One of the most famous Kiwi icons of the twentieth century is the New Zealand Railways cup and saucer, manufactured by Crown Lynn Potteries of Auckland. The white Railways cup has the N.Z.R. logo and a crown painted on it in blue glaze. The saucer is emblazoned with the same motif.
Crown Lynn crockery was known in the 1940s and '50s for being sturdy and reliable - a 'no-nonsense' brand. It was just the thing for a tea stop on a long rail journey such as the overnight express between Wellington and Auckland, which always stopped at the tearooms in Taumarunui, made famous in a 1950s ballad Taumarunui On The Main Trunk Line.
The company that eventually became known as Crown Lynn Potteries was established by Thomas Clark in 1937 as the 'Porcelain Specialties Department', a special department of the Amalgamated Brick and Pipe company, which had been started by Clark's great-grandfather. The new department, which later came to be referred to simply as the 'specials', produced items unrelated to the building trade such as intricate ceramic electrical components and moulds for rubber products such as gloves, baby bottle teats, and condoms.
The first Crown Lynn tableware was produced in the late 1930s, and it took the form of vitrified mugs - mugs hardened by firing in the kiln at high temperatures. In 1939 the outbreak of the Second World War saw the imposition of cargo restrictions, which meant that virtually no pottery was imported into the country.
New Zealand Railways, which provided the bulk of inland public transport in New Zealand, urgently needed replacements for its mugs, which had previously been supplied by British firms. In answer to their request Crown Lynn produced a straw-coloured mug without a handle with the letters 'NZR' stamped on in large block letters under a clear glaze. In 1943 a handle was added. Like much of the company's production in the early years, the Railways cups were highly functional and sturdy.
Crown Lynn was declared an essential industry during the war, producing durable mugs and cereal bowls for American soldiers in the Pacific. Rank-and- file soldiers were given the Crown Lynn handleless mugs, while the officers received mugs with handles that were probably American-made.
The Crown Lynn lines of military and Railways crockery were highly successful. However, because there was no imported crockery being brought into New Zealand, the range had to be extended to suit the domestic market. A tunnel kiln was erected in 1941, and the next year a new range of tableware was produced including pudding basins, casserole dishes, and various sized chamber pots. However, due to shortages of material and labour, the decorations remained simple. Alongside this extended range, the Railways cups and saucers continued to be produced in bulk.
During the war a laboratory was founded especially to test clay samples, check on kiln temperatures, and a variety of other scientific tasks. Immediately after the war, the company began to experiment and diversify, as it saw the need to modernise. Employees were encouraged to develop different styles, and vases and other pottery were produced utilising the trickle glazing technique, which had a '. pleasing and varied effect'. (1) These trickle glazed pieces are still highly sought after by collectors.
In the late 1940s craftsmen were imported from England and new equipment was purchased which enabled a more extensive range to be developed. This new range included tea sets, art pottery and salad ware, and utilised a variety of innovative decorative techniques such as monogram printing, band brushing and lining. At the same time the factory laboratory discovered that certain clay, known as Matauri clay, consistently burned white when mixed with five special ingredients. This enabled Crown Lynn to mass-produce tableware decorated with transfers, and coloured tableware. This discovery virtually saved the firm, as the recent revaluation of the pound had made it very difficult for companies to export overseas.
A name was needed to promote these new mass-produced lines and in 1948 the 'specials department of Amalgamated Brick and Pipe' became Crown Lynn Potteries Limited.
By the 1950s, the famous Railway cup was produced on a machine and the logo was a transfer placed on a vitrified body and finished with a clear glaze. However, many New Zealanders had a prejudice against buying locally made goods, and there was an influx of imported English pottery during the 1950s and 60s. To counter this, Crown Lynn began imprinting much of their tableware with motifs styled on what was being produced in Britain and attempted to emulate various leading British brands.
Crown Lynn was also helped by an exchange crisis which hit the country in 1958. This resulted in more restrictive importing regulations, giving Crown Lynn an opportunity to strengthen its local market. With less overseas competition, the factory doubled its output and produced ten million pieces of pottery in 1960 alone. At that time it was the largest pottery manufacture in the Southern Hemisphere with a staff of 450, producing 240,000 pieces a week.
From the late 1960s Crown Lynn produced designs such as such as 'Egmont' and 'Ponui' which, rather than emulating British brands, had a distinct New Zealand flavour. The items gained considerable popularity with the public. Further influence came with the emergence of the studio pottery movement in the late 1960s and 70s. Crown Lynn responded by developing a line of crockery with a far more natural 'earthy' style.
In the 1980s Crown Lynn came under increasing competition from imported pottery from England, Japan and Australia. While the company experimented with new ideas to stay in business, as a result of deregulation, inflation and the lifting of import restrictions, Crown Lynn Potteries was forced to close its doors and the last items rolled of the assembly line in 1989.
The Taumarunui Railway Station stopped selling pies and a cup of tea to passengers on the overnight express on 21 February 1975.
(1) Lambert, Gail. (1985). Pottery in New Zealand: commercial and collectable. Auckland: Heinemann. p 125.
Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images, on Level 4.
Barnett, Stephen and Wolfe, Richard. (1989). New Zealand! New Zealand!: In Praise of Kiwiana. Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton.
Jones, Steve. (1994). Antiques: Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd. New Zealand Home and Building. Feb/March: p 184.
Other items produced by Crown Lynn in Te Papa's collection