Many people are familiar with the name A D Willis and aware of his philanthropic work on the Whanganui Council, Harbour Board, and other humanitarian deeds. But his business endeavours also earned him huge respect and esteem.
Archibald Dudingston Willis got his first job at age 12, at Eyre & Spottiswoode printing firm in London. Orphaned three years later, he emigrated to New Zealand, arriving in 1857 well-armed with the skills he had learned.
He met James Wood at the Southern Cross newspaper in Auckland and the pair later founded the Hawke's Bay Herald in Napier. Two years later Willis moved to Wellington to work at the New Zealand Advertiser.
The gold fields drew him to the South Island, and after six months digging he was employed by Julius Vogel at the Otago Daily Times. In 1862 Willis co-founded the Otago Typographical Association and received the first membership card. He remained with the Times for 18 months before moving to the Christchurch Press for two years.
Willis finally moved to Whanganui to start his own newspaper but the wars delayed his plans. He later found there was no call for another newspaper in the region so accepted a position overseeing the Wanganui Chronicle before moving to the Evening Herald.
By now well versed in printing matters, Willis opened his own shop on June 6, 1872 in the lower end of Victoria Ave. He had purchased stock from retiring bookseller and stationer Mr Hutchison the previous month, and continued to sell this along with new imported goods such as telescopes, microscopes, spirit gauges, packets of chemicals and a wide variety of books.
He then set up printing premises and by July 1873 he was printing the Wanganui Almanack.
Willis published books and printed stationery, pamphlets and menus, building up a reputation for quality work. He also produced specialty items such as postcards for the government Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, and the invitations and souvenirs of King George V and Queen Mary's royal visit to Rotorua in 1901.
In 1883 he printed the first colour chromolithographic view of a town produced in New Zealand. At the 1885 Wellington Industrial Exhibition he received first prize and a silver medal for chromolithographic printing.
Thomas Hocken, a well-known New Zealand collector and bibliographer, visited the printer and commented on the "perfection of Mr Willis' plant and apparatus".
Willis is noted for Field's Book of Ferns published in 1890 and The Taniwha weekly publication of local Whanganui news. The company also produced the first playing cards made in Australasia and was the sole agent for Caxton products for the lower North Island.
Willis had built up a printing and publishing empire and at the time of his death on August 27, 1908 the company had retail premises on Victoria Ave, a head office on Taupo Quay, a factory on Wicksteed Place (now Drews Ave) and employed over 70 staff.
After his death the business was converted to a private company owned by members of his family and continued to operate until all but three had died. In January 1951 the majority of shares were sold to Weeks Ltd, a printing and manufacturing business based in Christchurch, who intended to expand the business to produce much of the country's tobacco packaging.
Weeks Ltd sold the business to UEB around 1964. UEB continued to work in Whanganui until they closed operations in 1985, ending 112 years of printing service.
•Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.