WILKES, ROBERT, politician and businessman; b. at Tullaghan, County Leitrim, Ireland, 24 June 1832; m. Martha Cooke in 1863; d. at Sturgeon Point, Ont., 16 Aug. 1880.
Robert Wilkes’ father died before 1832 and his family, in which there were six other children, was probably poor. His education in Ireland was limited and he emigrated in 1848 at 16. He came to Toronto where opportunities existed since his uncle, R. H. Brett, was “one of the leading merchants.” Wilkes clerked with Brett for a time, then for Rossin Brothers, jewellers in Toronto. In 1857 or 1858 he bought Rossin Brothers, thus establishing his own wholesale jewellery firm in Toronto; he subsequently expanded to Montreal, Hamilton, and western Canada. He was sending travellers to Manitoba and British Columbia by 1872. He diversified his business interests as he grew wealthier and in 1869 he was a charter member of the Toronto, Simcoe, and Muskoka Junction Railway (later part of the Northern Railway). He became a director of the Canadian Bank of Commerce in 1871 and was one of its vice-presidents from 1874 to 1876. He served as a director of the Confederation Life Assurance Association and of the Isolated Risk Fire Insurance Company.
Wilkes was a Liberal, but an unusually unpersistent politician. He does not appear to have taken part in municipal politics, and it was not until 1872 that he contested a parliamentary riding, that of Toronto Centre. He was elected then and again in 1874, but when the latter return was voided in the same year he retired from politics.
Although Robert Wilkes himself is not memorable politically, the 1872 election in Toronto Centre in which he ran against Francis Shanly*, a railway engineer, was most revealing. George Brown thus described the election to his wife: “The struggle . . . in Centre Toronto was the keenest & bitterest I ever knew. The amount of bribery & perjury done by our opponents was never approached in any previous contest.” A Conservative. observer agreed: “We had great excitement yesterday over the Central Division Election. It is said none of the old famous struggles were anything like it. The halt the lame the blind, & even the absent & the dead were brought out to vote . . . & there can be no doubt a large sum of money was spent, & probably on both sides.” One of the Conservative managers has left an interesting insight into the politics of open voting: “We suffered a most mortifying defeat yesterday when victory was within our grasp, at 11 o’clock we were 201 behind, at 12 178 at 1 157 & at 2 70, we then began to work & spend money but it was too late, we were beaten by 28, half an hour more would have cleaned off the 28 & given us a good majority.” The Conservative party accounts survive, and reveal a minimum expenditure of $8,807.25. The Liberals probably spent as much. When the small size of the electorate is considered (Toronto Centre had 4,148 eligible voters of whom 2,404 voted), along with the real value of an 1872 dollar, the expense and financial pressure of a 19th-century election become clear.
Wilkes was an active churchman and a member of the general conference of the Methodist Church. He retired from the wholesale business shortly before his premature death by drowning, along with two of his children, at Sturgeon Point, Ont., on 16 Aug. 1880. Wilkes had become a “wholesale merchant of great energy, who from a position of a clerk . . . raised himself to wealth . . . .”
PAC, MG 24, B40 (Brown papers), 8. PAO, Sir Alexander Campbell papers, 1872; Francis Shanly papers. Globe (Toronto), 1880. Sarnia Observer, 1872. [Walter and Francis Shanly], Daylight through the mountain; letters and labours of civil engineers Walter and Francis Shanly, ed. F. N. Walker ([Toronto], 1957), 390. Can. directory of parliament (Johnson), 602. Can. parl. comp., 1873. Dom. ann. reg., 1880–81. Davin, Irishman in Canada. Hist. of Toronto and county of York, II, 173–74. Hunter, Hist. of Simcoe County, I, 207. Ross and Trigge, History of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, II. Swainson, “Personnel of politics.”