He has gradually acquired a unique collection of doors and windows dating from the 16th century to the present day. It also contains ironmongery, fireplace grates, staircases and rainwater goods. And the collection isn’t solely unusual for beautiful artifacts – as well as a door rescued from Wembley Stadium, there’s also 1960s timber windows and modern PVCu. “I want to show the good, the bad and the ugly,” says Brooking. “If I only collected stuff I liked, it wouldn’t be a scholarly collection.”
Only a tiny percentage of his collection is on permanent display at his home in Cranleigh, Surrey – the rest is stashed away in sheds at the back of his house and there is a second collection stored, but not currently on display, at the University of Greenwich.
Initially the most striking thing about Brooking is his car. He can’t stop apologising about it: “You must excuse the state of my car. It’s the rescue vehicle and it’s in a dreadful state.” It’s essential, though, for rescue missions, in which he rushes off to save architectural items before a building is demolished. He had been on one such rescue the previous day. “Charles came in at 10 last night covered in soot,” says his girlfriend Susan.
Today, he looks neat and tidy in a blue shirt and jeans. He talks quickly and with great passion about architecture and his life as a collector. So what motivates him?
“I’m fascinated by the craftsmanship, the inventiveness of style; it’s aesthetically pleasing and it hasn’t been done before,” says Brooking of his collection. “You do it because you are either passionate or mad. It’s very hard work; you need to be physically strong and it can be dangerous.” This is because he has to go into derelict buildings and remove the items himself. The danger imbues him with a touch of Indiana Jones-style glamour, mixed with museum curator: “The whole point is to form a library of details showing how things work, so if someone is restoring a sash window they can understand how to repair it. These are everyday items and they are all disappearing.”
“Apparently I became interested by the different typefaces of house numbers at the age of three,” recalls Brooking. “My parents were embarrassed and sent me to an educational psychologist.” His parents tried to wean the young Brooking off this fascination for house numbers by buying him a radio-controlled toy. “I was totally uninterested
in toys,” says Brooking. Undeterred, his parents managed to get him interested in collecting fossils because this was seen as respectable.
The interest in windows started at the age of seven. “Everything was fine until one day my father was working in the garage repairing the windows. When I saw them, my interest was sealed.” Brooking explains that the garage windows had simple bevelled mouldings, unlike the more elaborate mouldings at his school. He was fascinated by the social hierarchy of window style. The accessibility of windows, in contrast to antique furniture, clinched their appeal. Brooking acquired his first complete sash window when he was nine. His parents were not happy. “The pressure to give it up was enormous,” he remembers. He gave way reluctantly and burned the window on Guy Fawkes’ night. Meanwhile, his parents had begun encouraging him to collect guns instead of windows.
Things improved when Brooking went to prep school. He did an “arms for windows” deal with a teacher who realised Brooking was interested in architecture, and was prepared to help. The teacher was a pacifist who got him to give up collecting the guns. Brooking also struck a deal with his father to go to church in return for his father taking him on architectural tours. As a 15th birthday present, he was given his first shed to store his growing collection.
Brooking and conventional employment didn’t see eye to eye. In the 1970s, he spent three years in the architects’ drawing office of the British Rail property board. He hated the faceless modern buildings the office produced, and found himself the butt of his colleagues’ jokes for popping out on lunch-hour “rescues” and then storing the spoils under his desk. “They used to call me Steptoe and sing the theme tune,” he recalls with a laugh.
The turning point came in 1985. He set up the Brooking Architectural Museum Trust, backed by people who recognised him as a serious collector. These included architect Terry Farrell, architectural historian Dan Cruikshank and his father Arthur Brooking. Sir William McAlpine was also a member and helped by donating a large shed to add to the other 13. In 1986, he organised an exhibition of his work at the Building Centre, and in 1988 Thames Polytechnic, now the University of Greenwich, offered his collection a home. It also gave Brooking a part-time lecturing job.
It has not all been plain sailing. A major blow occurred in 1998 when his father’s new girlfriend persuaded him to evict his own son and his collection from the family home. Two court
cases ensued, the collection was described as a collection of oddments, but the judge said it was a serious collection and threw the case out. Eventually the house had to be sold and Charles bought his current home. “I moved here in great distress,” he says. “It was a very dark period. I was flat broke and my father had been the chairman of the trust. The hypocrisy was dreadful.”
Brooking says things are coming together now. He goes on five or six rescues a week. One particularly great rescue was in February when
he salvaged important artifacts from Wembley Stadium before it was demolished. Steel windows maker Clements Windows sponsored Brooking and took out the windows, and Sir William McAlpine organised the transporting of the
huge doors from the royal tunnel, where players went on to the pitch. The latter project required road closures and a police escort.
However, most of Brooking’s work is much more prosaic. He hauls much out of local skips and has recently become interested in steel windows installed in the inter-war years. “There is no record of the metal window industry,” he says. “The rate at which they are being replaced by PVCu is frightening.” He is busy cataloguing these windows. The people who benefit from this expertise are architects, local conservation officers and people doing up old houses who want to get the detailing right. Ironically, some visitors to the museum include manufacturers of PVCu windows seeking to refine their designs.