Thursday, September 14, 2017

A tribute to Sir Tom Clark

Tom Clark has been on my mind lately - especially because his daughter Jackie has been talking about him on Facebook. 

So here is the story of how I came to interview him.

Below is my favourite photo of Tom, which appears in the introduction of my book Crown Lynn a New Zealand Icon. Wouldn't we all just love to find that vase he is holding!

I first met Sir Tom Clark around July 2004, when he was 88 years old.  I phoned him -  very nervously –  and told him I wanted to write a book about Crown Lynn.  “Are you asking for money?’ he said. Others had offered to write the Crown Lynn story if he paid for their time, but after I assured him I wouldn't do that, he was more than happy to see me.
Armed with a digital recorder and my copy of Gail Henry’s book New Zealand Pottery Commercial and Collectable, I drove to the house he shared with his wife Lady Patricia (Trish) near Kumeu.  The first time I saw him, he was pruning the roses in the winter sun.  Tom was a big, tall man and he was feeling his age, but he still had the energy to work around the house and garden. On his off days he taught himself how to use a computer.
For the next few months I visited Tom once a week or thereabouts.  I took boxes of Crown Lynn and asked him how, when and where the pieces were made. I usually had written questions as well, but it's true that our discussions lacked structure – we both digressed as the inclination arose. Hospitable Lady Trish put out tea-making materials and left us to talk for a couple of hours at a time. 
Unfortunately I never thought to get a photo of him and me at that time.  But here he is on the day he retired from the Comalco Board in 1993.

I recorded about 11 hours of interviews with Tom which I transcribed and used as the basis of my first book.   I learned an enormous amount, and though he was talking about events up to 70 years ago, there were very, very few errors in what he told me.

For the record, Tom Clark was 'Mr Crown Lynn.'  His family co-owned a West Auckland brick and pipe factory, and in the 1930s he got a company grant to set up an experimental workshop which soon grew into a factory in its own right, making domestic ware including vases and dinner sets. By 1963 Crown Lynn was turning out eight million pieces a year.  Sadly, things changed and the factory closed in 1989. 

Tom was a team player as well as a strong and forthright leader. Early on, he told me that Crown Lynn wasn't about Tom Clark, it was about the team. He gave me a list of about 20 other people to interview –  and they too proved a goldmine of information.

When I had a good draft of my first chapter I gave it to Tom to check. I became more and more concerned as the days passed and I didn’t hear from him. “He hates it,” I thought. “It must be way off beam, totally incorrect...” etc etc. 

Sadly, the truth was very different. Tom was in hospital and within a few days he died.  

Before he fell ill Tom had made notes on my draft, so the final version carries the benefit of his advice. Hearteningly for me, one of his sons told me that Tom believed I would do a good job with the book.  I am still sad that he didn’t see it published. I would have greatly valued Tom's input and I think he would have been happy to see his life’s work recognised in print.

Tom Clark was an energetic, intelligent and inspiring man with a good heart. He loved his family and in his later years he told me he regretted that his intense involvement in his work had taken him away from his children so much. 

To this day I am grateful that I had the honour – and the pleasure – of spending so much valuable time with him.  I was very fortunate that Tom agreed to tell me the Crown Lynn story personally.  

This last photo shows him at the helm of his beloved yacht Buccaneer. He was mad keen on sailing and was very instrumental in New Zealand's quest to win the Americas Cup - I hope that one day this story too gets the recognition it deserves.  

For more information see the introduction of my book, Crown Lynn a New Zealand Icon, pages 8 and 9.

Unfortunately both my Crown Lynn books are now out of print and unavailable unless you can find one second hand. 


  1. Words surpass me describing how enjoyable I found this post. For sometime I wished he was someone I had met. Still in my opinion young I feel ashamed that our country become consumers of price friendly cheap foreign items instead of quality made NZ products. I have many items of CL none overly rare or collectable instead I hunt the things I love, I will continue to chase the things that I love. You were absent for sometime I am glad you are back Val x

  2. Thank you very much for this lovely message AllthingsPink. I am glad to be back too! I just ran out of steam for a while. I too am sorry that so much of our consumer ware is imported. xxx

  3. Thank you for your wonderful blogs and for sharing with us your knowledge - I love all you write. I know the house in Kumeu where you visited Sir Tom, he and his wife bought it from a close friend of mine. She had some wonderful pieces of Crown Lyn, and they were always displayed so well in her homes - she had a love for NZ collections, and a knack for decor. It was said he bought the house because it displayed those pieces so well. Thank you, so much, and I look forward to lots more from you. Laraine

    1. Laraine thank YOU for your lovely comments. I enjoy writing and researching, and I like to get all this information on the record rather than hidden away. I agree with you re that house at Kumeu, it was a pleasure to visit both house and grounds.