Wilke and Co.
H. G. Gobbi 2021 ©
What became the largest printing company in Australia, Wilke and Co. Pty. Ltd., opened its factory in Brown’s Road, Clayton on 1 July 1953. Its start as a business, however, came in 1896 in Port Melbourne, led by an enterprising Herbert H. Wilke. As Wilke, Mitchell and Co., from 1908 the business printed and published the magazine Sport and subsequently printed a range of high-volume sporting magazines, notably The Football Record which it printed from 1912 to 1960. In 1948 the business was listed as a public company.(1)
Its move to Clayton was in line with many mainly light industrial companies looking for open ground onto which they could expand. For Wilke and Co it meant it could consolidate much of its operation then on numerous sites. Its chosen 15-acre site in 1952 was developed to house five separate units: a pre-press division, magazine division, book division, and a staff amenity block with administrative hub. The first presses to run at Clayton, however, were printing telephone directories for the Postmaster-General’s Department, a contract that it held for decades. Letterpress was supreme then; much of it running 24 hours a day.(2)
Wilke and Co. quickly expanded on site with a new offset printing and bindery works, having secured a five-year contract in 1954 to print the popular Reader’s Digest magazine for Australian and New Zealand circulation.(3) Soon after, a fire at the plant threatened production until the Spring Vale Volunteer Fire Brigade raced out to secure the works.(4) While the volunteer brigade earned the gratitude of Wilke’s management, Wilke then applied pressure on the local government council. It wanted the Mulgrave Shire council’s immediate application to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Board for Clayton’s inclusion into its fire protection service.(5)
Photo: Wilke Co. factory 1954. Source: Dallas Swinstead: Wilke: the First 100 Years.
Wilke was then primarily a printer of high-volume and high-profile serial publications. The firm’s output included The Reader’s Digest (1955), Vogue Australia (1959), TIME Magazine (1959, Australian edition) and briefly, LIFE (1967). (6) To meet TIME’s tight production deadlines, film was flown in from New York to Essendon Airport and from there helicoptered into a paddock at Clayton.(7) Growth led to constant expansion on the site and in 1968 Australia’s Prime Minister, John Gorton, visited Wilke and Co. to officially open new plant extensions.(8) In 1973 Wilke added Melway Street Directories to its presses.(9)
By the early 1980s Wilke and Co employed almost 700 staff at Clayton and had installed three of the latest technology presses to cope with its expanding business.(10) That business included the magazines Cleo (1977) Woman’s Day (1981) and Women’s Weekly (1983). It was at this point that the community raised public alarm over environmental issues caused by the plant. Investigations by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) revealed that the three presses installed in March and July 1982 had no pollution control measures as required under the Environmental Protection Act.(11)
The company faced 40 charges relating to emissions breaches from its printing works and a drawn-out process to comply with controls. Solvents evaporated from freshly printed articles were discharged into the atmosphere and it was for this that the fines were imposed. Wilke embarked on compliance measures and by the end of 1984 was hailed by the EPA for its installation of control systems that improved air quality. The air control systems installed had the imaginative name of Smog Hogs. As a bonus, the method of collecting and treating the solvents allowed energy recovery which was put back into the process to help power part of the plant.(12)
In 1986 Wilke was seeking to rezone its property from light industrial to special industrial. Rezoning sought to include its 1984 purchase of the Bendix factory site in Browns Road. Wilke wanted to remove some restrictions on land use on its enlarged site and to develop in accordance with its long-term strategy. For nearby residents its expansion suggested more noise, pollution and smell. Residents banded together to oppose the rezoning.(13) Despite this opposition Wilke achieved the rezoning from light industrial to special industrial in November 1987.(14)
In 1991 the Murdoch family’s News Corporation created a new company, Pacific Magazines and Printing (PMP). Included in the creation of PMP was the South Australian business Griffin Press, Progress Press and Wilke. In the early 21st century, Wilke continued with its parent company PMP as Wilke Color and Wilke Directories.(15) In 1990-91 alone Wilke had printed 17 million directories.(16) The head office and factory of Wilke and Co Pty. Ltd. remained on site at 37-49 Brown’s Road.
Photo: Wilke site around 1990. Source: Wilke Color booklet, undated but around 1993.
In another shakeup, in 1997 News Corporation Ltd divested itself of its stake in PMP as a business not suited to its core operation. By 2017 PMP had undergone serval takeovers including a joint venture with Seven Network and a merger with IPMG.(17) A year later the Browns Road site was again being rezoned. In conjunction with Monash Council and the Victorian Planning Authority (VPA) the large site was up for rezoning from an industrial printing factory to a residential mixed-use community, with a combination of townhouses, apartments, open space and convenience retail.(18)
A precinct structure plan for the PMP Printing site and several properties on Bendix Drive was prepared. Acknowledging the previous industrial uses of the precinct, the vision for the site’s redevelopment is:
The PMP Printing site will be a contemporary mixed-use place that incorporates diverse housing opportunities, local employment, community facilities and high-quality public places. This precinct will support a growing local community, complement the Clayton Road shopping strip and enhance connections to local institutions and open spaces.(19)
More recently, online auctions of printing presses and associated equipment have been held. The former Wilke complex remains in place for now and some of its buildings appear to be leased.
1. Wilke and Co. see https://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A37524
2. Dallas Swinstead, Wilke: the First 100 Years, p. 25.
3. Dandenong Journal, 2 June 1954, p. 1.
4. Dandenong Journal, 25 August 1954, p. 6.
5. Dandenong Journal, 18 November 1953, p. 14.
6. Wilke and Co. see https://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A37524
7. Dallas Swinstead, Wilke: the First 100 Years, p. 33.
8. Standard Times, 11 & 18 September 1968, p. 1.
9. Dallas Swinstead, Wilke: the First 100 Years, p. 25.
10. Environmental Protection Authority News, December 1984, p. 4.
11. Standard Times, 25 May 1983, p. 1.
12. Environmental Protection Authority News, December 1984, p. 4.
13. Standard Times, 21 May 1986, p. 1.
14. Standard Times, 12 July 1989, p. 11.
15. Wilke and Co. see https://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A37524
16. Dallas Swinstead, Wilke: the First 100 Years, p. 68.
17. The Victorian Planning Authority (VPA): PMP Printing Site, August 2019.
18. INPG, see https://inpg.com.au/project/browns-road
19. The Victorian Planning Authority (VPA), PMP Printing Site, August 2019.