The Whitcombe and Tombs building became the Whitcoulls building in 1973. This followed Whitcombe and Tombs merger that year with the Dunedin based firm Coull Somerville Wilkie.
George Hawkes Whitcombe (1855–1917) was an Englishman born and raised in France. He came to New Zealand in 1871, working for a while in Christchurch as a French teacher. In 1882 Whitcombe went into partnership with printer George Tombs (c. 1834–1904), forming the printing, publishing, stationery and bookselling company Whitcombe and Tombs. The business grew rapidly, establishing large stores in every New Zealand city and publishing houses in Melbourne and London.
The Whitcombe and Tombs ‘chain’ arrived in Wellington in 1894. They leased 312–316 Lambton Quay from John Rutherford Blair, after buying his publishing business Lyon and Blair. Blair left arrangements for the design and construction of new buildings on the site to Whitcombe and Tombs. The first new building, designed by architects Thomas Turnbull and Sons, was erected in 1896, housing the company’s shop and printing factory.
On 22 October 1906 headlines announced ‘Great fire in the city: immense destruction of property’. As the day had dawned one of the largest fires in Wellington’s history ripped through the south end of Lambton Quay, destroying 15 business premises. The failure of the mains water supply made the problem worse, as fire fighters struggled to halt the blaze. Nearly all the buildings in the triangle of Lambton Quay, Grey Street and Featherston Street were burnt down. Among the structures incinerated was the Whitcombe and Tombs building, completely destroyed along with all its stock.
While the company operated from their Hunter Street warehouse, a new building took shape on the site of the old. Designed by William Turnbull, of Thomas Turnbull and Sons, it was four stories high rather than three, ‘of a far more imposing character, a particular feature being the provision of a maximum amount of light.’ (Evening Post, 6 April 1907) The building, still standing in June 2012, was opened early in 1908.
The new Whitcombe and Tombs had moments of high drama in its early years. On 7 August 1912, it was severely damaged by another major fire. Following further exile in Hunter Street, Whitcombe and Tombs returned to its restored Lambton Quay premises on 31 March 1913. The restoration included enlarged space for books and stationery, improved lighting and an ‘imposing stairway of easy ascent and constructed in figured rimu.’ The new set up boasted a ‘writing room … available for the use of visitors, who are welcome to use it for correspondence purposes, it has been furnished with much taste.’ (Evening Post, 31 March 1913)
During the Great Strike of 1913, Whitcombe and Tombs became one of the Wellington battlegrounds between ‘Red Fed’ strikers and special constables – ‘Massey’s Cossacks‘ – many of them rural volunteers brought in to suppress the strike. On the evening of 30 October, an angry crowd of strikers chased a special constable into the building. The Whitcombe and Tombs assistants rescued the ‘special’, now somewhat worse for wear, as three regular police constables arrived. The crowd then besieged the bookstore, which was vigorously defended by the baton-wielding constables. The crowd was dispersed when several shop assistants appeared waving loaded revolvers. In the siege one of the plate glass windows was smashed, either by a stone or a bullet. (Evening Post, 31 October 1913)
On 10 May 1932, in the midst of the economic depression, street battles were again fought outside the Whitcombe and Tombs building. A demonstration of 3,000 to 4,000 protesting unemployed and relief workers had descended on Parliament earlier that day. Minister for Public Works Gordon Coates made a non-committal statement to a protest delegation. In an angry response, a small section of the crowd ran down Lambton Quay smashing shop windows. They were met by police formed up near the Whitcombe and Tombs building, who made a baton charge on the crowd. After a few minutes of street fighting the protesters were dispersed, with the police pursuing a group of window smashers along Willis Street.
Not all the dramas associated with the Whitcombe and Tombs building were on the grand scale of fire and riot. As you pass by 312–316 Lambton Quay spare a thought for a young man named in the records under the pseudonym of ‘Derrick’. He spent many years in Porirua Hospital, having been arrested in front of Whitcombe and Tombs in 1912. His crime was running around the ornate verandah posts that used to stand there, while exposing himself to passers-by.
The old Whitcombe and Tombs/Whitcoulls building had been witness to much of this city’s history and survived a number of threats to its own existence. We can only hope it will survive its next test and not succumb to earthquake or wrecking ball.