At the bottom of his West Auckland garden, Johnny Green stands outside a large shed and quips to the Weekly team that what’s inside will either make us go “Wow!” or think he’s “completely stupid”.
The charming 93-year-old needn’t have worried. Everyone is gobsmacked as the shed reveals a magnificent mini museum of around 8000 egg cups. It’s, well, quite the eggs-perience! In fact, Johnny has a collection of more than 11,000.
“And I just bought another one last weekend!” he remarks.
It all began in 1939, on the cusp of World War II, when his mother Emily bought him an egg cup for Easter, featuring three yellow ceramic chicks with a single chocolate egg.
At the time, British-born Johnny was nine and living in Edgware, north of London, with his four sisters and younger brother.
“It was the Depression, so I don’t remember ever getting presents. We were lucky if we got an orange for Christmas! So the egg cup was the only gift Mum ever bought me,” he shares, adding the thoughtful gift meant everything to him.
“She died of cancer two years later, aged 41. My father put us in an orphanage and I never saw him again.”
At 14, when Johnny left Barnardo’s (a British charity that cared for vulnerable children), he took his special egg cup with him as he began a new life as an apprentice chef – a role that led him to cook for royalty!
“I started working at The Berkeley hotel in London because I had got on very well with the cook in my last Barnardo’s home, who taught me all the basics like how to make bread, cakes and jam.
“One day, the soup cook at Berkeley said to me, ‘Boy, we’ve got a special lady coming in today, I’ve taught you how to make a Spanish omelette and you’re going to make one for her.’ I replied, ‘Yes chef.'”
It was just after World War II and a 16-year-old Princess Margaret had come into lunch with her beau Peter Townsend.
“She then started coming in weekly to eat with him. I was 16 too and I always had to make the omelette. One day, the maître de came down to the kitchen and told me to go with her to meet someone. I was given two instructions: ‘Call her Madam and keep your mouth shut.’
“The maître de then walks over to Princess Margaret and says ‘Madam, this is the boy who makes your omelette.’ She said to me, ‘They’re always perfect, thank you very much.’ Then I was steered away very quickly. It was amazing.”
Next joining the British Army as a cook, Johnny travelled to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Korea, carrying his precious egg cup in his backpack. “When I had my own little room, it was always on my bedside table.”
Then the egg cup joined Johnny, his wife at the time and two young sons on the six-week voyage to Auckland after he saw a newspaper ad calling for ex-British Army officers to immigrate to New Zealand.
Their marriage didn’t last and sadly his cherished egg cup was also stolen.
But one day, while the single father was visiting a second-hand store in Auckland suburb Point Chevalier, he found an egg cup almost identical to his childhood treasure. With that purchase, his collection began.
These days, he keeps his best ones in a display cabinet in the lounge of his home, which he shares with his partner of 34 years, Jeanette.
They met ballroom dancing and she collects vintage SylvaC pottery, so the couple often competes for shelf space.
“Johnny doesn’t drink or smoke, so I don’t mind him buying egg cups,” smiles Jeanette, 83.
One of his favourites is of a cherub that was made in 1850, when Queen Victoria was on the throne.
“Jeanette and I took it – along with Charlie Chaplin and my Seven Dwarves egg cups to the Antiques Roadshow in Manchester, England. We queued up from 5am and ended up being interviewed on the BBC Breakfast programme too.”
In recent years, Johnny decided to dedicate the rest of his life to fundraising for Hospice, driving a selection of his precious collection to display at weekend markets around Auckland.
He lost both his sisters to cancer, who were cared for by hospice services in the UK.
The spry grandfather-of-seven and great-grandfather-of-12, who insists age is all in your “attitude”, estimates he’s raised around $4000 from people putting a gold coin in his donation box.
“When kids come and look at my collection and give their pocket money to the Hospice box or write in my visitor’s book that I’m ‘inspirational’, it just about makes me cry.”