Robert (Bob) Huck – Potting

Introduction (Unknown Speaker): Welcome to the Duart House Society’s Historical talks. Some of you have been here before and some of you – this might be your first time. This morning we’re going to be looking downwards and getting more down to earth. If ever you work in a clay soil with allophane which we get here because of the volcanic ash, your hands go dry because the allophane sucks all the lanolin out of your hands. That’s the property of the clay mineral allophane, which is associated with the volcanic ashes.

It’s my pleasure to introduce Bob Huck. Bob, welcome back to Havelock; we know that you’re an old hand in Havelock, but you’ve come from overseas, in Cornwall?

Bob: Yes – Devon and Cornwall, but more Cornwall than Devon.

Introducer: Okay. I leave you in good hands.


Bob: Well I’m very pleased to be standing before you, but a little concerned because I think after so many years I have very little to offer. But you’re going to get it [chuckles] … whatever it is.

I think perhaps this is going to be the most difficult public address I’ve given because I’m talking to Havelock North Historic Society; so the majority of you will know more about the Bay in general, and Havelock North in particular, than I shall ever know. However, for a while, while I was working for the last of the old brick-makers, Hughie Fulford, Havelock North was very important to me. So a few of you good people have already greeted me, and I’m pleased to say, like old friends, so [chuckle] I’m delighted. Yeah – to try stop myself having drys and losing my place, I’ve got these little cards. This is the first time I’ve done this. [Chuckles]

All right. It would be presumptuous of me to tell you that there is an interesting history of brick-making in the Bay, and in Havelock North in particular. There were two active brickyards in the Bay using the local clay of course; because brick-making and commercial potteries usually exist on top of the clay pile. And I very soon learnt that the advantage of a pottery close to the clay pile, was that you could dig clay in the morning and use – not the same clay, because it had to be processed – but by golly, you could use the clay a few days later right next to the clay hole. And, if you don’t mind cold and wet and muck and cracked hands and all the rest of the unpleasant things that go with digging and processing clay, it’s not a bad thing to do. [Chuckle] And I would not have missed my quarter of a century … twenty-five years … working clay for all the tea in China. I think clay should carry a warning, rather like cigarettes, because when you get your hands into it … when you become accustomed to it, it has a fascination. Or a poison [chuckle]. And it is totally absorbing. The history of clay, no matter in which direction you look, clay will give satisfaction. You could write a sermon on clay. If you look at the history, as I’ve just said, two thousand years before Christ, there were the Beaker People. History was inscribed on clay palettes; Shadrach, Meshach and Abendego [Abednego] were thrown into a brick kiln; whole cultures were expressed in clay, and all the way through history there it is, steady and doing its job.

Hawke’s Bay is a funny place; a difficult place for potters if they intend to use the local clay. A lot of the clay is what we call a montmorillanite, which is a very fine particle clay. It has a low firing temperature – in other words, if you fire it too high it turns to brown glass and runs away. And it’s so plastic and so biddable that it lures you on to do more and more; and then, of course, you have all the trouble in getting this lump of clay, which you’ve made into a beautiful pot, to this item which you can look at and handle, and in my case, sell. [Chuckle] So it really is demanding; but yeah, very satisfying.

The three brickyards were of course, the Dolby’s of Hyderabad Road, which by the way is where the Fulford family started working when they arrived in New Zealand, and that was back in 1875 actually. And the Hyderabad works were biggest – and they had the big Hoffmann kiln – and lasted the longest. In Havelock, and I’m sure that a lot of you know this, there was the Fulford Brickyard in Joll Road. And that was the second yard; the first yard was at the top of Arataki Road, and there were difficulties with water; and then when a ‘quake came along and altered the aquifer, the Fulford family moved to land they owned at the bottom of Joll Road. And they actually produced bricks, clay pots and field tiles there for thirty-one years. The Fulford Brickyard was operating from 1880, and that was the first, to 1914, so that’s thirty-four years of production.

The Eaves family – and there may be descendants here of both those families in the audience – were producing pots in 1907 to 1958 – that’s fifty-one years of production, Awful lot of bricks! And so in spite of the fact that New Zealand wasn’t the best place to build houses of bricks because of our tendency to earthquake, it was a very useful and reasonable method of construction. Now you only find bricks used in veneer, but there are very fine brick buildings standing, and they have withstood ‘quakes, but of course, when you have a lot of little bits put together you can’t expect them to stand up to too much shaking.

Old Hughie was my master, and with pottery there is nothing disgraceful about accepting a man as a master, because that’s just what he was. He was a master potter and I was an apprentice, and he used to talk freely about the old days. When I was with Hughie he was not a young man, and I suspect he sometimes spun yarns, pulled my leg, and so I had to be a bit careful. But he spoke of the great price wars, and I was quite fascinated by this, because, you know … price wars; it goes on today. So I went to the archivist here, Christopher Johnson, and said, “Hey, can you ferret around and find anything you can about ‘the price wars’?” Well no, he couldn’t. So whether there was great price wars or not, I don’t know, but it made a good tale of clandestine meetings in pubs, finding out what the next price is going to be of the other brickyard, you know. Anyway, I’ve dealt with that help that I received. The Fulford family were very laid back; they didn’t take themselves too seriously, which I have found a very good maxim anyway – don’t take yourself too seriously and nobody else does. And it was a very, very good place for me to start potting.

Perhaps it would be as well if I told you just a little bit about me, and I’ll skip through this quite quickly. Okay, I was born in ’32, in a little village called Honicknowle, which in the Doomsday Book is ‘knackers ‘n all’, or ‘killing place on a hill’. When you think of a Devon village, one thinks automatically of the village green, the duck pond, the spreading oak tree and the church spire. Well forget it. [Chuckles] Honicknowle was one row of seventy-five houses … tiny little houses, all stuck together in one great row in the middle of the village. Oh, it had a pub – the Woodland Fort did – and there was a castle, or a fort, at the top of the street; and beyond that a hundred acres of wood. It was a perfect place to grow up as a child, but was dominated by a vast brickyard. And as small children we used to run in and out of that brickyard, and play in the quarries; how on earth we weren’t killed or we didn’t kill ourselves, I don’t know, with the things that we used to get up to. And I saw as a small child the things that you would see in a very large brickyard … one of my uncles worked there … the Hoffmann kiln – a vast Hoffmann kiln, bigger than anything that you would’ve found in New Zealand; and the little gnomes – machines that lived on top of the kiln and fed coal into the burning chambers below. And it always fascinated me, this fine chain was going from little black creatures, and every now and then … every ten seconds … the chain would pull, a little door would open and a spoonful of coal dust would fall down onto the coal. And it was absolutely fascinating. Of course I didn’t know what I was looking at; yes, it was a brick-making factory and we were able to see the inside of the kiln and the inside of the works. And I didn’t realise until much later – a lifetime later – that I remembered it all. So when I started reading the methods of production of clay pots and pipes and … whatever, I thought, ‘Oh yes, I saw the extruders, and I saw the presses, and I know all about the rolling mill.’ And it helped me … when I came to building my own pottery … it helped me in the manufacture of the tools that I needed, because every thing in my pottery was made onsite, with the exception of the barrel and core of the auger, which I bought from David Fulford, the last person that played with clay from the Fulford families. You know, it’s still standing in the corner of a field, and I do feel guilty about it; I’d like to drag it out and put it on a plinth somewhere.

So my early life – I saw the destruction of Plymouth; the brickyard was bombed, and we lived only a hundred yards from the brickyard, And clay and brick-making went out of my life. Whether it was the war or not I don’t know, but I always had an itchy foot; got up to all sorts of things … legal things [chuckle] … and I travelled, which wasn’t fashionable in my earlier days. And I visited fourteen countries; lived and worked in five or seven – I’ve forgotten now; went to Australia with my wife and our son, and fought poisonous snakes in our house the first year of my daughter’s life; [it] was an enough. We packed up, put everything into a Kombi van, drove all the way to Sydney, put the van on a hell ship, the Pacific Queen – a Japanese old liner, which I think after it delivered us went right to the breaker’s yard. [Chuckles] And we wound up here.

Now the tale of our coming to New Zealand is absolutely fascinating and it would take an hour to tell, so I’m not even going to touch on it. But when we came to New Zealand we found such friendship and such help that we were quite bowled over; and we started our life in Arataki Road, in Grooby’s caravan site. And then I crossed over the road and worked for the Hawleys and the Speedens; I’m getting there, I’m getting there [laughter] … and then, oh – the winter came. And it was a cold and miserable winter, and we had two small children living in this small cottage. Oh dear, the nights were very long; so I said to Enid, “I think I’ll go to night school.” And she said, “What a damned good idea!” [Laughter] So … got the newspaper; got a pin … there. ‘Oh, it’s halfway between jewellery-making and pottery, so … oh, I’ll do the two.’ So I went along and Mrs Thurston, bless her, was the pottery teacher; a very severe lady, and … I can’t remember now, the jewellery people. Quite interesting; but there were more pretty girls in the pottery [chuckles] section than there were in the jewellery, and so pottery won out. And I got my hands into clay.

Now very soon after, a little snippet in the newspaper: ‘Labourer wanted in the Fulford Brickyard’. So I thought, “Oh, clay; all right, I’m not above labouring. I’ll go to Fulford’s Brickyard”, and I got the job. And I started shovelling clay, making field tiles which are extruded from a great big machine into this giant auger thing; and working away thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ [Chuckle] You know? And I said to Hughie, “Oh, [of] course I go to night school; I’m learning pottery.” So he said, “Oh, yes, yeah … night school – ha ha. I’ll tell you what, you can have a go on the wheel.” And do you know, within three months I was the potter; I was throwing … the thrower. Now there’s a difference; anybody can perhaps make pots, and they claim to be a potter. Well that’s all right – yes. Yes. Making pots on the wheel or by hand is a skill which is easily acquired; you’ve got it, and everybody has it, and I’ve only met … I’ve taught many, many people. I’ve only met one person that I could not teach to pot. Much later when I was teaching, I loved it, and I’m told that I had a measure of success.

Anyway, then I made a little wheel out of a lot of bits and pieces; had it in the garage. We were then living in the old Post Office at Havelock North. I used to get up at six o’clock in the morning when the light was strong enough, get out onto the wheel and I would be throwing pots. Then I would go to work and throw pots for eight hours. And in that time, of course, I was able to observe what was going on around me … observe the business of packing and unpacking; of firing; of things that weren’t done and things that were done. Instead of an apprenticeship, when potters are taken on a master will take a potter on as a helper, not even [as] an apprentice. And their job will be to service the master; to grind things, and do repetitive … pack, unpack. Well, you would think, ‘Oh well, you’re not learning very much’, but by golly – you’ve got to use your intellect; you’ve got to use your eyes and your ears; and you are beside a great potter. And so it is – it’s a wonderful way of going about it rather than have the formal apprenticeship, because you have no responsibility. You’ve jolly well got to do what you’re told, of course; and so I was able to observe and learn slowly.

I also started to read. Now my goodness, if you want a subject to study, look at clay. As I said, no matter which way you look it is absolutely fascinating; and there’s so much knowledge now given to us in the libraries. And I was potting when the great wave … the great renaissance … of potting occurred in New Zealand, and many, many people were potting. Yes, it was a very happy time … very happy time. I consider myself so lucky to have had a quarter of a century of frustration, worry, fascination, and of course, interaction with [the] public, because when you operate a pottery you not only dig the clay, but you have to do the business of the manufacture; and then you’ve got to sell. So you’re not locked in a little box doing the same thing, and I would not’ve done anything else. I’ve talked for twenty-two minutes. I don’t see too much fidgeting, [chuckles] so I can’t be doing too badly.

Phoenix Potteries – okay, the time came for me to move on from Fulford’s, but I still had that itchy foot, and I didn’t think of going and starting a pottery. In fact … another little piece in the newspaper: ‘Would you like adventure?’ Well, [of] course I would like adventure! ‘Then come to Raoul Island, the weather station, for a year.’ So – I was a bit worried because I didn’t know how the wife would take it. So I wrote away [coughing] without saying anything; and I got a letter back saying, ‘Oh yes; come for an interview.’ Oh dear! So I said to Enid, “Well, how do you feel about … you know, doing without me for a year?” Very quiet; it was a very quiet evening, I remember. [Chuckles] And anyway, in the end she said, “Oh well, yes. Oh, very well.” And I went along and I got the job as handy man, if you please, on Raoul Island, which took me away for a year; seven hundred miles north of New Zealand up in the Kermadecs, and they paid me – it was incredible! Living on this paradise of an island … it was a live volcano, [chuckles] and there were tremors every day, but putting that aside … And for the year – well, six months of the year anyway – I wore a hard hat, a leather apron, and steel toe capped boots and nothing else. [Chuckles] Well, there was nobody there. [Chuckles] And, yes, it was a wonderful experience.

I looked after six miles of roads, would you believe, and it was only – oh goodness me, I’ve forgotten now – six miles long and two mile wide – pear-shaped. And the centre of it was a great living volcano. And I had twenty-one buildings to look after. I was also ADC and ODC … ODC, Officer in Charge … ODC to the medical back-up, which meant that I had to spend the time – six weeks, if you please – in the Wellington Hospital in the Emergency department. And my goodness me, that was a baptism of fire! I started out on a night shift on a Saturday night, and [chuckle] … it’s burnt into my psyche … having to deal with drunks, and people that committed suicide, or tried to commit suicide. It was terrible!

Anyway, I survived. Why am I here, I wonder? Oh, I know, I’m [Chuckles] … I’m starting to …

So, when I came back, my good lady was then working at the library, and she saved my salary. It wasn’t a very big salary by today’s standards. So when I came back we bought some land and a house … the cottage at Otane, for something like four and a half thousand pounds [£4,500] or something; or something ridiculous. It’s now on the market for nearly seven hundred thousand. [$700,000]

And I did other little jobs for a short while, and then I thought, ‘Well, damn it all – I’m going to open a pottery.’ So in Thompson Road there was a derelict cold store – an old ammonia cold store – and I got the ease on it. And from the bricks that I … ‘gleaned’, is the word … from the old clay quarry across the – is it the Red bridge here? I built a downdraft kiln. And when you consider that I’d never built a kiln before, I did wonder how it would operate; and it [chuckle] operated very well, so I actually started making pots. That was in 1972, and I dug my clay from the field at the back of Arataki. And it was a beautiful plaster clay, and it was hell to fire! You just had to be so careful.

And I was up and running and actually selling pots; and the great storm came. And a piece of wood, a branch, fell from high up at the back of one of the buildings, punctured a hole in the roof which was directly above a great, big, three-phase switchboard. Rain came down, sparks everywhere – this is an assumption because nobody really did know – and the place burnt down. That left me with the front building, which I think at one time was a chicken house – I’m not quite sure – with the kiln. So away I went, readjusting things and still making pots. And by this time I was just beginning to be noticed. And then a knock on the door, and a bright puppy dog of a person, Peter Pharazyn – this was in 1975 – came and said, “Oh, do you want an apprentice?” I thought, ‘Oh, my God – do I want an apprentice? Oh, yes – c’mon.’ [Chuckles]

Anyway, he came down, and we worked together for something like fourteen years, I think. However … yes, we were having success. Towards the Christmas, I think of 1978, I had three firings in quick succession; this was just before Christmas. And I was careless; and when I closed the kiln down, instead of using a woollen cloth which smells if it burns – and it doesn’t burn it just … you know as well as I do how wool responds – I used an old rag and it was a cotton vest, I think, which I’d wiped my hands on. Somehow it’d got diesel on, and I’d used this cloth to close down the kiln. I had to take louvres out of little boxes and then brick it up, so that cold air didn’t get into the kiln. And I went home, and at eight o’clock the following morning, Enid looked across the field and said, “Oh Bob, there’s a lot of smoke there.” I said, “What do you mean, smoke?” She said, “Smoke smoke!” [Chuckles] And I looked over and the blimmin’ place was on fire. I’d thrown that cloth down on the ground. I had a big pile of pots drying; to keep the heat off I’d covered them with plastic sheet; not the best thing to do anyway, because the plastic sweats. The cloth ignited the plastic, caught the wall on fire; it got right up into the roof and in no time at all the whole thing was ablaze. Actually the owner was quite pleased; he got a very good insurance payout [chuckles] on this broken down chicken house.

So here I was without a pottery, and as far as I was concerned … oh dear! That was it. I will say that Peter said to me, “Don’t be foolish, you’ve got land at Otane; let’s go and make a pottery.” So went out to Otane and looked at the land, and yes, the old cottage was there doing nothing; it was empty. And so what we did – and this is really good kiwi ingenuity – we bought standing timber; we cut that timber down; we bailed out a one-truck cartage firm that had gone bankrupt, and carted that material to Blackhead Station – I think it was Blackhead Station. Anyway, the Thompson’s, I think the name of the firm was – where we cut the trees into planks, and four-by-twos, and twelve-by-twelves, with a six-foot blade spinning in a hole in the ground driven by a tractor. [Chuckles] Well, OSH [Occupational Safety & Health] would’ve had a field day, I can tell you!

Anyway, we built a very fine building which is now a furniture factory, and started Phoenix Potteries.

Phoenix was very, very good to me. Oh, the kiln was so big that you could drive a small car into it; of course you couldn’t, because the door was too small, but what I’m saying … it was that big. [Chuckles] And then started a period of production when we could not fill the demand. We took turns in delivering pots; Auckland was the big market. I well remember going up with … doesn’t matter, a van … full of pots; getting rid of them with King’s Garden Centres, and being handed a $21,000 order to be filled next month. Oh my goodness me! And our friend here said that you know, clay could be very hard on the hands – I’m telling you that my fingers … I could see capillary bleeding where the skin was worn so thin.

And what really saved my bacon later on in the piece, were piglets … little pigs; little plant pots in the shape of pigs. I must’ve made thousands of them – well I know I made thousands – I don’t know how many thousand. And that and bird feeders; every one was different, and it caught the public’s attention and their fancy. I couldn’t make enough of those bloomin’ pigs. So there you are.

And then Peter left and I continued the pottery alone. At one time we were the biggest employers in Otane; there were five on the payroll, it is true, but two were part-time … but that’s by the way. [Chuckles] So I thought, ‘My goodness me’, you know, ‘what am I doing here? This is really fine.’ And then the government in their wisdom said, “Oh, people can import pots without paying any tax on them.” And container loads of pots were coming into the country, being dumped in a carpark and being auctioned off, or sold off, for next to nothing. In three months I’d lost a hundred thousand dollars worth of orders; just cancelled; or, “Oh, well, we don’t need them any more – we can’t sell them against the imports.” And so I paid the staff off and paid the mortgage off, and wound right down until I was rattling around in this great pottery alone.

But I still had some really happy times … very happy; and one of them was Maggie Barry. I was appearing in magazines by this time and then Maggie Barry’s Garden Show came along and said that they’d like to do a film, you know. They came and filmed all day, and I thought, ‘My goodness me, how wonderful!’ And it’s four minutes I think. [Laughter] But I think the film you will find interesting because it just gelled; it just went so well. And the dialogue really says more than I have been able to tell you now, and goodness knows I’ve said enough. So thank you very much; and after this of course, there’s questions. Or I always think it’s best just to mill about, and anybody that has a question can come up and have a chat.

[Film shown – applause]

Thank you very much indeed. Any questions?

Question: Do you still live in New Zealand?

Bob: I never went back. No; as a matter of fact, both the wife and I have been back twice in fifty six years. Constantly told how things have changed back there, and now I’m not sure I want to go back. But I’m no longer young, and I am well aware of my mortality, if you like. Now, yes, I would like to go back, but to be very careful where I go. I’ll go back with blinkers, and I’ll see what I want to see. Yeah, yeah.

Question: As a child I remember going on a field trip – this would be fifty years ago – to Fulford’s Pottery, which was then where Kingsgate sub-division is now, sort of up on the edge of a little stream; and you can still walk up that stream and find little shards of pottery. What period would that have been? Early sixties?

Bob: No, I think you’ll find my love it was in the fifties, and early fifties at that.

Question: But how does that fit in with the Fulford’s being

Bob: That was where the Fulford Havelock experience started. That was the very first place, and that’s where they had trouble with water, and so they went to Joll Road.

Question: I’m indirectly related to the Eaves. I’m just wondering where was their pottery place?

Bob: Busby Hill. I think they had five acres or maybe more there. One of their sheds, one of their drying sheds covered one acre. It was big, very big. There is ten pages of memories of the Eaves family which the archivist has – it really makes very interesting reading.

Question: The Hoffmann kiln in Hyderabad Road – whereabouts was that actually located?

Bob: Well when you’re driving round to the port, there is a fence; and what’s there now I’m not at all sure, but there used to be a … building materials. And that was the actual back of where they actually excavated the material to make the bricks. And the kiln was in front. Now, it would be where the road is. Fascinating, the Hoffmann Kiln; those people that don’t know what it is, it is a tunnel in a circle. And the tunnel is divided into little chambers, if you like. Now I have never seen these chambers as permanent walls. At Hartnell they use a tough, brown paper, and they put in the raw brick which had dried, and then they taped it up and blocked off the face of the brick with brown paper. And when they had half-a-dozen chambers full they would start a fire, and that fire would work through the tunnel, chamber by chamber. So one set of men were unloading bricks, hot, from one end, and another team of men were putting dried bricks in front of the fire. And of course it never stopped, day and night … round and round.

Question: Two things – the Hoffmann kiln in Napier is just about where the Shell Service Station is now. And the other thing is, when Esther and I first started potting we went out to see Hughie Fulford and get some clay. And he must’ve heard us coming, and we went round the corner of the building … here he was flat out in a wheelbarrow. And we thought, ‘Oh God, he’s dying!’ [Laughter] He was having us on.

Bob: That was Hughie. Yeah, yeah.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. [Applause]

Closing address: Bob, thank you very much indeed; as always a very enjoyable, entertaining speech. When it came time to fundraise to build the library in Havelock North we decided we were going to have a medieval dinner, and Bob very kindly came to the party and made goblets, and pitchers, and bowls, and all sorts of things; so thank you very much indeed, Bob.

Bob: Well it was my pleasure. And furthermore, I think I came in a full suit of armour. [Laughter]

Closer: I think you did. [Laughter]

Bob: You can never be too careful. [Laughter] Thank you very much.

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Duart House Talk 15/7/2009


  • Robert Huck

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