The rich history of Morris & James

During the early years of European settlement in Matakana, the local clay was used for brick making. One such small brickworks was located on a site very close to where Morris & James now stands, revealed by the presence of broken bricks and pieces of coal embedded in the riverbank. A contemporary letter from a neighbouring settler reveals the proprietor to have been George Manners and pinpoints the date as 1864. 

A good impression of the probable appearance of this brick works can be gained from the photograph shown below, provided by Val Gunson of Whangarei who was a participant in one of our daily tours of the pottery. It shows the brick works owned by her grandfather Frederick Chell in the village of Apiti in the Manawatu. The horse gin that provided the motive power can be clearly seen. This drove a machine called a “pug mill” which is concealed behind wooden shuttering. The pug mill chopped, mixed and compressed the clay downwards until it emerged from a hole at the bottom. The man standing in the trench would take the pugged clay and force it into a wooden mould to form the brick. The “hack barrows” in the foreground were used to take the bricks to the drying “hacks”, probably under the shingle roofs to the right of the picture. The photograph shows stacks of firewood to be burned in the kiln, but not the kiln itself. This is a pity, because very little is known for certain about how early brick makers in New Zealand fired their products. 

Descendants of the Manners family discovered that George’s father John, who had a brick works in nearby Brick Bay, used a “beehive shaped” kiln of Cornish design, and it is likely that the kiln at Matakana would have been similar. The Cornish connection is understandable, since the copper mines on Kawau Island employed a large number of Cornishmen. Incidentally, the former Medical Officer for the mining company, Dr. Daniel Pollen, also owned a brick works – in Avondale, Auckland. The beehive shape of the kiln is surprising, since most simple brick kilns were rectangular in shape. One explanation could be that the kiln was built of rammed earth instead of bricks. Historian Jack Diamond thought this was the case, since he believed he had found indications of a kiln of this type at Cowan’s Bay on the Mahurangi River. An engineering drawing of such a kiln built in Kent in the 1840’s, is still in existence. George Manners’ brick works was not a commercial success and soon closed down. It is probably significant that the more successful Frederick Chell was primarily a bricklayer and his brickworks allowed him to cut out the middleman. George would have had to sell his bricks to builders merchants in Auckland, where he would have been in competition with larger manufacturers who were already using steam powered machinery. 

The founder of Morris & James Pottery has a story as layered and rich as the many tonnes of Matakana clay he has thrown over the past thirty five years. Anthony (Ant) Morris’ long association with the land began in his youth, working on a family sheep station on the East Coast - Northern Hawke’s Bay. After leaving school, he worked on stations around the South Island, before going on to study agriculture at Lincoln.  Ant decided, that although rewarding, farm work failed to challenge his creative instinct, and he decided to travel ‘around the world’. He took a job driving bulldozers for five months - saving every penny for his journey.

In 1961 after a while teaching in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) City, he hitch-hiked from Bangkok to London.  Clothed only in shorts and sandals (all of his belongings having been stolen in Istanbul), he arrived in the United Kingdom in mid winter; tired and cold and with just seven shillings in his pocket. During the following years he worked on farms around Britain and explored Europe.  Ant got work wherever he was.  His CV makes interesting reading:  Farm Labourer and Manager in England, General handy-man in a centuries old resort in Norway, Circus hand in Texas, Dish washer in Pasadena, Unionised Factory worker in Canada and Carpenter on the Vervoot Dam in South Africa. He travelled how he could; working his passage whenever possible.  He served as a veterinarian on a voyage to Hong Kong and was fourth officer on a Pakistani rice trip travelling Rangoon to Chittagong.

Completing his ‘around the world’ journey, Ant hitch-hiked Africa, and upon reaching South Africa, he found work to raise his air-fare home.The young man’s artistic muscle had begun to develop, and an intrigue with photography and experiences with the people he’d met led him to define his thinking, principles and ideals. Ant arrived back in New Zealand after three years and one day.  He was restless, and after much anguish, decided to head back to South Africa to Study.  He enrolled at Wits in Johannesberg where he also worked as a carpenter to support himself while he studied anthropology for three years.  On completion, he headed back to Britain. 

In 1968 Ant was working as a scaffolder’s labourer when a friend told him he should try potting and introduced him to Robyn Welch.  He found himself drawn into a ‘dance of people working together’ and importantly, one of traditional potting; throwing robust and simple domestic ware for the local community. Welch ran a small but thriving ceramics business from the rural idyll of Stradbroke in Suffolk, East Anglia, where he maintained his own workshop and designed for industry leaders such as Wedgewood. Ant was sure he wanted to become a potter and have his own team like this.  

Whilst working and learning with Robyn, Ant was reminded of a childhood inspiration; a lecture and demonstration he attended in his uncle’s wool shed in Nuhuka, given by acclaimed shearer Godfrey Bowen.  Even at this early age he was fascinated with the efficiency, economy and poetry of this rural art, where actions are refined and stripped back so that only those which contribute to the perfect completion of the job are retained.  These principles were to become an ongoing and central focus for Ant, and continue as strategic objectives in the coming years. In many ways his experience with Robyn set the course for his subsequent business and creative life.  He learnt quickly and within three months, he strode out on his own and set up a workshop in the Smithy at Hoxam. It was then he really started to learn.

Within months of returning to New Zealand in 1977 Ant and his wife Sue James acquired the Tongue Farm Road property, which Ant described as ‘a bit of a shocker: gorse ridden, strewn with rubbish and home to an alarming population of rats’. The property though had substantial clay deposits. Sleeves were rolled up, and Morris & James Pottery was wrestled into life. Concepts of collaborative endeavour, intermediate technologies and a spiritual dimension to the work were key to Ant’s view of the pottery as a vehicle for his creativity and also as an income for his young family. He was clear that he was an artisan, a journeyman, but was not an artist, and at that stage ‘Never an artist!’.   Having trained in Europe, Ant subscribed to the Arts & Crafts Movement, and the use of intermediate technology was commonplace.  His interest was in production of good pottery, not one off studio works.

Ant steered the pottery through boom and bust, and fire and tragedy, challenging straight line thinking, loading and unloading hundreds of kiln cars and in the process, creating the iconic Morris & James ceramic brand. In 2004, as Ant was preparing for his first exhibition of cast glass works, a series of ‘turns’ eventually culminated in a full-blown stroke.  The stroke was devastating, paralyzing his left side, but thankfully leaving him with minor speech impairment.  Not surprisingly, Ant responded with courage and dogged optimism, and with support from his family and close friends, within a year he was making again – in a ‘one-wrong-handed and wrong–footed kind of way’.

Ant celebrated his 70th birthday in 2008. That year, he appointed Kieran Rice as General Manager of Morris & James and subsequently offered the business for sale to Kieran and his partner Deby along with long standing staffers; Mike Rose, Ian Foote, George Steele, Trish Allen and Nick Charlton.  

Ant resides in his original home at Tongue Farm Road, and his presence continues to delight and inspire as he wanders through the pottery on his daily preamble… waving his stick and chatting with staff.

The fascinating and moving life story of Anthony Morris can be read in ‘Mud & Colour Man’, available at the Matakana Pottery.