W.E. Wilkes Ltd
Builders in Richmond for 90 Years
The firm of W.E. Wilkes is synonymous with house building in Richmond but it all began in a much smaller way - with coffins. In 1890 William E. Wilkes established an undertaking business at his home on the site of today’s Tasman District Council’s offices. This expanded into general joinery manufacture and when the Plough Inn across the road closed in 1898 William purchased five acres from Mrs Windleburn for 800 pounds. He used the Inn for offices until 1925 when it was demolished and new premises were built on site. After seven years as mayor of Richmond, he retired in 1928 and his sons Howard and Gilbert took over the management of the business.
During the depression years the firm managed to keep in business by downsizing the workforce and having employees working one week on and two weeks off. However, when war came the firm had more work than it could handle. 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.
One group of workers had a lucky escape from disaster at about 3.00pm on June 23rd, 1942, when a Bofors 20mm Anti- Aircraft gun was accidentally fired from Nelson Airport. One of the live shells hit the Richmond yard right by the smoko room making a hole about 6 feet deep only 10 minutes after the men had been having their afternoon break in the same area.
The firm 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 but they enjoyed contracts as far afield as Maud and Stephens Island, the Howard Valley and Tadmor.
It was in the 1950’s after World War II that 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. He was also generous with his time as a member of several local committees: Rotary, YMCA, the A. and P. Association and served in local government for 20 years beginning in October 1974 as a member of the Richmond Borough Council (acting in the capacity of Deputy Mayor for some time) and then in the Tasman District Council until his death in August 1994. He was regarded as a man of integrity, straightforward and honest in his dealings with the public.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s 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 building 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 to King St in the south were built by the company. There may have been a similarity in their design (the area was known by some as “Wilkesville”), but they were soundly built and above all affordable by most people.
The firm was always looking ahead to secure their timber supplies. Seeing that radiata pine was going to be the timber of the future, land was purchased on the Belgrove side of Spooner’s Range and 500 hectares planted out from 1960 to 1970. Land was also purchased in Aniseed Valley and 800 hectares planted between 1971 and 1975.
W. E. Wilkes had always been a family business with employees being 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.
It is no exaggeration to say that Richmond is the town that W.E. Wilkes built.
W.E. Wilkes Ltd. Timeline
- 1890 William E. Wilkes establishes a building and undertaking business at his home on site of today’s Tasman District Council. Later expands into joinery manufacture
- 1908 purchases the old Plough Inn (closed in 1898) and 5 acres from Mrs Windleburn for 800 pounds situated across the road from his home and workshop. Uses the Inn for offices until 1925 when it is demolished and new premises built on site
- 1917-23 elected Mayor of Richmond
- 1928 W. E. Wilkes retires. Sons Howard and Gilbert take over management of the business
- 1950 Undertaking section sold to Shone and Co. of Nelson
- Howard and Gilbert retire. Sons William (Bill) and Ross continue as managers
- 1955 Bill Wilkes appointed Managing Director
- 1960’s -1970’s W.E. Wilkes Ltd is the major construction company of residential houses in Richmond Borough building an unprecedented number of new houses
- 1963 Wilkes Construction incorporated
- 1980 the company is bought by Odlins. Building section retained under the management of John Wilkes - great grandson of founder.
- 2011 Wilkes Construction winds up.
Sources used in this story
- Private collection of material belonging to Rob Packer.
- William Wilkes [online image]. (c1917-1923). Retrieved March 3, 2018 from
- Richmond Borough Council. (1974-1989). Minutes of the Richmond Borough Council.
- Tasman District Council. (1989-1994). Minutes of the Tasman District Council.
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Further sources - W.E. Wilkes Ltd
- Goodger, K. (2011, March 16). Wilkes winds up with 20 jobs lost. Nelson Mail. Retrieved from
- Wilkes, W. E. (Bill). (1984, October 5). Interview with Les Slater. [Transcript of tape recording]. Richmond Oral History Project, Richmond Borough Council. Richmond, New Zealand: p.3.
- The Wilkes Shell Incident. Tasman District Council Archives on Tasman Heritage.