HOFFMAN COMPANY: Producers of Melrose Ware Australia

1. Hoffman Brick and Potteries Limited, photograph, c 1900–1930. - Presented by Mr Washington Solly | State Library Victoria

The Hoffman Brick and Potteries Limited is known during the 1930s to be one of the largest businesses in Melbourne. Producing a variety of decorative wares known as “Melrose Australian Ware”, Hoffman’s work stood out with its unique blue and green glaze that matches its applied Australian fauna, with gum nuts and leaves. The Hoffman Pottery lasted until the 1960s when it closed.

Hoffman history

former Hoffman brickworks, Dawson St., Brunswick, side view & chimney – Photo by Heritage Council of Victoria

The Hoffman Company was established in 1870 for the mass production of bricks using the Hoffman patent kiln, and the Bradley and Craven brick press. As soon as the company was established, it entered a period of expansion, which was mostly influenced by Melbourne’s building boom between 1870 and 1890. Hoffman erected 5 kilns and also a Foster kiln. About ten brick machines were also in operation, producing around 18,000 bricks per hour. The extensive pottery works already established now supplies mainly tiles and drain pipes, and with time, domestic pottery was now included in the company’s Melrose ware. The company also owned a locomotive to shunt the works siding, which connected with the Victorian Railways at South Brunswick. By 1890, Hoffman has grown to become the largest brick and pottery works in Victoria.

Depression/War Production decline

The 1890s depression stopped the company’s further expansion. The company joined the Brick Co-operative which was formed in 1896. This Co-operative regulated the prices and output of its members’ brickworks. As soon as the depression ended, business picked up again and the plants began expanding their pottery production, especially domestic wares. The brickworks, however, never got back its momentum and performance was not as good as was earlier. The 1920s and 1930s were also marked by a slow pace of work, and production reached the lowest of all times during the Second World War. The No.1 works were sold, while the brickworks at No.2 was closed for repairs for the eighteen months that followed.

Expansion and Mergers

Marked Australian Pottery Melrose Ware Bowl to base – Photo by The Merchant of Welby

In around 1932, the Hoffman Brick Company in Melbourne expanded its business interests and bought over a small art-pottery and started marketing some commercial art-pottery that had Australian floral and faunal motifs designed on them. This ware was named ‘Melrose Australian Ware’. Even though those were moulded, they were capable of being mass-produced, as it had some of the qualities required of more expensive handmade pottery. Melrose pottery is usually coloured green, a colour that was loved by many and far beyond the 1930s. It was a fresh breath from the drab browns and ochres of the Depression. Soon enough, other variations were produced to have colours such as white, grey-blue, pink, and other coloured glazes. The major motif employed on the Melrose Australian ware is the Gum leaves. Others are Possums, koalas, kangaroos, and fish, as well as other animals employed on bowls, jugs, vases, and bookends. Melrose Australian Ware continued to be in production until around 1940 when the factors surrounding the war made the production of goods impossible.

Hoffman in the 1960s merged with Clifton Holdings, with the latter taking over the company. Although the pottery works have been closed and sold, they gradually modernized the brickworks and became the framework on which today’s modernised brickworks was built on.

The Pottery Story

Melrose Australian Ware Planter – National Gallery of Victoria

Melrose Art Pottery tells the success story of the Hoffman Company, a Brick, Tile, and Pottery Company that survived the 1930s Depression. Established in 1862, the company which was located in Brunswick was seen to be the largest business of its type in the southern hemisphere. The Melrose Australian wares give a fascinating insight into the socioeconomic history of the era, as well as the Melrose range of pottery that Hoffman produced which has remained economically viable, even in turbulent times. The Melrose styling was largely inspired by the then worldwide modernist movement and the prevailing tastes that reflected in Australian Arts and Crafts Societies all around the country. Melrose Art Pottery showcases the historical, technical, and artistic achievements of the Melrose range of products and its contribution to the commercial pottery industry in Australia.

Melrose Art Pottery Exhibition

Melrose Ware Pottery possum jug – Photo by Antiques Reporter

The Melrose pottery exhibition holds to display the works of Australian pottery, as well as to exemplify the Australian industry as strong enough to withstand the world-wide depression of the 1930s. The Hoffman Brick, Tile and Pottery Company, established in 1862, which become the largest business of its type in the region, was supplying the building industry with bricks, roofing pipes, tiles and sanitary ware, but the depression hit, and they had to turn to the very products that would sell in the situation -flower vases! The business had to keep functioning and key personnel stayed employed until better times arrived. The Hoffman company was also probably the largest employer of labour in the district, and community life in the area often revolved around it. Households set their times using the company’s ‘start and knock off’ sirens and the company organised a holiday for its employees, who were taken to some exotic location or cruises on the bay, all at the company’s expense. Those flower vases now became the range of Melrose pottery that continuously attracted the attention of the new generation of art admirers, not because of domestic use, but because of its designs that heavily borrowed images from the newly found Australian identity of the time. Vessels, such as jugs, vases, and bowls were adorned with Australian gum leaves, gumnuts, and native animals. Although many of the workmen responsible for the Melrose Ware designs were Englishmen (as England was the primary source of trained potters in Australia), the work depicted Australian culture.

Despite this interesting insight into the depression’s social history, it is clearly the pots that are the centre of attraction in the exhibition. They have been the centre of attention in the 1930s to the potters manufacturing them and the buyers alike, and today, the collectors of Australian pottery, whose mission is to acquire them, are even more excited. Significantly, most of the exhibits are gotten from private collectors, with few previously photographed.