by Helen Martin
Christine Roberts traces her love of antiques back to her English childhood, where her family lived in a big old house filled with antique, mainly Victorian, furniture and her father collected books and musical instruments. Later in life she became keen on antique jewellery and collectables. She’s had antique shops in Helensville since 2001 and now, aged 80, when she talks about leaving River Cottage Antiques and Collectables people protest “But you can’t retire, you’re a fixture!”
Another lifetime interest is music. Her family has a sound musical pedigree, which can be traced at least as far back as the ancestor who was organist at magnificent Worcester Cathedral. Christine’s father Harry Botham played in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and, after the family emigrated to New Zealand in 1950, played in NZ’s National Symphony Orchestra, conducted orchestras and taught, later receiving an MBE for services to music. Christine learnt the violin from the age of four, had singing lessons and started learning piano at 13, when her pedigree as a performer ground to a halt. “My teacher told me not to waste my father’s money on piano lessons because I wasn’t very good,” she says. “She was quite right.” Christine’s love of music from then on was enacted in appreciation rather than performance, but she’s proud that her son Nick, who was Head of Music at Kaipara College before becoming Deputy Principal, is a leading light on the local music scene.
Christine married young. Her husband Ted Roberts was a naval officer and spent mostof his time away from home. With their first child in the care of her mother, Christine went out to work. Over the years she had four children, Christine, Peter, Nicholas and Victoria. “For a lot of the time I brought them up on my own and worked, which was unusual for those days,” she says. “But I’ve always been a bit different.”
When she and Ted returned to NZ in 1959 after two years in England Christine had her first job with a jeweller. At Stewart Dawsons in Wellington she learnt how to polish silver and clean jewellery, and how to deal with customers. With interest in antique jewellery sparked, and with no study options available in NZ, she took a part time gemology course by correspondence from England.
A second stint in England from 1962 to 1965 was significant for Christine; working for an estate jeweller founded in the 19th century she learnt more about antique jewellery; she discovered a love of rural living that has never left her; and, always a dog and cat lover, she bred her first puppies, apricot poodles, and entered them in shows. Back in NZ she continued showing, beginning with a puppy she’d bred in the UK, and at the same time provided a home for a succession of Burmese cats. In 1971, the interest in poodles led to her and a friend opening a grooming parlour in Epsom, where for a few years she bathed, clipped and groomed poodles before returning to her old love, the jewellery trade.
Meeting her partner Malcolm Neale provided a very happy turning point in Christine’s life. He was a lovely man, she says, very fair and loyal, tolerant of her filling the house up with rescue animals and on-hand to help set up boarding catteries and support her Warkworth SPCA Supporters Group. Malcolm also shared Christine’s love of old houses, and in the 33 years they were together they bought and renovated beautiful homes in Kaukapakapa, Warkworth, Wainui and Helensville. “We always left a house in better condition than when we went in.” Now living in a modern home, she misses the high ceilings and beautiful timbers.
In 2001 she opened her first antique shop on the ground floor of the historic Post Office in Helensville. She and Malcolm then bought the grand Edwardian house at the northern end of Helensville known as Toad Hall – “we decided to buy it within half an hour of seeing it” – and spent the next seven years doing extensive renovations, selling it only when Malcolm’s ill health meant the property had become too difficult for them to maintain. She had bought the antique shop in front of Odd fellows Hall beside the Grand Hotel and ran it for three years before retiring. The retirement lasted six weeks. Christine was bored and, missing the fun of meeting people and buying and selling antiques, set up a new shop at the railway station, working there until her second retirement. On her return she moved operations to the railway museum’s former memorabilia room, a smaller space that led her to selling collectables and vintage items rather than large furniture. She now says that, after six years, maybe it’s time to retire again.
Christine has had some very dark times in her life – her son Peter and her sister Mavis both died tragically, and last year Malcolm passed away after a long illness. Her way of dealing with loss is stoic – “you just have to get on with it” – but she does wonder how life will be without a shop. All the same, she says she has much to be thankful for. “Although it’s just me and the dog I’ve got jolly good neighbours and I like Helensville. People here are friendly and help each other, like the world used to be. Living here you feel part of the town.”
by Helen Martin