The Town that Wilkes Built and a Lucky Escape from Friendly Fire

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Richmond - the town that Wilkes Built

The firm of W.E Wilkes is synonymous with house building in Richmond. The company built many of the major buildings in Richmond and at one time built an average of a house a week. However, it all began in a much smaller way – with coffins. In 1890, William Edward Wilkes established an undertaking business at his home on the site of today’s Tasman District Council office.

William Wilkes. Photo from the Tasman District Council Archives.

William Wilkes. Photo from the Tasman District Council Archives.

This expanded into general joinery manufacture and when the Plough Inn across the road closed in 1898, William purchased the property. He used the Inn for offices until 1925 when it was demolished and new premises were built on site. William was the Mayor of Richmond for seven years. He retired in 1928 and his sons Howard and Gilbert took over the management of the business.

The war years

During the Depression the firm managed to stay afloat by downsizing the workforce and having employees work one week on and two weeks off. However, when World War II came the firm had more work than it could handle. The Government directed builders in the district to work at the Wilkes yard constructing pre-fabricated buildings which, when built, would be disassembled and flat packed for transportation.

W.E. Wilkes built many of the major buildings in Richmond both before and after the war: The Methodist Church, the Town Hall, the old Bank of New Zealand, the Doctor’s Surgery in Cambridge Street, Salisbury Girls’ School and Richmond Drapery to name a few. They also enjoyed contracts as far afield as Maud and Stephens Island, the Howard Valley and Tadmor.

A building boom

In the 1950s, house construction in Richmond began to rapidly expand. A new generation of Wilkes sons, Bill and Ross (sons of Howard and Gilbert), now headed the business, with Bill being appointed managing director in 1955. His daughter, Margaret, remembers him as a kind and generous man whose deals were settled with a handshake and arrangements for flexible payments tailored to the income of the purchaser.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, W.E. Wilkes became  the major construction company of residential houses in Richmond Borough, building an unprecedented number of new houses. The firm at this time employed 120 people and built an average of one house a week. Most of the houses in a block  from the main road east to Wensley Road, Waverley St in the north and to King St in the south, were built by the company. There may have been a similarity in their design but they were soundly built and, above all, affordable to most people.

Changing fortunes

W.E. Wilkes had always been a family business, with employees treated like members of the family. Eventually, however, the growth of national firms with bigger resources and buying power made the viability of a locally based company more difficult. In 1980 the company was sold to Odlins but the building section was retained under the management of John Wilkes – great grandson of the founder.

In 2014, Wilkes Construction was wound up in the midst of a national construction downturn.

Lucky Escape from Friendly Fire 

A group of workers had a close shave with disaster about 2.30 pm on 23 June 1942, when gunners practising at the Nelson Aerodrome  accidentally fired a live round that hit the Wilkes timber yard. One of the shells from a Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun hit the Richmond yard – not half an hour after the men had been having their afternoon break in the same area.  

Les Kerr recalled: “We’d been sitting outside in the sun, outside the boiler-house, for smoko, and we’d gone back in. Then it landed. Right outside the boiler-house where we’d been sitting. A sudden loud bang and a lot of broken glass, and pieces of glass and metal over quite a big area. It made a hole in the ground about the size of a wheelbarrow.”

The accident happened when No. 1 section of the 91st Composite AA Battery, New Zealand Army, was carrying out target practice at the Aerodrome, aiming at a plane overhead.

“One chap called out the elevation and range and all the rest, and the fellows on the guns aimed. It was just practice at getting the aircraft in the sights really. But all hell broke loose when the gun fired and tracers and all went streaming up into the air.” Roy Savage, Kete Tasman

“The pilot of the plane got a terrible shock. He came straight back down, in a hell of a hurry, and he said to the gun crew that if they did that again he’d open up, open fire on them.” T.J Reilly, Kete Tasman

A military Court of Enquiry into the incident was held on 30 June. It determined safety precautions had not been followed and blamed the accident on an “excess of zeal” on the part of the Detachment Commander.

Text taken from The Town that Wilkes Built and a Lucky Escape from friendly Fire - Queen Street Heritage Board 2018

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