Scrabbling in the Dirt

The majority of the Portage Ceramics Trust’s Crown Lynn collection came from the purchase of a private collection from Richard Quinn. He obtained the diverse collection of ceramics, moulds, archives and other items from a variety of sources, including directly from the Crown Lynn factory in its closing down days.

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Richard Quinn was more than a Crown Lynn enthusiast, he was passionate about saving an important part of our modern history. He spent thousands of hours digging in the old sites of the works. The following are excerpts from a handwritten piece of prose in our archive, entitled ‘Scrabbling in the Dirt’, which was the description of his activities by his wife Jenny.

“Nothing else I have done in my CL work has been as hard as the digging I have done on several different Crown Lynn dump sites over the past 13 years – and the work still goes on. Nor has any other part of my CL work been such fun. Nor, I think, as historically valuable as the digging has been. If it began not quite by accident, it did begin without my having any idea of the years it would ultimately consume. The following shows how it started and gives my opinion on the value I accord to some of my finds, and why.

CL’s tunnel kiln shut down forever on 2 June 1989. Cars in the kiln then ground to a halt as no further cars were placed at the entrance end of the kiln to be steadily pushed into it by the big hydraulic ram with its 8 stroke. (The abandoned bisque ware in the kiln provided rich pickings!)

From June 2 on, the remaining kilns (the Prouties, the Shelley, the Mino and the deco room kilns, each in their own turn were shut down as the last wares were glazed and decorated. Some weeks passed before this progressive event finished, but the date of death on CL’s death certificate is June 2, 1989.
After CL’s death, most of its buildings were to be demolished, but three were to remain. …

These widely separated buildings all needed to be supplied with new independent power and water supplies as the main feeder lines were cut off in the pottery buildings. As machines dug trenches for the new lines, they turned up long-buried sherds. I began to see possibilities for increasing my knowledge by way of digging, for that is what I have done: not archaeology, just digging.


By early 1991 I had dug a wide variety of early floor tiles and insulators and decided that it was time to talk to Tom Clark about them. A meeting was arranged at Ceramco House in Fort St, downtown Auckland, in Feb ’91. TC was ‘tickled pink’ to see his early products spread out before his eyes. He asked me for a small (4’’ sq.) vitraflor floor tile.

I was very pleased by his response, and, indicating the early products which led to him ultimately becoming a knight on the tiles, asked him which of them – round, hex, or square, had been the first tile he had made. He looked them over and said “None of them. The first tile I ever made and sold was a 9’’ x 4’’ tile for Hellaby’s meatworks.”
What chagrin I felt! Over the ensuing years many museologists, archaeologists and assorted academics expressed admiration at the collection of floor tiles stored in my garage. Any pride I felt was overwhelmed by recalling (privately), that I did not have his first tile. This frustrating state of affairs continued until Feb. 16, 2000, when, at a construction site in Rankin Ave, New Lynn, I dug a fused mass of creamy-gray 9’’ x 4’’ tiles!


For several years I had no car, all my finds were carried home in bags – both in my hands and slung over my shoulders like a swagman. I must have made an odd sight; I just didn’t care. If all I could do was dig, then I’d dig; and that meant getting my ‘treasures’ home. Many times I made 10 or more trips carrying everything home and was exhausted by the time I had finished – often at 11pm or later. My wife thought I was mad and made the comment that heads this chapter.”

Scrabbling in the Dirt summarises Quinn’s favourite discoveries including shards of a pot signed by Briar Gardner. While Quinn uncovered hundreds if not thousands of treasures in his diggings, many thousands more are still sitting in layers under New Lynn.