11 Jul 2019

Sir Tom Clark, the industrious industrial chemist behind Crown Lynn

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:20 pm on 11 July 2019

Crown Lynn ceramics have been a fixture in many New Zealand cupboards over the years, particularly in the 1960s when it dominated the market.

Industrial chemist Sir Tom Clark was behind the company's transformation from a modest conglomerate of brick-and-pipe manufacturers into a tableware colossus.

Margaret McClure, a historian, tells us about him and his influence on New Zealand business, sport and ceramics.

Tom Clark. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. MS-98-34.

Tom Clark. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. MS-98-34. Photo: Supplied/Auckland War Memorial Museum

Clark was the fourth person in his family to run Crown Lynn, but he began at the bottom, digging for clay, McClure tells Jesse Mulligan.

“Realising how vulnerable a building industry is, supplying brick and pipe is not going to see you through the downfalls in the economy and he wanted to imagine what other forms the clay could take.”

In the late 1930s, there wasn't a big crockery industry in New Zealand and Clark got funding from the company to create a new department, she says.

“He made absolutely anything he could think of, he had a small team and anything he thought of, they managed to find a way to make.

“Before crockery, he did all sorts of kinds of things.”

Clark would invent new equipment to make his creations, says McClure, things like moulds for rubber gloves, condoms and liqueur bottles.

During war-time, crockery became scarce, people were drinking out of jam jars, and Clark made mugs for the railway department, McClure says.

He was then contracted to make mugs and cups for US forces in the Pacific.

“It’s sort of the luck of war. He thrived because he had this huge contract to make thousands of mugs and cups.”

Clark was an innovative and hands-on kind of person, McClure says.

“He had huge self-confidence. In fact, near the end of his life, what went wrong with the company, one of the reasons he would say ‘there wasn’t another Tom Clark’.”

He was an original-workaholic, says McClure, and travelled extensively to learn about factories and equipment, often luring workers away from other ceramic companies and bringing them to New Zealand to work for him.

“The wives hated him, he expected so much dedication from his staff and even if they didn’t have to work the hours on Saturday morning, they’d know Tom Clark was there on Saturday morning, so they’d turn up. Very difficult for families, I think.”

At first, Crown Lynn crockery wasn’t particularly popular in New Zealand, but it was all anyone had, says McClure.

“By the 1960s, you have his pottery in 60 percent of New Zealand households, I mean, it’s extraordinary… Crown Lynn was ours in a sense.”

It was far from fine pottery though. Smith and Caughey's would shudder at the look of some of Clark’s work when he’d take it in, McClure says.

But when the queen visited the Crown Lynn factory in 1963, suddenly everyone wanted it.

That was the turning point, McClure says.

That boom in business trickled out over time though, and a culmination of failures led to its demise.

After import restrictions were removed in the late 1970s, the market was flooded. Crown Lynn ultimately couldn’t keep up, closing in 1989.

“I went from nowhere to nowhere,” Clark is known to have said.

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