Page 1: Biography
Wilkinson, Charles Anderson
Storekeeper, merchant, politician
This biography, written by Bruce Ralston, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Charles Anderson Wilkinson was born at Oakura, Taranaki, New Zealand, on 19 July 1868, the son of John William Wilkinson, a farmer, and his wife, Elizabeth Paynter. Charles grew up in New Plymouth, where he was educated privately. In 1884 he moved to Eltham to manage Chew Chong's general store, and for a short time he was also the local postmaster – probably the youngest person to hold that position in New Zealand. He delivered provisions on horseback throughout the district, travelling as far as the back country beyond the Patea River. He developed a market for cocksfoot seed, which he purchased from farming families for fourpence a pound. The trade became an important supplementary income for local settlers.
In 1889 Wilkinson purchased a store at nearby Ngaere and in November that year opened a business in Eltham. He built a dairy factory at Mangatoki in 1891, although it was soon bought by Chew Chong. Thus established, he married Mary Christina Brown at Ngaere on 23 November 1892; they were to have two children. The mercantile business flourished and a new shop was built in 1906. Wilkinson was active in the management of the firm until 1953. By then there were major branches of C. A. Wilkinson (Merchants) Limited in New Plymouth, Stratford and Hawera. The shops sold hardware, tools, paint, electrical goods and crockery.
Over the years Wilkinson became increasingly involved in community and public life. In the late 1880s and again in the 1890s, he was secretary and treasurer of the Eltham Football Club. Around the turn of the century he served on the committee of the Axemen's Carnival, a major local event, which was held on Boxing Day and drew participants from throughout New Zealand and Australia.
Charles Wilkinson served on the Eltham Borough Council from 1904 to 1906. During a trip to the United States in 1902 he had become interested in road surfacing, and persuaded his fellow councillors of the merits of the tarred macadam process. Tenders were called in early 1906 to lay 2,000 cubic yards of asphalt in Bridge Street, the first tarsealed roadway in New Zealand. For nine years from 1909 Wilkinson represented the Eltham ward on the New Plymouth Harbour Board. He also served on the Eltham School Committee and the Taranaki Education Board.
In 1910 Wilkinson's Picture Hall was opened. The hall included a specially built floor that could be used as a skating rink. A 1,000-foot film entitled 'The axemen's carnival at Eltham' was produced for Wilkinson by the Wanganui photographer Charles F. Newham, and shown in January 1912, just two weeks after the event.
Charles and Mary Wilkinson were divorced in December 1911. He married Mabel Helen Wilson Duncan on 11 October 1915 at Eltham; there were to be three children of the marriage. In the meantime Charles had moved from local to national politics, being elected MP for Egmont in 1912 on a Reform Party ticket. In 1918 he proposed an unpopular amendment to continue the six o'clock closing of hotels, which had been introduced as a war measure in 1917. The amendment was narrowly passed. Wilkinson retired from Parliament in 1919.
He was re-elected to represent Egmont in 1928 and served as an independent member until his retirement in 1943. In 1931 he was on a special committee that looked into the economic problems of the time and recommended the formation of a coalition government. On several occasions he sponsored legislation which, despite stiff opposition from the government and the Treasury, resulted in the Coinage Act 1933. The act authorised the issue of a distinctive New Zealand coinage to replace British imperial coinage, which had been legal currency since 1840. In 1936 Wilkinson was defeated by Adam Hamilton in a bid to become leader of the newly formed New Zealand National Party.
From 1941 to 1947 Charles Wilkinson was mayor of Eltham. During his mayoralty he and his wife were closely involved with the local patriotic committee. Mabel Wilkinson's work was recognised in 1946 when she was made an MBE. Wilkinson was widely respected for his contribution to the progress of Taranaki, and in particular the Eltham district, over a period of 70 years. He had boundless energy, an analytical brain and an aptitude for business. In 1951 he was made a CBE in recognition of his long years of public service.
In 1928 Wilkinson commissioned J. W. Chapman-Taylor to design an English-style stone and timber beam house, Wai-iti, at his 225-acre farm at Pukearuhe in North Taranaki. He also maintained a grand residence, set in park-like grounds, in High Street, Eltham, where he died on 3 November 1956. Mabel Wilkinson died in 1963.