Runholder, provincial politician, and businessman.
Robert Wilkin was born at Tinwald Downs, Dumfriesshire, on 14 January 1820, the son of a farmer, James Wilkin (1792–1870); his mother was Rachel Douglas, née Laurie, daughter of the parish minister. He spent seven years at Dumfries Academy and went on to Edinburgh University. At the age of 19 he sailed for Melbourne in the Midlothian and spent the next 19 years moving about Australia and gaining a wide experience of grazing, both as a manager and as an owner of sheep stations. For a time he acted as Magistrate at Port Phillip. On 25 July 1858 he and his wife and two children and a brother arrived at Lyttelton by the brig Dart. He bought the well-known property, later called Avonbank, from its first owner, William Tod, and a small part of it remained in the possession of his family for many years.
Wilkin had an interest in various Canterbury properties mostly in association with Robert Heaton Rhodes, of which the most important was St. Leonards. They owned jointly a small run named Carleton and they were joint mortgagees of Racecourse Hill, which they sold to the Maxwells and Benjamin Booth in 1868. In 1863 the Rhodes Brothers and Wilkin bought St. Leonards from George Duppa. This splendid property was bounded on the south by the Hurunui River, on the north by the Waiau, and on the east by Cheviot Hills. The western boundary ran through the middle of the Amuri Plains. With an area of 90,000 acres, it was all clean grazing country clear of scrub and fern and was at least as good as Cheviot Hills; the price was believed to be £150,000. The partners subdivided it into eight sections, each of which was a fair-sized station, and the sale was held in 1877 when the land boom of the late seventies was nearing its peak. The result must have been highly profitable to the partners; Wilkin was believed to have held a quarter share. His biggest speculation was the purchase of Lake Wanaka Station which he and William Thompson, Provincial Auditor, bought in 1859; they stocked it with 6,000 sheep from Cheviot Hills; they sold the Mount Pisa block to R. J. Loughnan and Lake Wanaka Station itself to Robert Campbell, of Otekaieke, North Otago, for £65,000.
In about 1871 Wilkin started business in Christchurch as a grain and seed merchant and general agent; he also dealt in wool and skins and was the first man to hold a local wool sale; C. C. Aikman was the auctioneer. He was well known for his shrewdness and integrity and this put him in a good position to make sales for his friends; for example, he sold Seadown on behalf of the Rhodes brothers.
Wilkin was elected a member for Timaru for the Provincial Council in 1860 and was re-elected next year. Although he never lived there, he got things done for his constituency; he had Timaru divided into four electorates and he obtained a handsome grant from the Provincial Council for the Timaru Mechanics' Institute and Library. He was elected member for Waitangi in 1864. He was a strong supporter of Moorhouse; on his retirement he supported Bealey, who might be considered Moorhouse's nominee. Wilkin himself had been put forward for the superintendency, but declined. He was head of the Executive until he retired from the Council in 1866. He represented Kaiapoi in Parliament from 1863 to 1866.
Always active in the organisation of agricultural shows, Wilkin judged the Merino show held at Shepherd's Bush in 1859 and a similar one held the next year near the site of Ashburton. He presided over a meeting held in Christchurch in 1862, at which it was decided to hold a show there in that year; this was the forerunner of the long series of Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Shows. He was chairman again at a meeting held in January 1863 at which the Canterbury A. and P. Association really got under way, and he was elected the first president. A subcommittee was deputed to find a suitable site for a showground and it picked a 14-acre block in Colombo Street, later better known as Sydenham Park. Wilkin gave a prize for the best sheepdog (won by Caverhill) and won a prize for the best yearling thoroughbred stallion. The highlights were thoroughbreds and Clydesdales. But the show was spoilt by rain; the exhibits were too scattered and the accommodation was poor. Finally, to cap it all, for some unknown reason the Lyttelton Times reporter was ordered off the ground. The Christchurch show later moved to a bigger and better ground at Addington, where it continued to have an undisputed claim to be the leading show in New Zealand.
Wilkin was chairman of the Middle Island Association in 1865; its aim was to protect the interests of the Middle Island by political separation or other means. Meanwhile, he raced a few horses and took a considerable part in the administration of racing, being a member of the committee of the Canterbury Jockey Club for years and also a member of the handicapping committee, a position which could only be held by a man of absolute integrity and one completely trusted by owners of horses.
In 1869 and 1870 Wilkin was organiser and manager of the Canterbury Meat Export Co. As a further interest, Wilkin undertook the editing of the Shorthorn Herd Book, which had been started by Colonel G. S. Whitmore and carried on by J. G. Bluett. This was a labour of love for Wilkin; he began by listing the cows landed by W. B. Rhodes at Akaroa in 1839 and gave in detail the pedigrees of 45 bulls and 122 cows. The book was not confined to Shorthorns. By his motion the Canterbury A. and P. Association undertook to publish the New Zealand Country Journal quarterly, which included such contributions as “Out in the Open”, by T. H. Potts.
For five years after Wilkin's first year as president, George Gould was in the chair; but he was a man of poor health, and in his absence Wilkin always presided. Before Wilkin left on a trip to England in May 1878 he was entertained at a dinner attended by 150 of the leading men of Canterbury, and there was no doubt of the warmth of feeling for him; £391 was subscribed, part of which was to pay for a portrait. Sir John Hall proposed the toast of the evening and said, “We might well ask what public institution there is to which Mr Wilkin was not willing to lend a helping hand, what movement did not receive his cheerful aid”.
Wilkin was also the originator of the idea of a ram fair to be held on the show grounds, and he called a meeting of those interested in January 1873. This immediately took its place as an institution of the utmost value to breeders and farmers. He was an original director of the Canterbury Saleyards Co. (Addington Yards). He read a paper on grasses before the A. and P. Association, which, considering it was composed in 1876, showed that he was a shrewd and observant farmer; his remarks on various grasses are even now remarkably up to date. He took a great interest in acclimatisation and presented some black swans to the Canterbury society; he also introduced hedgehogs. He imported five English Leicester rams, bred by Thomas Wilkin of Tinwald Downs, Dumfriesshire (his brother); he also imported the American trotting stallion Berlin, sire of Prickwillow. He was one of the founders of the Middle Park Stud and was appointed a director of the New Zealand Shipping Co. in 1881. He was a member of the Board of Governors of Canterbury College, 1875–76. The Canterbury township of Tinwald, just south of Ashburton, took its name from him; Wilkin and Carter had a training stable there; there is still a Wilkin Street in Tinwald.
Robert Wilkin was a man of few words, steady, reliable, and of the highest integrity, who inspired trust and affection. Crosbie Ward has left us a vivid sketch of Wilkin, whom he describes as “a portly-built man, a Scot by birth. He often seconds the motions of his colleagues, but nothing more laconic can be conceived than his manner of doing it. He catches hold of the table, drags himself into a half-erect position, nods to the Speaker and subsides in his seat. He is not without brains, however, as may be inferred from the few remarks he makes when tortured into utterance”. Although Wilkin's career appeared outwardly prosperous, he lost money, and at the time of his death, his estate was embarrassed. The bank immediately seized his assets and put the goodwill of his business up to auction; it was bought by F. C. Tabart. The partners in the firm were, besides Wilkin, Walter James Oliver, James Wilkin (son), and E. B. Cox (son-in-law).
In 1850 in Queensland, Australia, Wilkin married Agnes Johnston Barker (1832–1913), by whom he had four sons and one daughter. He died at Fendalton, Christchurch, on 20 June 1886.
by George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.
- Men of Mark in New Zealand, Cox, A. (1886)
- Early Canterbury Runs, Acland, L. G. D. (1951)
- George Rhodes of the Levels and His Brothers, Woodhouse, A. E. (1937).