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Wednesday 24 June 2015

Guardian article: Extreme hoarding of extreme memorabilia (the man who sleeps in Hitler's bed)

Alex Preston wrote an excellent article in today's Guardian newspaper about Kevin Wheatcroft, an extreme collector who lives in Leicestershire, and who has a fascination for collecting German World War 2 and Nazi memorabilia. MASSES of memorabilia, known as the Wheatcroft Collection.

Many who read the article may find Mr Wheatcroft’s seemingly fanatical collecting shocking, abhorrent and disrespectful to the millions of people who suffered and died as a result of atrocities ordered by a fanatical leader.  And I can see their point.

To those of us who are related to AND work with hoarders, the article gives an absorbing insight into a person who demonstrates classic hoarding behaviour, and who has finally come to realise the burden of his situation.  

Mr Wheatcroft inherited his interest in collecting (plus a construction business, properties and Donnington Park Racetrack and motor museum) from his late father - Tom Wheatcroft - who rescued Donnington Park Racetrack from closure back in 1971.

It just so happens that the main focus of Kevin Wheatcroft’s hoarding (some may say it’s collecting) isn't something that is as socially acceptable like things we see in the media or I see at my client's houses such as newspapers, clothes, shoes, Star Wars models, Lego, light bulbs, dolls house paraphernalia or Snoopy mugs.

Collectors generally proudly display their collection, and may swap pieces and talk to other collectors. Whereas people who hoard may feel shame, rarely allow others into their houses and are less likely to talk about it.

I've come across loads of hoarders who want to achieve what Mr Wheatcroft has said he wants to achieve – “saving” items for future generations to see, to learn about the past. Usually though, my clients do tend to fill their homes with more mundane/less expensive or exclusive things like newspapers or Royal Family memorabilia!

Mr Wheatcroft has the money, expertise and inclination to bypass your average car boot sale, charity shop or skip and go straight to the country of origin, shipping "treasures" back to the UK by the container-load. 

Unlike many hoarders, Mr Wheatcroft’s hoarding habit isn’t so severe that it prevents or precludes the use of living spaces for what they were designed for, primarily because he has pots of money to continually buy more space (and probably have people to clear/clean up after him).

Whilst Mr Wheatcroft’s acquiring habit and difficulty discarding items may have caused or could cause significant distress or impairment for him or his family members, the ones who are likely to demonstrate the most about his collection/hoard are those who object to what they perceive to be his glorification of an evil era by collecting artefacts from it.

The general characteristics of hoarding were recently outlined in an excellent Hoarding Framework document written by a team headed by the LOVELY Sally Savage of Nottingham Fire & Rescue Service's Persons at Risk Team (one of my colleagues on the Chief Fire Officer's Association's Hoarding Working Group). 
  • Fear and anxiety: compulsive hoarding may have started as a learnt behaviour or following a significant event such as bereavement.  The person who is hoarding believes buying or saving things will relieve the anxiety and fear they feel.  The hoarding effectively becomes their comfort blanket.  Any attempt to discard the hoarded items can induce feelings varying from mild anxiety to a full panic attack with sweats and palpitations.
  • Long term behaviour pattern: possibly developed over many years or decades of ‘buy and drop’. Collecting and saving with an inability to throw away items without experiencing fear and anxiety.
  • Excessive attachment to possessions: people who hoard may hold an inappropriate emotional attachment to items.
  • Indecisiveness: people who hoard may struggle with the decision to discard items that are no longer necessary, including rubbish.
  • Unrelenting standards: people who hoard will often find faults with others; requiring others to perform to excellence while struggling to organise themselves and complete daily living tasks.
  • Socially isolated: people who hoard will typically alienate family and friends and may be embarrassed to have visitors.  They may refuse home visits from professionals, in favour of office based appointments.
  • Large number of pets: people who hoard may have a large number of animals that can be a source of complaints by neighbours.  They may be a self-confessed ‘rescuer of strays’.
  • Mentally competent: people who hoard are typically able to make decisions that are not related to hoarding.
  • Extreme Clutter: hoarding behaviour may be in a few or all rooms and prevent them from being used for their intended purpose.
  • Churning: hoarding behaviour can involve moving items from one part of the property to another, without ever discarding them.
  • Self-care: a person who hoards may appear unkempt and dishevelled, due to lack of bathroom or washing facilities in their home.  However, some people who hoard will use public facilities in order to maintain their personal hygiene and appearance.
  • Poor insight: a person who hoards will typically see nothing wrong with their behaviours and the impact it has on them and others. 
For Mr Wheatcroft, perhaps having the largest “collection” of Hitlers heads in the world might be satisfying in one way, but frustrating in another as it's not a COMPLETE collection - there are still others out there somewhere to be collected.  As a recovering perfectionist myself (as a result of being the daughter of a controlling hoarder with unrelenting standards), I can see where he might be coming from if this is the case.

Whatever his reasons, I'm glad Mr Wheatcroft has finally realised that it’s time to find people to catalogue and restore his hoard – I hope there are historians and museums queuing up to help him achieve his dream of displaying this collection to future generations.

Perhaps having real-life tanks in his garden reminds him of happy times as a child playing with Tonka toys, whilst sleeping in Hitler's bed makes him feel important and special.  

I’m an optimist, so I'd like to think Mr Wheatcroft isn't actually hoping that megalomania will transfer to him from the bed whilst he sleeps, and he will go on to rule The World as a result. 

Instead, I wonder if his actions might be subconsciously proving something to himself (and his late father):
  • that he is free from the shadow of parental control (where unrelenting standards no longer apply), and capable of purchasing anything he wants without having to ask someone else for it.  Or perhaps….
  • that he is as good as (or better than) his dad at collecting 

We may never know - only his therapist (or his professional organiser or the restorers or museum curators) may ever be privy to that kind of information. Which is a shame because I'd love to know more.