It comes as a surprise to find a Frenchman by the name of Igor Wilkes. But four generations ago, in the mid-1830’s, Igor’s great-grandfather, Edwin, left Birmingham to start a new life
in France with his young wife of whom, rumour has it, Edwin’s family disapproved. In doing so, he turned his back on the typically Birmingham family business of making kitchenware
in copper and pewter, first in Moor Street and later in Lower Priory. Edwin’s grandfather, when a young apprentice, had had the good sense to marry his boss’s daughter and had been taken on as a partner. In return, on the birth of his first son, he added his father-in-law’s surname to his own, so that the family name became Villers Wilkes. Trading as
E.V Wilkes, the company continued in family ownership for over half a century, and the following is a charming quote from the Birmingham Daily Post (as it was then called) of 1870: “During our peregrinations, we took a stroll down the Lower Priory to ascertain if
the hammers of our old friend Villers Wilkes were at work, and to our delight heard that same harmony so familiar to our ears fifty years earlier.”
It was not until 1881 that the two Villers Wilkes sisters, Emma and Ellen, inherited a
lifetime interest in the family fortune under a trust set up by one of their brothers.
Emma, a regular worshipper at St Philip’s Church (later the Cathedral), lost no time in fulfilling a long-held desire to see the expansion of the apse. With her inheritance, she
was able to pay not only for this, but also for its three stained glass windows designed
by Edward Burne-Jones (who had been born in Bennetts Hill) and made by (William)
Morris & Co. To the present day, these are regarded as among Burne-Jones’ finest work.
But this wasn’t Emma and Ellen’s only contribution to the city of their birth. On the
deaths, both in 1891, their fortune was divided between the General Hospital and the
Birmingham and Midland Institute, each receiving (at 2018 prices) some £5.4 million.
And what of Igor Wilkes? A few weeks ago, he came to Birmingham for the first time in 60 years
to see again his great-great aunt’s legacy. And he was delighted to support the Cathedral’s Divine Beauty project to clean and restore these magnificent stained glass windows which shone in the March sunshine.