I have a confession to make. A secret obsession to reveal. I know I am not alone: there are lots of blogs out there devoted to the addiction. All over the web, people are coming together to trade pictures, anecdotes, sources.
I’m just going to have to come out and say it.
I love utility china.*
You probably know what I mean, even if you didn’t know the name: it’s the practical, simple, pastel-coloured tableware produced during and after the Second World War. If you’re my vintage, you might remember it from your grandparents’ kitchen, or maybe from the school staff-room (teachers at my school typically received messages with a pale green Woods Ware cup in hand). It’s redolent of the full-skirted dresses, church fêtes and beach huts. The plates look as if they were designed specifically to have macaroons eaten from them. I can’t get enough of it.
My own personal obsession started with Aunt Edna’s collection. I should probably explain that Aunt Edna wasn’t actually my aunt: she was a friend of my grandparents’, who my mother and uncle had always been encouraged to call “aunt”. You probably have an aunt or two of that type too. We used to visit her a lot in her house near Derby, which hadn’t really changed since the 1930s: it was an inter-war semi-detached, with a tiled hallway, bakelite light switches, and a bathroom with a bath with lion’s paw feet (but an outside toilet). The front room, complete with piano, Aspidistra and art-deco moquette suite, was never used as it was kept for best. In the kitchen, which Aunt Edna always referred to as the scullery, there was a tall press full of all sorts of exciting china, including my very favourite “orange tree” breakfast set, and a complete set of Woods Ware Beryl, one of the most popular types of utility china, which was a pale sage-green colour. We always used it for our lunch and for afternoon tea, and I was, for some reason, fascinated by it. When Aunt Edna died, my uncle inherited the orange tree china, and I angled for the Woods Ware. Unfortunately, my mum, a teacher, had had her fill of school staff-room china and put her foot down.
I always remembered the china, though, and a few years ago I found a basket of very similar cups and saucers on sale outside Ark in Cambridge. They were a beautiful primrose-yellow in a mixture of different makes: mostly Woods Ware Jasmine, with some Meakin’s Glamour Sunflower and Johnson’s Goldendawn thrown in. I tried to resist, but my friend Liz, who I was with at the time, pointed out that you should obviously buy china if it made you squeak with delighted recognition when you saw it. So, the yellow cups and saucers came home with us. They have been used with pride ever since: I’d treat you to a picture, but, post-move, they’re still packed up. Two saucers found their way into another box, though, as you’ll see later.
Although I kept looking, I never found another cache of utility china. That is, until today. This afternoon, Eoinín and I went into Cowbridge again: it was a beautifully sunny, crisp day, and I felt the need for a stroll in the Physic Garden. Afterwards, we headed to Happy Days for tea and Welsh cakes, and I noticed what I had missed on our last visit. Lots and lots of utility china.
As you can see from the picture, it somehow managed to find its way home with us: a stack of desert plates and side plates in Johnson’s Greendawn, three cups and saucers in Woods Ware Beryl, together with a dinner plate and six side plates, and two lovely Beryl custard jugs (large and small). The two errant yellow saucers strayed into the picture too: that’s them, on top of the Greendawn plates. The real pièce de résistance, though, was a Woods Ware coffee pot (Beryl) and tea pot (Iris). You can see them at the back of the picture above, but here they are, in all their glory:
When we got home, I spent a happy half-hour washing my purchases, while Eoin tried to climb bodily into the crumpled newspaper in which they had been wrapped. Stephen came home, shook his head at the sight, and opined to his son that Mammy had gone mad with the china. He can talk: little does he know I’m busy stalking Meakin’s Glamour Rosa on eBay, and I’m fairly sure there might be some blue china of some variety in the Oxfam on St Mary’s St…
*Yes, pun fans, it was a china closet. Don’t fall off your chairs laughing, now!