A WEARSIDE antiques dealer has one of the wildest collections in the city – and that’s no tall story.
David Whitfield is known as “The Giraffe Man of Roker,” after collecting more than 200 of the stuffed animals over the past 20 years.
And, in a tradition dating to 1988, his Roker Baths Road store – Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Emporium – always has a model giraffe on show outside.
“I never set out to collect giraffes, it just happened by accident,” said David. “But giraffes have become my trademark now.”
Sunderland-born David, 50, was preparing to open an antiques store when he bought his first giraffe in 1988.
“One Saturday morning, I went up to the Hylton Road area on a buying trip to the second-hand and junk shops there,” he recalls.
“When I popped into Albert Crozier’s shop on Silksworth Row, I saw this giraffe standing in the corner and asked how much it was.”
Albert agreed to sell David the 10ft toy for £12. But, although David believed he had got a bargain, his ex-wife Sharon wasn’t so sure.
“She thought I had bought a carpet when I first walked out with it. She asked me what I planned to do with it, and I said sell it,” said David.
“It was too big to go in my car, so I tied it on the roof rack and drove through the town, on a match day, with everyone looking.
“I think Sharon was nearly in the footwell of the car, hiding out the way with embarrassment, by the time we got it back home.”
Although David had initially planned to sell the giraffe, which is thought to date to the 1960s, he ended up giving it a permanent home.
“When I opened my first shop in Roker Baths Road, I put it on display outside. It attracted a lot of interest and was there for years,” he said.
“It used to be on show at March the Tailors, in Crowtree Road, many years ago, and lots of people still remember it there.
“I’ve had to bring it inside now, though, as it is getting old and the cold weather doesn’t suit it – but I wouldn’t sell it for the world.”
It was the birth of David’s two sons, however, which prompted his interest in collecting further stuffed giraffes.
“Things got out of hand, really. We collected so many giraffes that there are stuffed toys from floor to ceiling in the shop now,” he said.
“We have more than 200, ranging from an inch long to over 6ft tall. Two of the oldest are from the 1920s, I think, and are carved from wood.”
His very oldest giraffe, however, is believed to date from Victorian times – and is definitely not a toy.
“It is the stuffed head and neck of a real giraffe,” said David. “It originally came from a stately home in Scotland, somewhere near the borders.
“It was on show at a Newcastle nightclub in the 1980s, I’ve been told, but was put up for auction when the club closed.”
David, who never usually bids at auction, was tempted to put in a £150 offer for the giraffe after he heard it was up for sale.
He failed to win it, however, and instead the stuffed relic went to a friend of his – Tom Balmain.
“Tom happened to visit my shop a week later, and I asked if he wanted to sell it. He looked at my collection and said: ‘You need it more than me.’”
It took four men to move the massive giraffe, as it is stuffed with plaster, and today it stands in David’s shop with the other toys.
“I think the first giraffe I ever bought is still my favourite, though, just because it was the first,” he said.
“If I could keep only one, it would be that one – although I wouldn’t want it in the house! Or the head, either.
“They all belong to the boys, anyway, and it is up to them what they do with them in the future. Perhaps they might keep them in the shop.
“As for collecting any more, well I’ve stopped now. I do get the odd one donated, but I don’t buy them any more – I think we have enough now!”
l David has just published a book on his life, including his experiences in the antiques trade, called The Sunderland Lad With Two Names.
It is available at £4.99 from Waterstones, the Tourist Information Centre, Benedict Road Post office, Johal Minimarket in Roker Baths Road, Advance ISA in Sea Road and Be Unique at Ryhope. It is also on sale at David’s shop.