For nearly four decades after William White established the Tokomairiro Steam Pottery Works in Milton in the early 1870s, South Otago was home to many hopeful ceramic enterprises.
The dream of a local industry that used nearby natural resources to successfully compete with the lucrative market for imported household pottery veered between ambition and anguish for most of them.
By Moira White
‘Grievous have long been the complaints of the country settlers and citizens of Auckland at the high price of crockeryware and other pottery’ declared the New Zealander in June 1860. The article identified weight, freight charges, and losses due to breakage as significant contributors to the problem. They all provided an incentive for local manufacturers to enter the market.
The dream of establishing a business that could profit from these obstacles inspired many late nineteenth century entrepreneurs in Auckland, Christchurch and Otago. It was a personal and public ambition: in 1881 the Government offered a bonus of £250 for the first thousand pounds worth of household pottery produced.
Practical pottery was essential for the running of a Victorian household. Ceramic candlesticks, decanters, bed warmers, ink wells, tobacco jars, wash jugs and basins were needed. But the task of producing them required control of clay sources, access to glaze ingredients, equipment, and manufacturing knowledge; as well as experienced craftsmen and access to local rail and maritime transport systems, for distribution.
Visions of New Zealand kitchens and dining rooms equipped with locally-made and purchased ceramics must have been exhilarating. The Press reporter describing Messrs Austin, Kirk and Co’s display at the 1883 Industrial Exhibition in Christchurch claimed that ‘The hearts of housewives cannot fail to be gladdened by the display of breadpans’.
In South Otago, the enthusiastic support of the local newspaper, the Bruce Herald, has left us with a wonderful record of the ebb and flow of ambition and output from the Milton-based potteries. In 1885, the Bruce Herald recorded an account of the consignment of work sent for display at the Christchurch Agricultural Show, revealing an impressive range of “Filters, toilet sets, spittoons, sets of jugs, pickle jars, jelly cans, lip bowls, pudding bowls, baking dishes, butter crocks, demijohns, teapots, water bottles, colanders, starch pans, blanc mange moulds, foot warmers, acid jars, nest eggs, flower pots (majolica and ivory), jam pots, flower vases, and vegetable dishes”. They further noted that some of these lines - particularly the vases and flower pots - were available in jet, majolica and blue glaze finishes.
Transfer print works were also produced. A version of the Asiatic Pheasant pattern was made, and others showed exotic blossom, birds, and buildings in Japonisme or more naturalistic styles.
Regional pride as well as commercial ambition led them to seek national and international recognition. The large Australian and New Zealand exhibitions were ideal vehicles. Work to be displayed at the Melbourne exhibition could be seen by Milton residents in Mr James Gray's window shortly before it left the country. These majolica vases ‘and other ornamental articles beautifully adorned with moulded flowers and foliage’ were described as ‘worthy of a place on any mantel’. The writer excitedly imagined that ‘even Victorians will open their eyes at seeing such work produced this side of the equator’.
Where could work be purchased? Factory sales were available but newspaper advertisements show that Milton pottery was stocked by stores in a number of South Island towns. It is hard now to assess the extent to which these local works appeared in colonial homes. The rarity – and consequent price – of some examples for sale in the past few decades might argue that relatively little contemporary market share was achieved. A few styles are known now only because they were kept by staff of the factory and stayed in their family homes. Others, such as the jam jars made for St George’s factory in Dunedin, were produced in their thousands.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Milton factory was still producing a number of long-standing lines. A small 1902 price list details teapots in a variety of sizes, shapes and designs, Toby brown top jugs, “Hot water jugs with creams to match”, bed warmers and butter jars. Decorative pottery included vases, jardinières and fern and umbrella stands. Bamboo and shell spittoons were priced at 12 shillings a dozen.
William White donated an early piece of earthenware from his Tokomairiro factory to the Otago Museum in 1874. One can imagine he saw the work and the gift as markers of a significant moment in New Zealand's history. It was a legacy that faded before rediscovery by historians and collectors nearly a century later.
Header image: Majolica ware spittoon with moulded shell pattern. Attributed to Milton Potteries. Photographed by Otago Museum; all rights reserved.