, photos, books, receipts, travel bookings, even junk mail. Frame, a lifelong freelancer, kept everything. But there was no full typescript of Owls Do Cry.

“We’re completists,” Hocken curator Anna Blackman said.

“It’s very significant … because it was the first novel and it's been republished many times in many different languages.

“It is definitely one of New Zealand's literary treasures. Found in a box in an old house.”

Anna Blackman sits at a desk reading the manuscript. Anne, a woman with long blonde hair, is dressed entirely in black except for a round pounamu pendant on a cord around her neck.

Hocken curator Anna Blackman said the library was interested in the typescript as it already held an extensive Frame archive: “We're completists,” she said. MICHAEL WRIGHT/STUFF

Hocken curator Anna Blackman said the library was interested in the typescript as it already held an extensive Frame archive: “We're completists,” she said. MICHAEL WRIGHT/STUFF

A swathe of other Pegasus Press documents were recovered from Ferrymead House. Deric Blackler never offered those to the Hocken. He did approach Canterbury Museum, which holds a substantial Pegasus archive, and provided a detailed inventory of what he had. It included books from Caxton and Pegasus presses, ephemera from the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition in the 1950s and a litany of literary treasures. There was the The Edge of the Alphabet typescript, what appeared to be an unpublished poem by Denis Glover, two recordings of Philip Wright interviewing Glover and box after box of slides and photographs. 

University of Canterbury English professor Paul Millar, who Blackler consulted on the Frame material, leafed the collection on a visit to Portobello Antiques. It was stuffed into some drawers in a huge scotch chest that sat near the front of the shop.

“There was a simply amazing range of material,” he said, “including Janet Frame material and printer’s proofs … photos of early New Zealand literary figures, and manuscripts and correspondence from lesser-known writers than Frame.”

Canterbury Museum doesn’t have the collection. The Edge of the Alphabet typescript was sold privately in 2019, but, so far, there is no record the rest was sold or bestowed anywhere.

“Who knows what was in there,” Millar said, “There could well have been Frame letters, letters from other writers.”

“I’m desperately hoping they didn’t get binned.”

Decorative geometric motif.

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EPILOGUE

A close-up of two gold-coloured torsion clocks, one without its pendulum

One Sunday in November 2008, Michael Barton, a Briton on a working holiday visa, was sitting on a bench by the Heathcote River when a man approached him. The man was big, wore overalls, and had a few missing teeth. He introduced himself as ‘Bill’ and offered Barton a cup of tea at his house. Barton accepted.

Later, the man showed him around a museum on his property, a small, chapel-like building, shrouded in greenery. It was dedicated to the history of Christchurch, mostly the Ferrymead and Heathcote area, and largely consisted of printouts of photographs and articles stuck to the walls. Some were already peeling off. The man wiped the dust and dead flies off a visitors book and asked Barton to sign it, then read aloud the entry. 

Barton thought the encounter strange, but, at the man’s request, agreed to return with his video camera.

Michael Barton’s 20-minute documentary The Lost Time Traveller is now 13 years old, but already belongs to another age. Barton follows Philip Wright around Ferrymead House, the museum and surrounding gardens. Wright, dressed in a suit, plays tour guide then sits for an interview, pondering subjects such as ultra-long life research and holographic technology. He makes coffee and plays Barton some records on a gramophone.

Michael Barton visited Ferrymead House in 2008, and made a short documentary about Philip Wright. MICHAEL BARTON/YOUTUBE

In the film, the house is ominously full of clocks, gramophones, stereos and other paraphernalia. Wright’s suit has a faulty zipper and he wears dress shoes with no socks.

“[It’s] certainly a bit of a mess but that’s the way it is,” Wright says at one point.

Barton, who now lives in Ireland, said Wright was clearly intelligent but “definitely a bit eccentric”.

“Somebody who [was] a little bit socially awkward.

“Not really … used to communicating. In the nicest term, an oddball.”

Barton shot more than three hours of footage that day. At one point he asks if Wright has any family. “No,” Wright says. “There’s just me at the moment.” But small clues hint at something more. A framed cover of Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water is visible on one wall. On another is a photo of Wright’s father Albion, Denis Glover and another man planting a tree. Glover is the only man in the picture that Wright identifies.

A close-up of a black and white photo pinned or glued to the wall at Ferrymead House. The photo shows Albion Wright, dressed in a suit and a Trilby hat, with Denis Glover, wearing an overcoat and a dark, battered-looking hat leaning against a board fence as they plant a sapling. A third, unidentified man in a light-coloured suit jacket and grey hair is helping them.

From left, Albion Wright, Denis Glover and an unidentified man planting a tree. The photo once adorned the wall at Ferrymead House, but has since been lost. MICHAEL BARTON/SUPPLIED

From left, Albion Wright, Denis Glover and an unidentified man planting a tree. The photo once adorned the wall at Ferrymead House, but has since been lost. MICHAEL BARTON/SUPPLIED

Over and over again, Wright asks Barton, behind the camera, if he’d like to come and stay: “You’re the only person that’s ever had the patience to even listen to me.

“It’s just a shame that I find someone who was really good to talk with, a good friend, and now they’re away.”

Wright stares directly at the camera. A longing look.

“That’s just life. But I don’t know, you might come back. 

“I hope you do.”

Reporter unrelated to any of the subjects of this story.

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A painterly illustration of a large, old, white weatherboard house with a red roof. It sits on a large block of land surrounded by overgrown grass and bush. The word 'HOTEL' is neatly painted on the side of one wall towards the top. It's a sunny day but the house looks eerie and a little ominous.
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Words Michael Wright
Visuals Chris Skelton
Design Kathryn George
Editor Kate Newton

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