Book Barons – the Whitcombe & Tomb’s Story

Cashel Street 1883
Whitcombe & Tombs on left, Cashel Street, 1883. This photograph was rescued by staff out of their building prior to demolition after the 2011 earthquakes.
Mr Hawkes Whitcombe, teacher of French at the Lanfanco Academy, Cashel street East.
Lyttelton Times, Volume XLV, Issue 4756, 16 May 1876, Page 1.

New Zealand’s largest and most iconic booksellers, publishers and printing company was Whitcombe & Tombs of Christchurch. It was established in 1882 by Mr. George Hawkes Whitcombe, a seemingly inexperienced man who came to Christchurch to teach French at a private girls school, and his partner Mr. Tomb, a printer. Their company grew to become so successful a large store was opened in every city of New Zealand, as well as stores and offices in Australasia and London.

When George Whitcombe first arrived in New Zealand at the age of 16, he joined the Armed Constabulary and served for a short time in the Wanganui force during the mid 1870s. The rough conditions of police life in Wanganui may not have suited his tastes and he soon made his way to Christchurch where he applied for a quieter position teaching French.

After several years of teaching, Whitcombe managed to accumulate enough finance to venture into business. Several attempts with different partners included a small shop with Mr. H. A. Templeton (Whitcombe, Templeton and Co., dissolved in 1878) in Market Square (now Victorial Square). Later he partnered with former Hokitika based bookseller and stationer Mr. John Crerar in a shop on Colombo Street in what was the Hereford Hotel building, later to become the United Services Hotel on the south side of Cathedral Square.

Christchurch Press Co Limited and Whitcombe & Tombs next door.
Christchurch Press Co Limited and Whitcombe & Tombs next door. Source: The Weekly Press, 15 Dec. 1900, p. 57. Image: Christchuch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0013.
Messers Whitcombe and Tombs new premises.
Messers Whitcombe and Tombs new premises.
Star, Issue 4750, 21 July 1883, Page 4

After Crerar’s retirement in 1882, Whitcombe’s next move was to conglomerate printing, stationery and bookselling. He approached the printer, Mr. George Tombs who had a printing establishment on the busier part of Cashel Street. They agreed to join partnership and it was registered under the Companies Act of 1882 – becoming one of the first limited liability companies under this new act.

Their stationery and book shop, on the far right of the photograph at 202 Cashel Street, on the site of Tombs’ former business, was amongst the city’s most successful commercial enterprises. Beside Whitcombe and Tombs was the elegant Venetian Gothic styled, Weekly Press Building which was constructed in 1892 (it moved to new premises on 20 February 1909). At the ground floor level was Walter Suckling’s photographic requisite warehouse and to the far left, at 210 Cashel Street, wass Edward Button’s painting and sign writing studio.

During the 1880s, Whitcombe and Tombs printing branch expanded into producing dairies, stationery and books which proved to be a good cash flow through quieter times. They also began a campaign advertising the shop with a collection of posters and fliers which were put up and around Christchurch. A Christmas flier used Father Christmas in a suitable cheery red colour to advertise their hand painted Christmas cards, picture books, hand painted pocket books, Christmas cards of New Zealand scenery, photographic albums, purses, gold and silver pencil cases as gifts for a colonial Christmas.

Whitcombe & Tombs, Advertising Poster
Whitcombe & Tombs, Advertising Poster 1886. Source: Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. Image ID: Eph-C-PRINTING-1886-01. Alexander Turnbull Library.

in 1889 George Tombs retired as the business manager of the printing and manufacturing department of the Company after serving a long career in the local printing industry dating back to 1 June 1856. He had begun his apprenticeship at the “Canterbury Standard’ in Christchurch, then, as a journeyman, had moved to Lyttelton to join the staff of the Lyttelton Times as a compositor. After returning to Christchurch and serving more years with the paper, he joined forces with Mr. George Jones and opened a printing business in Cathedral Square. It was after Jones’ retirement that he formed his partnership with Whitcombe. George Tombs died suddenly in 1904 after a period of ill health. Bertie Whitcombe was one of his pall bearers at the funeral which was attended by the office and factory staff from the Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin branches of Whitcombe & Tombs.

In late 1897 they began plans for selling discounted stock to lighten the load of moving 20 thousand pounds worth of stock and 15 thousand pounds of machinery and plant to ‘larger more commodious premises’ in Cashel street. The following year they opened a fancy box and pattern card factory at Barbadoes street south, where they would manufacture all kinds of boxes for chemists, jewellers, drapers, confectioners, boot and shoe makers, along with pattern cards.

Although Whitcombe and Tomb’s publishing was a minor part of the company compared to their sales, it was hugely influential on several generations of New Zealanders. Whitcombe employed good editors who developed a publishing list and supplied textbooks, including a range of children’s ‘Progressive Primers’ which were used in the education of New Zealand children. Children learned to read and figure from Whitcombe’s textbooks and ‘to beat the imperial drum from Our nation’s story’. ‘The Adventures of Hoppity Bobtail’ was just one of the long list of titles they put out in the hugely popular range of Whitcombe Story books.

Women cooked and fed their families from the recipe book ‘Whitcombe’s Everyday Cookery’, which was as prominent in its day as the Edmonds ‘Sure to Rise’ cookery book. Readers learnt about trades and New Zealand’s flora and fauna from Whitcombe’s manuals.

Interior of Whitcombe & Tombs
Interior of Whitcombe & Tombs bookshop in 1911 showing displays, cases of books and staff members grouped in the middle distance. Source: National Library of New Zealand, Photographer Steffano Webb. Image Ref: 1/1-004275-G, Alexander Turnbull Library.

The photograph of the interior of their large shop in Christchurch shows a large table in the centre foreground offering 1912 diaries. There is a book called The Glory of Clementina Wing by W.J.Locke which is being promoted as a new book. A selection of ladies handbags is also on offer. On the cash register on the right is a sign which warns employers that they should, “Avoid Being Prosecuted – Time, Wages and Overtime Book 3/6 Have you read the act?” Whitcombe & Tombs was responsible for the employment of hundreds of men and women and they had to face employment issues against the working unions and their employees.

Whitcombe ran the business with an iron fist and his competitiveness ‘pushed’ other booksellers out of the market before they could establish themselves. He purchased  prominent sites for bookshops in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, and opened a publishing and distributing house in Little Collins Street, Melbourne. He also set up a buying and publishing house at St. Andrews Hill, London and a purchasing agency in New York, U.S.A.

In 1907, after 24 years of operation, Whitcombe & Tombs finances reflected a year of trouble and extra expense caused by a devastating fire in their Wellington premises, (which then subsequently withstood a demolition attempt with dynamite), and a rebuilding project in Christchurch. But their troubles didn’t end there.

In October 1908 George Whitcombe was charged, on behalf of his firm, with selling immoral literature in the form of Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis”, the prosecution had been laid at the request of some of the leading booksellers of Christchurch and New Zealand, who wished to know their legal rights under the Offensive Publications Act. The Act was originally passed in England in 1892 as a result of the lewd advertisements inserted in English newspapers and the action was brought really to show the utter absurdity of applying it to the literature of the dominion.

This followed an earlier court appearance late the previous month for Whitcombe, two other bookseller and their respective sales assistants for selling “certain printed matter of an immoral character” to Detective James Kennedy. The books concerned were mostly by popular British writer Annie Sophie Cory, aka Victoria Cross and were considered racy for the time, containing themes of sexual desire, cross dressing, interracial sexual relations and questioned traditional gender roles. The magistrate decided to convict and fine all three of the sales assistants. Sales of the ‘sex novels’ skyrocketed and Whitcombe and Tombs couldn’t keep up with demand!

In the case of Shakespeare, after a lengthy consultation the Bench dismissed the case and ‘Shakespeare’s morals [were] vindicated’.

Whticombe & Tombs, Cashel Street, Christchurch c.1900
Whticombe & Tombs, Cashel Street, Christchurch c.1900. Photograph taken by the Steffano Webb Photographic Studio, Christchurch, circa 1880s-1920s. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: 1/1-005652-G.
History of the Family

George Hawkes Whitcombe was born in 1854 in Plonguenast, Brittany, France. He was the youngest of ten of retired Captain Thomas Douglas Whitcombe R.A. & K.S.G. and the grandson of a celebrated British lawyer, Sir Thomas Whitcombe. He was educated in France and in England at Lansing College.

At about the age of sixteen c.1870, he sailed to New Zealand to join his older brother, Charles, who was in the British Army stationed at New Plymouth. George went to Wanganui and joined the Armed Constabulary but saw no fighting. He then went to Christchurch to take up a teaching position before going into the book business.

On 18 May 1875 he married Mary (Marion) Hall, the second daughter of John Hall Esq. of London at St. Luke’s Church, in Latimer Square, Christchurch by the Reverend E. A. Lingard. Their witnesses were  E. S. Bawdon (bookseller) of Christchurch, William Sidney Smith (printer) of St. Albans and Eleanor Lingard.

The Whitcombes first home was on Armagh Street, where their eldest child, Bertie was born on October 6th, 1875. The Whitcombe’s had twelve children although only eleven survived after eight month old, Arthur Vere Hawkes died of an illness in 1878.

245 Woodham, Whitcombe House
245 Woodham, the residence of Mr G. H. Whitcombe, built by the late Mr Gwalter Palairet, 1913. Source: The Weekly Press, 1 Jan. 1913, p. 30. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 5, IMG0049.

With business going from strength to strength, they were able to purchase a ten roomed, two storey home called Avonglade at 245 Woodham Road, Avonside. It had been built by John Gwalter Palairet (1798-1878) on land formerly owned by Thomas Hichens (1795-1868).

Like the family retail firm Ballantynes, which traded on the opposite side of Cashel Street, Whitcombe handed the reins of power down to his sons enabling it to remain a leading family firm well into the late twentieth century. George’s eldest son, Bertie became manager of Whitcome & Tombs after George’s retirement.

Bertie had grown up at Avonglade and had attended the private boy’s school, Charles Cook’s Warwick House School in Cranmer Square, until he was fourteen years old. His father decided Bertie would not learn anything more and removed him from school so that he could be begin learning the family trade within the company. Initially Bertie became an apprentice printer before moving on to more ‘hands on’ training on the shop floor. He was sent to work at the branches in Dunedin, Wellington, and Melbourne before being appointed as General Manager of the company in 1911.

In 1912, Bertie was sent to London to oversee the running of the office. He married his New Zealand fiancee, Fannie Allingham Morrow, at Woodford Wells, Essex on February 1st, 1913. The couple remained in London until 1916 to manage a new addition to the store empire on Queen Street, Auckland.

Sixty four year old, George Whitcombe died suddenly at seven o’clock on the evening of August 13th, 1917 having only returned from a business trip to America one month earlier. He had not been well during the trip but seemed to have improved on returning home. Working in his office, he became ill during the afternoon and was taken home where he later died. He left his widow, Mary, three daughters and eight sons. Four were fighting at the front at the time: Lieutenant Eric Whitcombe, Lieutenant Alec Whitcombe, Gunner Hugh Whitcombe and Gunner Gerard Whitcombe. The other four sons were Bertie H, Stanley, Louis and Basil. George was survived by his brothers, Mr. S. F. Whitombe who was the Railway Traffic Superintendent of the South Island main line branches and Mr. W. E. Whitcombe of Messrs. Pyne and Co.

Bertie Whitcombe
Bertie Ernest Hawkes Whitcombe, about 1932. Photograph by H. H. Clifford. Image: Canterbury Museum Reference: W349 1/2

Bertie and Fannie returned to Christchurch after his father’s death and took over the managing directorship of Whitcombe & Tombs. Bertie’s managerial style was quite different to his father’s. He was a man of stature who possessed great congeniality and yet an ambitious expansionist mentality. Bertie was known to dislike sitting in his office and was more comfortable managing in a more ‘hands on’ way. He walked around the Cashel Street shop and the factory so that he could talk to his employees and hand out barley sugars to employees and customers.  He would regularly travel to the country’s other branches which were all managed by his brothers during the 1920s.

He worked alongside his long serving editor, Arnold Shrimpton, on the company’s publishing programme. However, publishing was not the main income producer. Although their printing production was professional, their conservative approach lost out to other publishers such as the Caxton Press or A. H. & A. W. Reed’ who utilised more appealing styles in the production of their mainstream books.

Whitcombe’s second son, Hugh had been manager of the Dunedin branch. He served with the Expeditionary Force and on his return was appointed manager of the Auckland store. He married and had one daughter called Noel. Although he did not take on a part in public life, he was well known in business circles in the city as well as being a member of the Auckland Club for many years. His principal hobby was gardening and he was an authority on flowers. Hugh died suddenly at his home in Takapuna, Auckland aged forty nine years on October 24th, 1939.

Bertie Whitcombe retired as the managing director in 1958 and remained chairman of the board (a post to which he had been appointed in 1943) until 1962. He died on June 16th, 1963 in Wellington, where his only child, Joan Maclean, was living. His wife, Fannie, died  a year later in September 1964.

In 1971, Whitcombe & Tombs merged with the printers, Coulls Somerville Wilkie Ltd. and was renamed, Whitcoulls.


One Comment Add yours

  1. pellethepoet says:

    Today I found the following inscription on the flyleaf of ‘The Pupil’ by Henry James, published by Martin Secker, London, 1916 – “Found in Whitcombe’s where an excellent second hand department is fast developing” (30 March 1942). This would seem to indicate that Whitcombe & Tombs established a second hand book department in their bookshop in 1942. See:


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