Apprenticed as a printer to his father's firm at about the age of 14, for more than 70 years Bertie Ernest Hawkes Whitcombe was associated with Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, which for most of that time dominated bookselling, printing and publishing in New Zealand. He was born in Christchurch on 6 October 1875 to Mary Hall and her husband, George Hawkes Whitcombe, a French teacher at a private school for girls. After becoming involved in a series of unsuccessful bookselling partnerships, in 1882 his father joined with a printer, George Tombs, to open a business in Cashel Street. The next year Whitcombe and Tombs was one of the earliest limited liability companies registered under the Companies Act 1882. By the late 1880s the firm was on its way to its later pre-eminence.
Bertie (his registered name, which caused him some embarrassment in later life) was the eldest of a large family of whom eight sons and four daughters grew to adulthood. He attended Charles Cook's Warwick House School in Cranmer Square but was removed because his father thought 'he wasn't learning enough', or possibly because the family was not yet prosperous. His training in the Whitcombe and Tombs printery was as rigorous as any other apprentice's, but he was given a wide experience to fit him to take over the firm eventually. At the end of his apprenticeship he was sent to Britain and later to Queensland, Australia, for further training. In the early twentieth century he managed branches of the firm in Dunedin, Wellington and Melbourne, and in 1911 he was appointed general manager.
George Tombs had retired in 1889 and Whitcombe and Tombs, although a public company with outside shareholding, became more and more a Whitcombe fiefdom. George Whitcombe was a forceful businessman who out-manoeuvred competitors and fought with the unions. He bought premises for his bookshops in the main streets of the main centres, and established large printeries, which he kept busy producing diaries, stationery and books during slack seasons in jobbing printing. He hired competent editors to develop a publishing list, which specialised in textbooks but included important general works and the remarkable and long-lasting Whitcombe's Story Books series. He opened an office in London in 1889 for purchasing stock and sent Bertie to manage it in 1912. Buying stock for New Zealand bookshops, at the end of a long, slow line of communication with their main suppliers in England and with little chance of retrieving mistakes, required a sure insight into what would sell. The task bred shrewdness and caution.
On 1 February 1913 Bertie Whitcombe married, at Woodford Wells, Essex, Fannie Allingham Morrow, a Christchurch woman to whom he was engaged before he left New Zealand. The couple returned to New Zealand in 1916, where Bertie was to manage the shop recently taken over from an independent firm in Queen Street, Auckland. In 1917, on the sudden death of his father, he was recalled to Christchurch to become managing director of Whitcombe and Tombs, a post he held for 41 years.
Bertie Whitcombe's business style differed from that of his father. Although he maintained the dominant position of the firm and was alert to chances for expansion, his was a consolidating role. He was a notably visible chief. A tall man with a genial, paternal manner, he had little taste for sitting alone in an office; he walked around shop and factory talking to staff and customers, often handing out barley sugar. Frequently he travelled to branches outside Christchurch. At one time, in the 1920s, nearly all of these were managed by his brothers. Minutes of branch managers' meetings make odd reading: all the participants were named Whitcombe and can be distinguished only by their initials. But although Bertie listened to his brothers and other executives, it was he who made the decisions.
In people and resources employed, Whitcombe's publishing was a minor partner to the bookshops and printeries, yet it was through publishing that Bertie Whitcombe influenced almost all New Zealanders of his time. They learned to read and figure from Whitcombe's textbooks and to beat the imperial drum from Our nation's story; they were entertained by Whitcombe's Story Books and fed on recipes from Whitcombe's everyday cookery (as prominent in its day as Edmonds 'Sure to Rise' cookery book ); and they learnt about trades and New Zealand's flora and fauna from Whitcombe's manuals. Bertie Whitcombe worked closely on the publishing programme with his long-serving editor, Arnold Shrimpton, a man of similar outlook. Their publishing was professional, thorough, conservative and (at least until the 1940s) visually dull. By the 1930s New Zealanders were looking elsewhere for adventurous publishing, particularly to the Caxton Press on the literary side and to A. H. & A. W. Reed for more popular books.
Bertie Whitcombe retired as managing director in 1958 but remained chairman of the board (a post to which he had been appointed in 1943) until 1962. He died on 16 June 1963 in Wellington, where his only child, Joan Maclean, was living. His wife, Fannie, died in September 1964. In 1971 the firm merged with the printers Coulls Somerville Wilkie Limited and became known as Whitcoulls.