Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyJune 25, 2022

The incredible story of the missing egg cup

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Aucklander Johnny Green is 92 years old and owns 11,000 egg cups. But there’s one he’s still missing – and he needs your help to find it.

It is an unspoken rule of journalism in Aotearoa that a media outlet must do a story about egg cup collector, or pocillovist, Johnny Green at least once a year. Visiting his New Windsor house on a drab Thursday afternoon to carry out The Spinoff’s 2022 contribution to the Johnny Green beat, it is immediately clear why the 92 year-old has become a media darling. Shuffling at an alarmingly fast pace past the vintage teddy bears and giant replica ships lining his home, Green stops, produces a dusty trombone from absolutely nowhere and gives it a delightful toot. 

“There’s never a dull moment here,” he cackles. “Oh, I must tell you a joke. I went to the hospice shop in Glen Eden on Wednesday and I bought three big balls for the kids to play with. I walked up to the counter with them and there was a lady standing there being served. She said ‘you’ve got a lots of balls’ and I said ‘would you mind rephrasing that!’ I tell you, I had the whole store in stitches.” He places the trombone back behind a grey rocking horse. “This is one of my favourite things by the way,” he says, stroking the mane. “You won’t get anything like this today.” 

Johnny Green is passionate about the myriad of objects he displays proudly within his and wife Jeanette’s home. These include (but are by no means limited to) a clock featuring 90s stock images of coffee mugs that he found on the side of the road – “it’s a beautiful clock, it’s absolutely amazing, they just threw it away” – a Mickey Mouse blanket that he recently picked up from the gutter outside LynnMall – “imagine, a kid could dress up in this and become Mickey Mouse!” – and countless vintage soft toys – “Terry the Teddy, Harry the Hedgehog. We name everything”. 

Johnny Green with a truly minuscule fraction of his egg cup collection. (Photo: Alex Casey)

But none of these collectables compare to Green’s egg cups, of which he has over 11,000 and counting. The very first egg cup he ever owned was given to him by his mother at home in London for Easter of 1939. It featured three ceramic chicks, had a lustrous, opalescent glaze, and contained a single chocolate Easter egg which Green promptly devoured. He continued to use the egg cup as a young lad, distinctly recalling his mother regularly making a boiled egg and toast soldiers for his breakfast. “I would eat it, and then I would turn the empty eggshell upside down and say ‘Mum I don’t like this’ and she would say ‘sorry Johnny, that’s all I’ve got!’”

He chokes up recalling the childhood memory, more than 80 years on. “I can shut my eyes and see her doing it now,” he says, tears welling behind his glasses. “I tell you, I can still see her saying it.” 

Green’s mother, who threw her body over him as protection during the Blitz and hurried their young family into bomb shelters, died of cancer just two years later, in 1941. His father put him and his sibling in an orphanage that same year, and Green never saw him again. “He just walked away from us. I was 11 years old.” His only possessions were a lead train set, some toy soldiers, and his mother’s Easter egg cup, which he believes he initialled ‘JG’ on the base. 

When he left the orphanage in 1944 at the age of 14, he had to leave his toys for the rest of the kids. The only belonging he had left of his mother was that one Easter egg cup. 

Johnny and his Mum and a replica of the Easter egg cup. Photo: Alex Casey

For the next few decades, Green lived an extraordinary life, and the egg cup was there through it all. He had it when he began working as an apprentice chef at the Barkley Hotel in London, where his Spanish omelette became a weekly favourite of one Princess Margaret. He had it in his luggage when joined the British Army as a cook, and travelled to Hong Kong, Japan, Egypt, Singapore, Malaysia and Korea to prepare meals “for one thousand men”. In the 1950s, he read an ad in the paper calling for ex-British Army officers to emigrate to New Zealand. “I went to the library and swotted up on New Zealand and I thought ‘no snakes – that will suit me!’” 

The egg cup came on that journey with Green and his young family to New Zealand, one which took roughly six weeks by boat. When he made it to our shores, his colourful life story reached Hollywood-movie-rights-optioning status. Given his army background, he was invited to attend military training in Waiouru, but was paralysed from the waist down during a foxhole drill and was in a wheelchair for two years. As he worked on his physical recovery at home, his wife left him for a man she had met on the boat to New Zealand. 

“That just sent me round the bend,” Green explains. “I already blamed myself for the death of my mum for a long time, and when my wife disappeared I blamed myself again – maybe if I hadn’t brought us out to New Zealand, if I hadn’t got sick, we might still be married.” His mental health declined and he eventually found himself in isolation in Oakley, also known as the Whau Lunatic Asylum, after a violent outburst in a central city cafe. “I woke up in a bloody cell painted green, on a plain plank of wood, no clothes on, absolutely naked, and I just thought ‘what have I done?’”

A replica of the egg cup that was there through it all. Photo: Alex Casey

He was released a week later, and started getting on with the next phase of his life. He got back his body strength with bricklaying work, eventually becoming the site foreman. Then he stumbled across wrestling and became a coach and then a referee, travelling to two Commonwealth Games in Jamaica and Scotland with the New Zealand team. He met someone new, a woman named Jeanette, and they began teaching community dance classes, something that they continued to do until the pandemic hit in 2020. 

Among all these other pursuits, another obsession was quietly born. Not long after he arrived in New Zealand in the 1950s, Green walked into a second hand store in Point Chevalier and found an exact replica of his Easter egg cup, which he quickly snapped up for a sixpence. His egg cup collection now stood at two, and it quickly grew from there. “That’s what started me off and I’ve never stopped since. It’s very emotional, every egg cup reminds me of my mum.”

Picking up egg cups in op shops, garage sales and auctions, his collection blossomed into hundreds, then thousands. Some of his most coveted pieces include a pair of cherubic cups from the 1850s that made it all the way to Antiques Roadshow, and a rather rude figure with swinging ceramic bosoms that says “chaste not waste” on her torso. He started to display his collection in local shopping centres and museums, attracting big crowds with his stunning array of Crown Lynn animals, vintage Disney characters and historical figure egg cups. 

In every display, his mother’s Easter egg cup would be on a special plinth, pride of place in the middle of the collection as the piece that started it all. 

That all changed one afternoon in 2000 at the Thames Shopping Centre. Green had been unpacking his egg cups in the mall when a person approached him inquiring about his mother’s egg cup. When Green turned around to find it, he immediately saw that it had been stolen. “The emotions kicked in straight away and I just started crying and crying and crying,” he recalls. “That was the only thing I had left of my mother.” He remembers a woman and her child lurking around the stall prior to the cup’s disappearance, but can’t remember any identifying details beyond that. 

The newspaper article from 2000. Photo: Alex Casey

A few days later, the disappearance made the pages of the Hauraki Herald. “The cup features a mother hen and two yellow chicks playing in grass, and has little monetary value,” the article read. “Any other egg cup on show I wouldn’t have bothered with,” Green told the Herald at the time, “but this one was special – it is a loved possession.” The article ends with an appeal from Green to the culprit to return the egg cup, in exchange for any other cup from his collection. 

Now, 22 years later, Green’s collection has grown to over 11,000, but his mother’s Easter egg cup, the one given to him in 1939 with two yellow chicks that possibly still has his initials JG written on the base, is still missing. “It’s somewhere out there,” he says. “I would probably burst into tears if it came back to me. No questions asked, no flipping combat. It’s the most important thing in my life.”

His wife Jeanette interjects from across the lounge: “Don’t mind me!” Green laughs. “Sorry, it is the second most important thing in my life.” He says the chances of getting the right egg cup back to him would be about “a million to one – but it is still a chance.” 

Inside Johnny’s Mobile Egg Cup World. (Photos: Alex Casey)

Most weekends these days, 92-year-old Green can be found out and about at various markets and fairs across Auckland in his latest investment – a kitted-out “Johnny’s Mobile Egg Cup World” truck displaying thousands of his most interesting pieces. “I thought I might as well buy a big truck and put them in that and drive around the markets,” he explains. “We’ve got a roof over our head, we’ve got three meals a day, we don’t need any more money.” 

Before entering Johnny’s Mobile Egg Cup World, people are invited to give a donation to the Hospice. Green proudly shakes the locked plastic money box, stuffed with $20 and $10 notes and plenty of gold coins. “That’s just from one day at the markets last weekend,” he grins. After experiencing the joys of Egg Cup World, guests are invited to sign the visitors’ book, and join the pages and pages of kids and adults alike singing the praises of Green’s infectious enthusiasm. “Inspirational,” wrote one person. “Beautiful man, beautiful commitment,” wrote another.

As I leave Green’s wonderful world he insists on walking me to my Uber and opening the door. On the way out, he stops at the mailbox – a small parcel from Trade Me has arrived and, surprise, surprise, it’s two more egg cups. Each one unique, each one bringing him closer to his mother, but neither one the precious egg cup he lost 22 years ago. He tears through the plastic packaging excitedly. “Look at that,” he says, holding up a horse-shaped egg cup against the drizzly grey sky.

“That’s just brilliant.” 

Have you seen Johnny Green’s egg cup? Do you want to donate any of your egg cups to Johnny Green? Do you have any other egg cup-related insights? Get in touch: alex@thespinoff.co.nz

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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