Sunday 10 March 2024

The Earlier and Truly Original 1940's New Zealand Railways Cup & Saucer

The now "iconic" New Zealand Railways classic
Cup & Saucer produced from 1956 to 1970's.
[From my own collection]

Many of us will be aware of the now "iconic" and much sought after "Crown Lynn Potteries Limited" New Zealand made Railways cup and saucer featured above which bears a blue crown and "NZR" stamp, being made from 1956 to around the 1970's. Saucers now appear to greatly outnumber cups but this may have to do with a large stock of saucers being held when this style had been discontinued. I can certainly recall a shop in Christchurch in the late 1980's (Iron Horse Hobbies?) slowly disposing of a large stock of "blue" font NZR saucers. Now very collectible, these New Zealand made sets often come up for sale but at a good price. A duo in good condition will now sell for anything from NZ$150.00 upwards. 

But let us delve into the earlier history of New Zealand made railways crockery which is, I believe, a rather fascinating subject, having originally come about as a result of wartime expediency.

The now classic but earlier version of the
New Zealand Railways Cup & saucer
produced c.1948 to 1955
[From my own collection]

How many of us are aware that the classic 'blue' duo featured above was in fact preceded from 1948 to 1955 with the same style of New Zealand made "Crown Lynn" cup and saucer but with the font and crown printed in black? Cups and saucers with the black font carry a scrolling "Crown Lynn" logo and the word "Vitrified" on the underside. Vitrified is simply a type of firing at very high temperatures which adds a very durable enamel layer to items of crockery. A paired "black" duo in good condition is now reasonably rare and holds a much higher value than the more common post 1955 to 1970's "blue" logo version. I have seen "black" logo examples sell for well over $250.00

Two versions of Temula Potteries cups
made for the New Zeland Railways
circa mid 1940's to mid 1950's

From around the late 1940's to the mid 1950's the Temuka potteries in South Canterbury produced cups stamped with either just "NZR" or with "NZR" and a crown and these occasionally appear for sale. While still of value, these do not, for some reason, seem to command quite the same prices as the classic "Crown Lynn" examples. Many Temuka examples are either broken, chipped or cracked, generally bearing the scars of having usually been thrown out railway carriage windows. This was, believe it or not, quite a common practice and saucers would literally become frisbees. As trains did not, until the early 1970's have refreshment carriages, stops would be made at stations with refreshment rooms where passengers would made a made dash to the counter for a cup of tea and something to eat, carrying their cup, saucer and eats back onto the train. Thus a number of cups and saucers were "disposed" of by illicit means before the guard came through the carriages to collect them, either being thrown out the window or hidden to take home. This was despite the clear "NZR" branding to discourage usage by other than the railways. One NZR branded crockery set was even discovered in use in a London restaurant in 1956 while the same writer noted having seen an example in a hut at the "high altitude" of Mount Ruapehu. Maybe still better than being unceremoniously thrown out a railway carriage window! But oddly, and to the best of my knowledge, no extant Temuka made "NZR" branded saucers have ever been found and one would have thought that even pottery shards would be relatively common. So were Temuka saucers even made?

The original and now much sought after "AMBRICO"
New Zealand Railways handle-less cup with matching
saucer, produced from 1942 to mid 1940's.
[From my own collection]

But this now brings us to what is the truly original New Zealand Railways cup and saucer, being the main feature of this post. Prior to the Second World War all railways china had been imported from Britain and a myriad of examples, many now quite valuable, exist in museums and private collections up and down the country. But with the usual breakages, pilfering, and the afore-mentioned "disposal" of crockery out of railway carriage windows, there was now a pressing need for new stock. But the war meant that by 1942 production from England was no longer available and only "essential" items could be shipped and even that carried some risk with high shipping losses. What was to be done?

Enter the Auckland based "Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company", usually now known as "AMBRICO", being a forerunner of the better known "Crown Lynn Potteries" of New Lynn, West Auckland. After the installation of an oil-fried continuous tunnel kiln in 1941 the AMBRICO company now embarked on the production of tableware. Under direction from the wartime Ministry of Supply, the company supplied crockery for not just domestic use but also for military use, including for the American forces stationed in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. 

The Original "AMBRICO" New Zealand
Railways Mug. Produced 1942 to mid 1940's
[From my own collection] 

Thus, from 1942, AMBRICO was contracted to supply the New Zealand Government Railways with cups and saucers. But therein lay a problem that just could not be satisfactorily solved, being (one would have thought) the relatively straightforward process of adding a handle to the cups. But try as they may, no one in New Zealand had the expertise to permanently or at least satisfactorily affix handles to their cups. So thus was born the now highly sought after "handle-less" New Zealand Railways cup, often also referred to as a "beaker" or "mug". With the cup bearing a large "NZR" stamp in black or dark green, the saucer was similarly stamped in a smaller font in the centre, ordinarily being hidden by the cup. The stamp is often crooked or smudged but this is now just part of the character of these unique items of railway crockery. This is indeed the original and authentic New Zealand Railways cup but their rarity means that they are now lesser known than the rather more modern and widely available versions. There are also examples of this solid style of cup with a more rounded bottom and the colour of the clay for all examples varies from white to straw. But the version shown here would be the most common. Whatever version still exists is likely to show either cracks, crazing, chips or breakage but an intact example offered for sale in reasonable condition will now, due to their rarity and value to a dedicated Railways china collector, command a hefty price tag.

A period "AMBRICO" Paris design saucer
with the "NZR" stamp, being indicative of that
used by the New Zealand Railways.
[From my own collection]

With not having handles there were naturally complaints about burnt fingers and hands but there was, in wartime conditions, simply no alternative. I daresay many passengers simply used their saucers to attempt to steady the cup as holding it up would have risked injury unless perhaps holding it with a handkerchief. The saucers themselves are of the basic but not unattractive "Paris" pattern with the distinctive ridges running around the perimeter. A cup was also produced bearing these ridges (known as "beehive" cups) but railways usage demanded a heavier duty type of cup, hence the rather more solid cup featured in this Blog. The "Paris" cup is only noted as being used at the Paekakariki Refreshment Rooms, probably due to an extreme shortage of cups. All Ambrico Railway cups (as far as I am aware) have no markings on the bottom which, along with the missing handle, makes them easy to identify. The majority of earlier "Paris" design saucers, apart from the "NZR" stamp, are unmarked, but a small round "Made in N.Z." stamp appears on the underside of later versions. All cups produced by Temuka Potteries, including all English made cups, are in one way or another clearly marked underneath so it is very easy to differentiate between each version or manufacturer. As an aside, I note that in later years, and obviously due to not knowing their history, the handle-less NZR cup was occasionally sold by collectible shops as a railways shaving mug!

The Paekakariki Railway Refreshment Rooms 
serving a large number of people  before
returning to their train, circa 1950's.
[Source : NZHistory.Govt.NZ]

I have not personally come across any examples of the AMBRICO "handle-less" cup with an intact handle but some examples are believed to exist. Quite how long the AMBRICO "NZR" cup was in production for is unknown. It was not until after the war when skilled staff were recruited from England that the problem of affixing handles to cups was adequately solved. This also allowed not only an expansion of the whole range of items produced by the factory but also the manufacture of better quality crockery. It is however generally acknowledged that the newly branded "Crown Lynn" pottery only started producing the above mentioned and more familiar black "NZR" and crown white china cups and saucers from 1948. Depending on contracts, Temuka potteries may also have filled the void from the war's end until 1948, along with imports of English made crockery, specifically by "Maddock" of Burslem in Staffordshire, of which I hold a few examples.

A shard from an original New Zeraland Railways
saucer superimposed on the classic AMBRICO
1940's "Paris" design saucer.
[Source : NZ Pottery Net]

I have never seen an intact "AMBRICO" NZR stamped saucer but shards have certainly been found as per the example shown above. The example shown further up this page, while of the genuine "Paris" design and age, is for illustrative purposes only. I think it goes without saying that both the handle-less cup and the "Paris" saucer would be paired and the cup certainly sits securely on the "Paris" saucer.

It is not however my intention to give a definitive history of these items, merely a generalization for the purposes of this Blog. While we thankfully have the illustrated booklet "Railway Refresh in New Zealand", being the result of very considerable research by the late Christine Johnson and of Michael O'Leary, I am aware that further research work on this fascinating subject is being undertaken which will continue to expand on our knowledge of New Zealand Railways crockery as a whole.

Should you wish to suggest any additions or corrections, I may be contacted using the "Email Me" button in the right hand menu bar.

All Rights Reserved

Sources :

- All items from my Personal collection

- "Railway Refresh in New Zealand" by Christine Johnson & Michael O'Leary, 2020

- New Zealand Pottery Net

- NZ History Net

- Papers Past

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