TREVOR Richards clearly remembers the moment – and the feeling of relief – when he realised his investment in the past just might have a future.
“I’ve got a photo when we had 11 cars out the front of the shop in the main street, and there were no other cars in the main street, nowhere,” he recalls of that day in late 1986.
“From then on, I knew it was going to work. That was quite momentous. Eleven cars! It sounds ridiculous now.”
Richards is the owner of Campbell’s Store, the antique and craft centre in Morpeth’s Swan Street. It is perhaps the biggest drawcard in the tourist town, attracting up to 5000 people through its doors each week.
These days, particularly on weekends, visitors wander through history in Morpeth, soaking up the nostalgia in the museum, shopping in the stores in restored terraces, and sipping coffee or eating gourmet meals in the restaurants and cafes. That is, once they’ve managed to find a car park. There are always vehicles in Swan Street now.
“When we first started restoring Campbell’s Store 31 years ago, we could tell what time it was by the amount of traffic,” he says. “So three o’clock in the afternoon, it would increase as mums picked up the school kids, then it would go quiet again.”
Swan Street was deathly quiet when Trevor and Shirley Richards first drove into the village from South Australia in 1981.
It may have been a bustling river port and a hub of the Hunter Valley’s economic life in the 19th century, but Morpeth’s good old days had been all but buried by the early 1980s. The river town had become a backwater.
“Morpeth was derelict,” asserts Richards. “The buildings were derelict, the main street was derelict, the museum didn’t exist. People forget what it was like, [they think] that it’s always been pretty, there have always been restaurants and cafes. There weren’t; it was a dump.”
Little did Trevor Richards know at that point what role he would play in bringing life back to the old buildings, or what role they would play in redirecting and reinvigorating his life.
TREVOR Richards was born in Manly in 1949. When he was a teenager, his family moved to the state’s South Coast. There he met Shirley, and they were married in 1971. Trevor had trained as a chemist, and his career took the couple to Tasmania then to South Australia, where he worked for the state government, helping to care for the Murray River.
As Richards describes his younger years, we are sitting in the Common Grounds cafe, overlooking another river, and the prime reason Morpeth was born: the Hunter.
“When we first came here and people started telling me about the ships that used to come here, I thought they were just pulling my leg,” he says. “And that the train used to come here; I knew they were pulling my leg then. And the fact that Arnotts started here, and Brambles, Caleb Soul [who] started Soul Pattinson. And yet no one knew about it! No one even in the Hunter Valley knew about it, let alone anywhere else.”
The Richards family may not have known about Morpeth, but they did want to be in the Hunter. To be within driving distance of Shirley’s family on the South Coast, Richards had applied for a job with the New South Wales government.
He loved living in the Hunter – “good wine, and that’s important, out of Sydney but close enough to get there, wonderful beaches within a stone’s throw” – but he didn’t love the job. Richards was bored. He looked for an escape. He found it in the village where they were living.
In the mid-1800s, when it was built by James Campbell, the large store sold everything that could be brought across the oceans and up the river, from fine cloth to flour.
Yet when Richards inspected the building in 1986 with an architect friend, it held only memories. And that was about all it could hold, he reckons, as the ground floor boards were gone or rotting, “so you had to jump from joist to joist or bearer to bearer”.
Still, Trevor and Shirley Richards bought the property for $93,000. He borrowed 125% of the agreed price, juggling loans between two institutions to buy and restore the building. He figured the worst-case scenario was to lose the store, but “I didn’t lose any sleep over it. The bank manager did when he found out what I’d done!”
Richards figured the risk was worth it. For one thing, his wife wanted to open a craft store. Yet they saw the possibility of having a group of craftspeople and artisans leasing spaces in the building, demonstrating their skills and selling what they made – and helping pay off the loan. He also figured if one building could be given a new lease on life, so could others down the street.
“I thought if we could restore Campbell’s Store and get craftspeople into there, people would be more than happy to come,” he recalls. “I thought if we could make a go of this here, other people would see the potential to open up along the street, and gradually there would be a domino effect.
“It was obvious to me that the whole village could be turned into what it is today.”
Yet it wasn’t so obvious to others, according to Trevor Richards. Many thought he was “stark raving mad –and we probably were”. Clubs and organisations clubs would invite him to talk about what he was thinking.
“I’d start off by saying, ‘At present, Morpeth is 11 kilometres from Maitland. It won’t be long before Maitland is 11 kilometres from Morpeth.’ And that brought a huge roar of laughter from everyone. But I was deadly serious.”
The Richards began publicising their store, and those 11 cars showed up. Then more cars arrived, and coaches, with Trevor offering free tours around the village. The domino effect took hold. More buildings were restored and new businesses opened. The business people promoted the village and planned festivals – jazz, teapots, gourds – whatever brought in the people. Morpeth was back on the map.
Initially, Trevor Richards says, not everyone wanted to see their home village turned into a major tourist attraction. Some liked it the way it was. Others were converted, for as Morpeth’s heritage was restored and the village’s popularity soared, property prices rose.
“The main complaint you get from the older people now is that their kids can’t afford to come back into Morpeth and buy,” he says.
I ask Richards does he worry the village might become overdeveloped and lose the very soul and atmosphere that make Morpeth what it is. He believes nature will offer protection. He points across to the expanse of fields on the other side of the river.
“If it wasn’t for this floodplain, all of us would be in big trouble,” he says. “There’d be urbanisation right to our doorstep.”
Trevor Richards owns a string of properties in Morpeth, and he and Shirley are planning to build a new home on the fringe of the village. But he doesn’t see himself as an entrepreneur. He never did, even when he bought Campbell’s Store and wanted a restart – for himself and Morpeth.
“It was just an opportunity to have a go,” Richards shrugs. “And to make life interesting.”