Heart of clay

Benhar factory, showing the bottle kilns in front built for fine work. Photos by Rachel Taylor...
Benhar factory, showing the bottle kilns in front built for fine work. Photos by Rachel Taylor and courtesy of South Otago Museum.
The quiet town of Benhar today.
The quiet town of Benhar today.
Making toilets in the 1950s.
Making toilets in the 1950s.
The kiln and landmark chimney still stand.
The kiln and landmark chimney still stand.

Twenty years on from a fire that spelt the end for the historic McSkimming factory, there is no doubt the town of Benhar, a few kilometres north of Balclutha, has seen better days. But some things still stand, such as pride and that enormous chimney. Shane Gilchrist reports.

People call John Posthumus the "Mayor of Benhar", not because he represents any constituency but because he has a pride for the place.

Actually, it's more than pride.

"I love Benhar," the 46-year roading contractor says.

"I collect pottery.

"Anything about Benhar.

"I've got the 'Benhar Bible' in front of me, a scrapbook."

Yet despite his passion, Mr Posthumus is a realist.

He knows the township just north of Balclutha has had its better days, like when his parents first moved there in the 1950s, a time when Benhar was dubbed "little Amsterdam" in reference to the many Dutch migrants who came to work at the McSkimming factory, making sanitary ware.

"Benhar was the capital of the toilet manufacturers," boasts Mr Posthumus, who in 2005 returned to the town he first lived in back in the 1960s.

"People used to ask Dad what he did for a living.

"He'd always reply: 'I make s ... houses'."

There have been times when the proverbial has hit the fan.

In the 1980s, Benhar was called "blood city", reflecting a time when cheap rents brought a few "undesirables", Mr Posthumus says.

"There were a lot of rental properties, you see.

"Now people are starting to own their own homes.

"And they are good homes; they are double brick, warm.

"There are not many empty houses.

"There are no abandoned houses.

"There are a few people wanting to move.

"It's lying stagnant.

"People over the hill, in Balclutha, keep saying, 'it's going to have its day'.

"Well, I'm sorry - it has had its day," Mr Posthumus says.

"The community feeling has gone.

"People have lost interest and shifted away.

"But it is still a beautiful place.

"People like it because it is quiet. It is rural, very different.

"My parents told me that family life in the 1950s was great.

"There was the old barter system and it was thriving.

"Now, society has changed.

"People don't want to know their neighbours. But we are always friendly to everyone.

"I'll say 'gidday, how's it going'.

"You might not see them again for two months.

"If anyone rang up and said there was a problem, we'd shoot down and still help our neighbours."

Gary Ross, curator of the South Otago Museum, also lived at Benhar for a time as a small child.

The house in which he played was humble, like many in the town.

He recalls one of the reasons his parents moved was because of a rodent problem.

Yet rats and mice aren't the worst thing to befall Benhar.

In the small hours of February 18, 1990, a fire began in a brick building that had stood for more than a century.

When firefighters arrived they initially couldn't see the blaze for the night's fog.

By morning, the future was equally gloomy for the 50-odd people employed in the Fowler Bathroom Products factory.

Fowler's general manager, Stephen Antunovich, told workers the company had three options: to rebuild at Benhar, to rebuild on a different site or to close.

At the time, it was evident that the importing of cheap Asian bathroom products would work against rebuilding the factory on the site.

Thus on April 26, 1990, the company announced the factory would not be rebuilt at Benhar but would be relocated to Auckland (and eventually Australia), ending the town's long association with the ceramic industry.

Benhar was an industrial village for 126 years and an essential part of the economy of South Otago.

Though it is better known as the home of the McSkimming Pottery Works, it initially was the base for the Benhar Coal Company, set up in 1864 by John Nelson.

The company sold lignite coal to local industries requiring steam power.

After 12 years of coal production, Nelson decided to exploit the abundance of quality clay in the district and opened a pipe factory in 1876.

By the early 1890s, the factory had diversified into bricks, tiles and even garden vases.

Among the workers at Nelson's factory were brickmakers Peter McSkimming and his son, also Peter.

It is understood they bought out Nelson, a deal which led to acrimony between the parties (Nelson subsequently refused to attend the same church as the McSkimming family).

By 1894 the McSkimming family owned the factory outright.

Peter McSkimming expanded the business and the village.

He sent representatives to the United Kingdom to learn better production methods.

Among the company ambassadors was his son-in-law Parker McKinlay, who was responsible for the introduction of sanitary ware to Benhar in 1907.

In the early 1920s, McKinlay made a second trip to England, studying ceramics at Stoke-on-Trent and employing Thomas Lovatt to work at Benhar.

Lovatt introduced international methods and practices that resulted in an era of quality domestic wares including mixing bowls, feet warmers and teapots.

Within a few years Benhar had eight muffle kilns, three bottle kilns, used 10,000 tons of coal a year and drew its clay from a 200ha area.

By the 1930s Lovatt had moved on and production again focused on bricks, pipes and sanitary ware.

The Great Depression affected the industry but any downturn was offset by the demands of World War 2.

McSkimming, registering as an essential industry due to import restrictions, produced ceramic electric jugs, pudding basins and even cups and saucers for the military.

Although some of those items are of greater interest to collectors, it was sanitary ware that fuelled the rise of the business from a small pipe factory to one of the largest pottery manufacturers in the South Island, one that had interests in Dunedin and Invercargill.

Benhar has been described as a "feudal village".

This is, in part, due to the strict Presbyterian values of the McSkimming family.

For example: in 1894, Peter McSkimming built the large Hoffman kiln (for which Benhar is best known).

However, he would not allow work on Sundays and the underutilised kiln was eventually converted into a boilerhouse, which it remained until the mid-1980s.

That kiln and its landmark chimney remain to this day, largely thanks to the efforts of residents and protesters, who in 1992 formed a human chain around the chimney to prevent a developer's attempts to demolish it.

The Clutha District Council subsequently prosecuted the developer, who was fined $56,500 for breaching consent, a decision celebrated by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, which secured a protection order for the structure.

In 2005, Wanganui potter Ross Mitchell-Anyon bought the historic 4430sq m property, including the kiln, office building and storage sheds, for an undisclosed sum.

His intention was to revamp the Hoffman kiln, creating a residence for ceramic artists and other craftspeople.

However, in an interview this week, Mr Mitchell-Anyon conceded, "the plans are somewhat slow". Discouraged by a recent spate of burglaries and damage and "the tyranny of distance", he hopes to gift the kiln structure to a local trust.

"As long as that trust is formed, I can be confident that the kiln will be preserved, protected and utilised in some way.

"I own buildings in Wanganui, a town that has suffered its share of economic hardship.

"I bought some buildings, did them up.

"That's where I made enough money to buy Benhar," Mr Mitchell-Anyon explains.

"I'm not a rich person.

"I did it out of a passion for it.

"My love for it is all very well, but I'm too far away.

"It's really a two-day journey in a van.

"I had hoped that would work.

"I love the place dearly.

"I really believe, passionately, that the kiln, the context it is in - the feudal village - is a unique site of national importance.

"Certainly, it is of tremendous importance to the Clutha district," Mr Mitchell-Anyon says.

"I think people take it for granted, that people think it will always be there.

"It was at risk and still is."

Mr Posthumus agrees: "It's still a great structure but nothing is happening with it.

It'd be nice if someone put Benhar back on the map.

"I've always said to people that, being a Dutchman, when I pop my clogs it is going to be in Benhar.

"It's home."


Benhar key dates

1864 John Nelson opens Benhar Coal Company.
1882 Peter McSkimming and son employed at Benhar Pottery.
1894 McSkimming family takes over Benhar Pottery.
1907 Parker McKinlay goes on first UK trip.
1922 Parker McKinlay studies at Stoke-on-Trent.
1922-25 Thomas Lovatt develops domestic ware.
1980 Ceramco takes over McSkimming.
1987 James Hardy (Fowlers) takes over business.
1990 Factory is destroyed by fire and relocated to Auckland, then Australia.


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