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Tea set with a Whangarei Flavour

Alison Sofield - Volunteer Collections, Whangarei Museum


Among the ceramic treasures held by the Whangarei Museum is a tea set bearing well known scenes of Whangarei, the Whangarei Falls, Cameron Street and a view of Bank Street. The mystery is how did this set, made in England, come into being. This mystery piqued my interest and set me down a path of research that turned up many interesting facts.

The tea set was made by Grimwades, an English pottery firm based in Stoke on Tent. This company was set up by the Grimwade brothers, Leonard and Sidney in 1885. Surprisingly this company still exists today, after many takeovers and name changes. Grimwades made a huge variety of domestic china making it available to all levels of society, from very plain utilitarian items, to wonderful floral patterns and through to their porcelain brand known as Royal Winton.

Whangarei Museum is fortunate to hold a complete set, a teapot, sugar bowl, jug and large plate, six cups and saucers and small plates. Auckland Museum holds only one small plate with the Whangarei Falls scene on it. The basic china is cream with brown transfer scenes. Transfer printing was the method used to add scenes to china using an engraved copper or steel plate from which a monochrome print on paper is taken which is then transferred by pressing onto the ceramic piece. We have all seen the blue and white Willow pattern which is the most recognized form of transfer printing.

This is where it gets really interesting. Further research showed that that there were only two tea sets ever made and these sets were made specifically for a Whangarei Company known as Eccles Brothers, hairdressers and tobacconists, which at the time operated out of Cameron Street.

One set was bought by one of the Eccles brothers and the other by Victor and Maud Williams, who then lived in Mains Avenue. Victor was a plasterer who operated his business out of Eccles building and his wife had a business making beaded lampshades. This all took place in the 1920s, making this tea set about 100 years old and very rare.

It was also interesting to discover that Grimwades Potteries actively sought trade with New Zealand in the 1920s and 30s and made items featuring Maori scenes and patterns.

I like to let my imagination run a little wild and envisage the afternoon tea parties at the Williams home in Mains Avenue where Maud presided over her unusual tea set and perhaps passed round the cucumber sandwiches. Perhaps her guests, certainly the ladies, wore 1920s fashion- shorter skirts, cloche hats and of course gloves.

It is fortunate that museums, big and little, around New Zealand are able to provide us with these glimpses of a life past.