7. Expansion and Contraction
The main offices, fronting Oxford Street, seen in 1956
In 1965 the company celebrated its 50th anniversary. A presentation was held in the canteen for all workers who could boast 5 years service or more. I remember being quite disappointed, having only completed 4 years service.
These two photos, taken in the canteen at the 1965 event, show nearly all the staff who had been there 5 years or more. It was a big company, especially by the printing trade's standards.
The longest serving employees at the 1965 event. From left to right: Jim Jones, Sam Bailey, James Wilkes, Cyril Evans, Bernard Humphries.
Mr James Wilkes Jnr. continued the expansion of the business with increased printing plants set up in Dublin in 1959 with other factories added in Newcastle, Charlton and even South Africa. In 1966 he bought the former premises of the building firm, Biddulph and Thrift, and transferred the more traditional letterpress printing side of the company to there from Oxford Street.
Through all these prosperous times people continued to work with a "family company" until retirement age came round. But even then retired employees would not be forgotten. Each year they were invited back to an open day at the Bilston premises to renew old friendships and meet former colleagues.
This photo of the reception foyer was probably taken in the late 50s or early 60s. It looks modern, progressive, confident. But that was not to last.
This advert comes from the Wolverhampton Official Handbook for 1974. (The ultra-high contrast illustrations are not a trick of web graphics - they were fashionable at the time). The advert shows well the kind of business printing Wilkes specialised in.
As the years passed attitudes of both management and workers changed and the confrontational years of the seventies arrived with more militant attitudes prevailing. They were also times of recession, with a decline in both local and national manufacturing industry. It was the time of the miners' strike, the three day week and power cuts. When the end came for James Wilkes Ltd. it was extremely sad, men and women who had worked at the company for many years, some for over 40 years, being made redundant. The final nail in the coffin was the protracted thirteen week strike by the main printing union. They were in dispute with the company over redundancy numbers and over who was to be made redundant.
The dispute ended in the Spring of 1981, with the printing interests sold to the Aldridge based Deanson's company. Some of the previous employees were offered positions with Deanson's at Aldridge and with a new and much smaller company called Deanson Wilkes, who were offering a factoring service and were based at Short Street, Walsall. The acquisition did not prove to be a success for Deanson's and inevitably the receivers were called and the group was split up with the Deanson Wilkes company sold to the Kidderminster based Telford Press. It was shortly after the deal was done that I received an invitation that led to me severing my career with the Wilkes name.
Mr James Wilkes Jnr died during November 2000, a few weeks short of his 90th Birthday.
Today there are quite a few printing companies in existence that find their origins in the dispute of 1981. Wilkes always was a good training ground, teaching good discipline and methods.
These companies are very much carrying on the tradition of the founder. In a speech made at Bilston Town Hall in 1959, to celebrate his father's 80th birthday, Mr James Wilkes Jnr remarked "It would be a poor day for the country when it became impossible for an enterprising young man to begin his own business as his father had done in 1915".
I'm glad I had the chance to work at James Wilkes. It was a fine company with many genuine people. To all those Wilkes workers still about, especially my colleagues at the Ettingshall factory, managed at the end by Albert George: thanks for all the good times. It was a privilege to know and work with you.
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