A short history of John Wilkes Gunmakers
The gunmaking firm of John Wilkes has its origins in Birmingham, England in about 1820, where Joseph Wilkes traded as a pistol maker. He had two sons, Joseph and John. The younger Joseph came to London to trade as a gunmaker, whilst John set up in the same trade in Birmingham. Joseph junior left for the United States in the 1860s, looking for business in the aftermath of the Civil War, and never returned, leaving his three sons Joe, John and Tom to carry on as best they could. In the event they went separate ways, and it fell to the younger John, born in 1856 and barely in his teens at the time of his father’s departure, to carry on the gunmaking business in London, where the market for guns and rifles was booming at the start of the breech loading era. After training with his uncle’s Birmingham firm, the young John returned to London in the mid 1870s. There he worked for the prominent actioner Edwin Hodges and learned how to make guns to the “London line”, that elusive combination of elegance and quality that characterised the capital’s best sporting weapons. Hodges’ products were much in demand because his ability to make the new breech actions soundly set him at the pinnacle of the trade in the transition to breech loading. The young Wilkes would have had a hand in the manufacture of many best guns of the period, by makers such as Grant, Boss and others for whom Hodges provided actions.
After a while with Hodges, John Wilkes moved around 1880 to work for the Glasgow based J.D. Dougall, whose London shop had been opened in 1864. Dougall was prominent in the early breechloading era because of his unique Lockfast action – which was used on guns and rifles of the highest quality. The young John Wilkes rose rapidly in the esteem of Dougall father and son, and soon took over the management of their gunmaking workshop in London. This arrangement lasted until the Dougalls closed their London business on the death of James Dougall the younger in 1896. Whilst John was building his reputation in the trade in London, the Birmingham business of his uncle was prospering. Young John must have been seeking to grow beyond the confines of the Dougall arrangement as in 1894, two years before Dougall’s death, he had opened a premises of his own. This was a first floor shop at 1 Lower James Street, between Piccadilly Circus and Golden Square, in Soho, the district where the Wilkes business would remain for the next 109 years. For much of this time Soho was the centre of the outworker gun trade, its narrow streets providing affordable workshops for artisan craftsmen within easy reach of the West End. With the sudden closure of the Dougall business, Wilkes was free to expand his own business interests. His card of the time describes him as a Gun Stocker and Finisher, late of J.D. Dougall and Sons and able to undertake repairs and alterations.
The main business of the firm was quickly to become the making of guns and rifles. By the late 1890s, the firm was producing almost 100 John Wilkes guns a year of varying grades, some of them London finished and of very best quality, others made up in Birmingham. Of these, some were sold retail, their customers being recorded in the register, but many more were also sold to dealers for resale. A picture of the Gunmakers Association visiting the Kynoch factory in 1898 shows John as a powerful man in his early forties, with dark hair and an imposing moustache in the fourth row; in poll position on the front row is former mentor, Edwin Hodges.
Around the turn of the century he was joined in the business by his oldest son John (J.W. Wilkes and known as Jack) and later by Jack’s younger brother Tom (T.M. Wilkes), who were born in 1886 and 1889 respectively. In the period from 1895 to 1915, close to 2000 guns and rifles were produced, in a wide mix of qualities, more than half of the production finding its way to its customers via the agency of two dealers, C.B. Vaughan and E. Whistler. In 1913 came a move to a street level shop at 31 Gerrard Street where the firm stayed until 1924, followed by a brief period at 21 Broad (now Broadwick) Street, both in Soho. Whilst production slowed during the First War, it kept going, about 150 weapons being produced in the four years to 1918, but securing a reliable supply of guns became increasingly difficult. In 1920 Jack Wilkes moved to Birmingham to reinvigorate gun manufacturing there, with some considerable success. He had to return to London about 1923 to help his ailing father with the running of the London business. The Birmingham arm of the business was shut down when Jack left; the craftsmen transferring to other firms who continued to supply Wilkes with guns to the design and style that were characteristic of Wilkes’ weapons. Thereafter, up to the late 1940s, John Wilkes continued to source a large number of guns from Birmingham, particularly from the firms of John Harper and A.E. Bayliss, and later from Webley & Scott.
In 1925 came the last move of premises to 79 Beak Street, where the firm would remain for the next 78 years. On three floors of what was originally a five storied 18th century terraced house, Wilkes established a shop and two floors of workshops. Over the years that followed they were to acquire the stock-in-trade from a number of gunmaking businesses that closed in London in the 20th century; notably Woodward’s, but others as well. By the end of the century the building was to become something of a living museum to the craft trade that had struggled to survive around it in Soho, every spare bit of space being crammed with artefacts of the gun trade, some dating back to the muzzle loading era.
Jack, like his father before him, had become a master craftsman able to do all the specialist skills of the trade. In 1927, along with his brother Tom, he became a partner in the business, Jack focusing on gunmaking and Tom on administration. That same year
John Wilkes senior died at the age of 71.
The closure of the Birmingham business allowed Jack Wilkes to concentrate effort in the 1930s on making and selling Wilkes guns from the London shop whilst also providing outworker services to the trade – they acted as the workshops for many of the other London makers who were unable to train and keep their own staff through the depression years. They took on jobs ranging from simple alterations through to the complete manufacture of rifles for the likes of Rigby and Jeffery, as well as massive amounts of refurbishment work for Vaughan, who was the main source for anyone in London wanting to buy a secondhand gun between the wars. Many members of the London trade, notably Jeffery, Rigby and Purdey, used Wilkes as a supplier of good Birmingham made guns, some of these bearing the Wilkes name, others the names of their eventual retailer.
They renewed focus on producing for retail sale a significant number of finest quality, guns and rifles made predominantly in London. In this Jack drew on his contacts with his contemporaries in the trade in both London and Birmingham, many of whom were the finest craftsmen of their day; and some would now say of any day. To mention just some of these, the actioners George Mealey and Roly Bloomer, the barrel filers Harry Wheeler and George Lane, the stockers Dickie Bolter and Ebenezer Hands and the engraver Henry Kell all contributed to Wilkes guns of the period, producing some really top quality sidelocks, but also, more unusually, a number of truly best boxlocks, of a quality and style that have never been bettered by anyone.
The fifth generation of Wilkes to join the firm, who were like their immediate predecessors also named John and Tom, were Jack’s two sons ; J.W.H. Wilkes born 1924 and T.F. Wilkes, born 1925. Whilst John joined the business early in the second war, Tom’s arrival was interrupted by war service and he did not start until 1946. The second war, unlike the first, had a serious impact on the retail side of the business, and much of the firms efforts were directed at war work, including some rather interesting special production for use by Special Operations Executive.
After the war the production of guns slowed to a trickle and the Birmingham sourced trade dried up. Retail activity was mostly repairs and alterations. But other London makers, whose craftsmen had not returned to them after the war, were struggling to fulfill orders and the firm survived mainly as a trade gunmaker, adding Westley Richards, Holland & Holland and Greener to the list of those that sent them considerable amounts of work. In this period up to the late 60s the main new production was bolt action rifles, of which only a minority bore the Wilkes name, most bearing the names of other makers, mainly Rigby and Jeffery.
After working in the shop for about 20 years, the younger John and Tom formally joined their father in the partnership in 1967, at which time their Uncle Tom also retired. The following year Jack Wilkes died at the age of 82, running the business and working in the shop to the end. John and Tom the younger had to take over the business at a time of approaching crisis in the trade. A lack of apprentices coming through and a sharp decline in numbers of specialist outworkers, combined with the onset of high inflation, meant that many members of the trade were struggling to stay in business. Many had taken orders that they could not afford to fulfill. John and Tom found there was glut of repair and reconstruction work and there was good business to be had buying and refurbishing guns at a time when few others could undertake any significant repairs.
After taking stock for a few years after their father’s death, they made a cautious start in the mid 70s at building new guns again – this time allowing for the growing trend towards more elaborate ornamentation, rather different from the more muted products of the 30s and earlier. In the last 30 years or so at 79 Beak Street they produced over 100 best guns and rifles, mainly sidelocks and many of them exquisitely ornate, weapons which are of a quality on a par with the golden years.
Around 2000, the painful decision was taken to leave the Beak Street premises after three quarters of a century, as John and Tom wished to move into semi-retirement. Several years were spent clearing all of the stock-in trade and the large numbers of customer’s guns that were in storage, the shop being finally vacated in July 2003.
After several years in retirement, Tom died, after a long illness, in March 2009 at the age of 83, and John followed him a little more than a year later in April 2010, aged 85. Craig Whitsey, who had been with the firm for 30 years, is continuing the running of the John Wilkes business, from his workshop in Arundel, West Sussex.
Acknowledgement goes to Stephen Grist for this write up of John Wilkes Gunmakers.