Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Pirates of the South Pacific: a Crown Lynn story

[David Jenkin (1919-2002?), modeller?] for Ambrico Ltd, 'Paris' earthenware bowl, [about 1948]. Based on a British wartime Utility design,
 the bowl was produced using a second-hand press moulding machine imported from England in 1947.
Crown Lynn, the brand name adopted in 1948 by the industrial porcelain (sic) department of the Auckland brick and tile manufacturer Ambrico Ltd has, in recent years, become synonymous with an idea that New Zealanders, when pushed, can turn themselves to producing anything. In this meme Crown Lynn is envisaged as a 'New Zealand icon'; it's a manifestation of a 'number eight wire' mentality; an example of how a plucky New Zealand entrepreneur can build a 'world class' business from scratch, notwithstanding the interference of – usually socialist – governments; and it was compelled to close due to a combination the abolition of the protective tariff and action of bloody-minded unions, unwilling to accept change. More than anything though, it's products are perceived as embodying 'Kiwiana', a term defined by the sociologist Claudia Bell for 'New Zealand locally-produced objects from the post-war period: everyday objects, once prosaic, [which] are now the stuff of wilful nostalgia.' <C Bell, 'Not really beautiful but iconic: New Zealand's Crown Lynn ceramics', Journal of Design History, 25:4 (2012), 414-426, p. 414> It's a compelling myth, all the more so for being a significant distortion of the history of the pottery. It is a carefully confected narrative fostered by the company and, since its demise, by collectors of the factory's wares.

At the beginning of May 2015 Te Toi Uku, the Portage Ceramics Trust, launched a small, entrance-by-appointment 'museum', Te Toi Uku Clayworks, in premises located on land that had previously formed a part of the Ambrico Ltd site. More a display storage facility with a limited on-line access handle than a museum, it's based around a collection formed by the late Richard Quinn (1946-2009) who, following the closure of the pottery in 1989, retrieved a vast array of material from the abandoned works. Although untrained and lacking in any institutional support, Quinn's collecting was of critical significance in terms of a future understanding of when, how and what the factory produced. His work in preserving not only the shards, moulds and other relics of the factory but also its associated documentation was remarkably similar in intent to the actions of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Sydney in the early 1980s to collect and preserve what was left of the productions of the architectural fittings manufacturer, Wunderlich Ltd, at its Redfern factory.
Opening of Te Toi Uku Clayworks display storage facility in New Lynn, 2 May 2015.
David Cunliffe MP, Facebook
The difference between the two recovery operations is that the Wunderlich rescue was undertaken by trained professionals, received financial assistance from the factory's owner, CSR Building Products,  and was, ultimately, stored under climate-controlled conditions. By contrast Quinn's activities, although condoned by the company owning the closed works, were unfunded, unsystematic and initially at least stored in what was a tin shed. In 1993, the Waitakere City Council employed heavy-handed techniques to exclude Quinn from the site and effectively confiscated his collection on dubious legal grounds. After seven years of legal tussling the council grudgingly paid Quinn $130,000 for the collection that forms the basis of Te Toi Uku.
A selection of Crown Lynn ceramics on display in the New Lynn Library building, May 2015. Lighting is not optimal
Having no dedicated premises in which to either store or display the material, the city council installed a small selection of wares in the newly constructed New Lynn library - in a corridor leading to the public toilets. Following the demise of the Waitakere City Council with the advent of the Auckland unitary council, ownership of the collection was transferred to the Portage Ceramics Trust.
Milton Pottery, Press-moulded earthenware ewer decorated with 'Sailing Boats' transfer prints, [about 1880].
The pottery also made tableware decorated with the English-designed transfer prints.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (CG001651)
Despite the ready availability of the raw materials, the production of ceramics in New Zealand has always been a risk. Historically, the local market was small and, being far removed from the flow of new patterns and fashions, was deeply conservative in its buying habits. As in most colonial economies, consumers were satisfied by a steady stream of English-made wares entering the country under preferential tariffs. There were attempts to establish a ceramics industry, following a traditional provincial British pattern, which saw brick and tile works expand their production to include 'fancies' such as crudely modelled vases and figures before moving into the production of more sophisticated ornamental and useful wares and, in a few instances, tablewares. The Milton Pottery, which operated in South Otago between 1873 and 1915 seems to have produced transfer-printed tableware from 1877 <G Henry, New Zealand pottery. 2nd ed. (Auckland: Reed, 1999),  p. 35>. While the quality of the wares produced at Milton may have been comparable with the low-end productions of Staffordshire, they were unable to compete in a market that not only favoured British productions but was also rigged by British manufacturers to ensure their continued dominance.

Given that it was not subject to competition from overseas manufacturers, brick making was in most instances a profitable industry: both raw materials and labour were relatively cheap and available and while the majority of the country's domestic building stock was of timber construction there was a growing demand for bricks for commercial buildings. During the 1920s a number of Auckland potteries were consolidated by the Clark family into a single concern the Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company Ltd (Ambrico) giving them what amounted to a monopoly over brick and pipe production in the Auckland region. The company suffered during the Great Depression with the collapse of the building industry but the election of a Labour party government in 1935 prompted a turnaround in its fortunes. Labour's state housing programme not only launched a massive building spree but it also specified that the 3500 new homes intended to be built annually should be constructed of New Zealand materials. For Ambrico this meant an increase in the production of bricks and pipes and the cash-flow generated by expanded business enabled the company to diversify its output in 1938 into the production of dry-pressed tiles and electrical fittings. Responsibility for the concern was given to Thomas Edwin Clark (1917-2005), the 21 year old son of the managing director.

Ambrico's decision to expand its manufacturing base reflected the intent of legislation introduced into Parliament in 1936 by the new Labour administration. The Industrial Efficiency Act was intended 'to promote the economic welfare of New Zealand by providing for the promotion of new industries in the most economic form and by so regulating the general organisation, development and operation of industries that a greater measure of industrial efficiency will be secured.' Significantly, the Act also enabled government to provide monetary incentives to manufacturers. A further incentive for local manufacture came in 1938 when, due in part to capital flight and a consequent run on New Zealand overseas funds, the government introduced an import licensing scheme that sought to limit excessive imports of commodities whilst encouraging local industry. This remarkable shift in government policy attracted the ire not only of the British manufacturers and government but also local importers and the conservative opposition but it formed a solid foundation for Ambrico's later success.
Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company, partially vitrified earthenware bowl produced for the United States Joint Purchasing Board
for use by United States service personnel in New Zealand, [about 1942-44].
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (CG002430)
World War I had closed the rarely profitable Milton Pottery; World War II was the making of what became Crown Lynn. New Zealand's reliance on British ceramic manufacturers had significant repercussions when the supply was interrupted not only by the destruction of British plants and the enemy's control of shipping lanes but also by the repurposing of industry. Ornamental 'china' imports dropped from a value of £80,000 in 1938 to a mere £9,000 in 1941. Worse hit were the institutional users of 'hotel ware', the utilitarian tableware used in hotels, schools, the railways and the military. The situation was exacerbated in 1942 with the arrival in New Zealand of elements of the United States armed forces.  In order to deal with this unanticipated demand the National Supply Council, which had been established in 1936, realised that it would have to kick start local production and instructed the Department of Industries and Commerce to locate a suitable concern. In conjunction with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Clark investigated the availability of suitable clay bodies and began production of crude but serviceable substitutes for the imported wares. Further state assistance came when the concern was declared an Essential Industrial Undertaking, enabling it to obtain labour and essential imported raw materials and to construct a new, semi automated factory.

With a captive, almost competition-free, market and a new, government-subsidised, plant, Ambrico expanded its production to include domestic tablewares, imitating the form, if not the quality of British Utility wares, with their 'reduction of form to a bare ascetic minimum with the total elimination of any colouration', to employ Graham McLaren's evocative description of the type <G McLaren, 'Utility forgot: shaping the future of the British pottery industry 1941-45', in J Attfield, ed. Utility reassessed: the role of ethics in the practice of design (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 157-170, p. 157>. They were not popular with local consumers more comfortable with the gaudier effusions of the British pre-war pottery industry. Moreover there were quality issues with the New Zealand version. Wholesalers complained that Ambrico wares 'had proved so unsatisfactory to handle, that by common consent of all the firm, the Directors and the travellers, we all preferred to do without it.'<G Jackson, in New Zealand Board of Trade, Public tariff inquiry. Tariff items 214 & 215, china ware, etc. Transcript of proceedings (1952). Archives New Zealand, IC/10/ACC W2537>.
Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd, 'Crown Lynn' earthenware plate, [about 1950]. The central transfer print was sourced in England and the delicate painting of the rim was undertaken by staff recruited in Staffordshire.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (CG002482)
The end of the war saw the gradual dismantling of the restrictions and opportunities of the command economy and the resumption of ceramic imports from Britain. Nonetheless Ambrico was in a strong competitive position. British manufacturers were directing their output primarily to non Sterling bloc economies and import licensing combined with high tariffs on non-British production meant that other overseas manufacturers such as those in Europe and the United States were actively discriminated against by government fiat. Moreover a decision to devalue the New Zealand pound meant Ambrico was in a position to contemplate exporting its wares into the Australian market. In 1947 Clark accompanied by an Ambrico board member Len Stevens (1890-1973) travelled to the United Kingdom where, with the agreement of government, they acquired a number of second-hand machines, observed new patterns and shapes and recruited specialist workers amongst those dissatisfied with the grim conditions prevailing in post-war Britain. The inclusion of Stevens, an Auckland lawyer, chairman of the Dominion Breweries and a key confidant of the construction magnate James Fletcher, suggests Ambrico had been embraced by the Auckland business community.  In what would be recognised today as a blatant instance of intellectual piracy, Ambrico began producing imitations of British lines, more often than not ambiguously branded as being of 'British' origin and with names – such as 'Fancy Fayre', 'Regal Potteries' and 'Crown Lynn' – more redolent of the pot banks of Staffordshire than the industrial periphery of Auckland.
Keith Murray (1892-1981), designer, for  Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Ltd, earthenware vase shape no. 3765 (about 1930).
Shapiro Auctioneers, Sydney
Ernest Shufflebotham (1908-1994) for Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd, earthenware vase (about 1950).
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, The Walter C Cook Decorative Art Collection, gift of Walter Cook, 1992 (CG001939)
Probably the most blatant example of piracy by the newly-formed Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd was its imitation of a series of vases produced by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Ltd after designs by the architect of its Barlaston premises, Keith Murray. Murray's designs – he was not a potter – were popular amongst New Zealand consumers not least for Murray's tenuous connection with the country (he was born and spent his first fourteen years here) but they were expensive and scarce. Among the fifteen English staff recruited by Clark in 1947 was a former employee of the Wedgwood concern, Ernest Shufflebotham who, on his arrival at New Lynn in 1948 was set to producing imitations of the wares he had thrown and turned in England. Rather than exhibiting the finely-honed quality of the originals, Shufflebotham's reproductions while competently produced were crudely mechanical and dipped in thick white matt glazes that obscured the turned bands. In 1953, in an effort to further expand the company's consumer base, Clark employed a Dutch ceramic designer Frank Carpay to produce a range of modernistic hand painted wares under the self-consciously exotic 'Handwerk' label that captured the spirit if not the quality of some of the Scandinavian and Italian ceramics being imported in small quantities to satisfy a niche market for well-designed products. Clark declared that he was using Carpay's 'fine china' in a 'campaign to educate the public away from imported china of the "pretty rosebud" variety' <'No "museum pieces": new venture in the manufacture of china', New Zealand Manufacturer (15 December 1953), p. 35>.
Paul Champion, Queen Elizabeth II visiting Crown Lynn, 1963.
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries (1055-1)
Crown Lynn's dependence on pirated designs suggests design was a problematic for the company and its management; an unresolved hiatus in the process of making, mediating and consuming the wares it produced. Clark's recruitment of English pottery workers along with the acquisition of relatively new machinery indicates an awareness of the problem. Moreover, Clark was an enthusiastic publicist and, from the start, Crown Lynn was prominently featured in the local press as well as being involved in trade fairs, retail displays and tours by the monarch, politicians and other celebrities. Clark seems to have gauged the local mass market well. By producing wares that imitated those of Staffordshire Crown Lynn responded to a consumer demand that, over decades, had been carefully groomed by import agents and retailers to appreciate the more traditional productions of English manufacturers.

These strategies were reactive and failed to address fundamental problems such as production quality which, compared with imported wares, remained crude. The English-recruited staff were all of relatively low status; craftsmen, not educated professionals. The machinery acquired in 1947 was technologically redundant even before it was installed: a British manufacturer observed that he was:
Staggered by some of the most basic principles employed [at Crown Lynn], which I cannot for the life of me imagine were put-in in 1947. If they had been put-in in 1897, I should have thought it would have been more reasonable [...] I mean some of this things there – take the casting: tub and bucket. Well it is going back to the days of bows and arrows <R Bloore, in New Zealand Board of Trade, Public tariff inquiry. Tariff items 214 & 215, china ware, etc. Transcript of proceedings (1952). Archives New Zealand, IC/10/ACC W2537>.
Worse still, the Labour administration's revaluation of the New Zealand pound in 1948 eliminated what had been a 25 per cent subsidy of the company's exports and the election of a National party administration in 1949 on a promise of ending import licensing seemed set to usher in a collapse of the hard-won domestic market but the company continued to expand. Notwithstanding Clark's claim that labour costs were high 'due to New Zealand's higher standard of living' it transpired that they were half those prevailing in England – largely due to a predominantly female workforce – and  could have been lower had production been more efficient. For its first twenty years Crown Lynn seems to have epitomised that quintessentially colonial mentality of 'cobbling things together on the cheap'.
Sparrow Industrial Pictures Ltd, [Women moulding handles for cups at Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd, (about 1955)].
Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira
By 1956 it was apparent that Crown Lynn was struggling to survive. Following a disastrous fire the company's banker, the British-owned National Bank of New Zealand Ltd instructed Clark to lay off staff: along with tens of production staff, Carpay was 'let go' and Shufflebotham returned to Wedgwood. Production was scaled back to those basic lines that were guaranteed to sell. This gloomy state of affairs seemed set to continue (Clark took to motor racing) when, at the general election of November 1957, a Labour government was returned with a slim majority. The new administration not only advocated an expansion of manufacturing but was also compelled to re-impose import licensing in an attempt to stabilise New Zealand's volatile currency. Moreover, in July 1960, it introduced tariff protection on a number of commodities produced by what were described as 'one-unit' industries; these included Crown Lynn.

Labour's industrial policy ensured Crown Lynn's survival, most notably its strategy of encouraging good design not only in the production of commodities but also in terms of educating retailers and consumers. In its annual report for 1959 the Department of Industries and Commerce asserted that 'In an age when technical skill is of such importance, the function of good design in unifying the qualities of utility, durability, harmony and balance is an important factor in [industrial] development.'<'Report of the Department of Industries and Commerce for the year ending 31 March 1959', AJHR, 4 (1959), H44, p. 19>. This officially-promoted focus on design did more than anything to change not only the appearance of Crown Lynn's products and how they were marketed but also the way the company's management understood that design was more than a concern for appearance but had an impact on every aspect of its activities.
Barry Woods, [Window display by Allan Smith at the Milne & Choyce department store, Palmerston North, about 1963]. Crown Lynn's changed attitude to design during the 1960s extended to controlling its retail image even in provincial New Zealand
Palmerston North City Library
Ambrico/Crown Lynn resorted to design piracy during the late 1940s and 50s because not only was it expedient but also, located at the end of the colonial supply chain, it could get away with it. What might have appeared to be a good business move – getting something for nothing and making a profit on it – in practice turned out to be a disaster. For all its publicity-driven bluster, Crown Lynn management's failure to recognise design as a process concealed a range of critical issues that it consistently failed to address. Its products were derivative, not 'iconic'; it's reliance on 'number eight wire' technology resulted in low production standards; its export 'success' was dependent on a cheap, largely female, labour force, tariff protection and an undervalued currency; its existence and continued survival was brokered on the initiatives of and the support provided by two Labour party administrations. Its heyday during the 1960s and 70s resulted from its adoption of a design led strategy of growth that was predicated on the financial and logistical support of the state.  Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd – renamed Ceramco Ltd in 1974 and the Ceramco Corporation in 1987 – collapsed when the fourth Labour government's attempts to remedy the macroeconomic ills bequeathed by its National party predecessors unleashed the demons of neoliberalism. The production of ceramics was by now a minor part of the Ceramco Corporation's activities and the board, disinterested in the product, unfettered by regulation, devoid of social responsibility and obsessed with the chimera of profit, curtailed investment, asset-stripped the company, laid off staff and in May 1989 finally closed it down.