MAKERS OF CANTERBURY.
PIONEERS OF THE PROVINCE.
Sir John Cracroft Wilson, 1808-1881
PIONEERS OF THE PROVINCE.
Sir John Cracroft Wilson, 1808-1881
When Canterbury was founded the services in India were already giving to New Zealand both soldiers and civilians who were seeking a congenial climate and pleasant prospects for their retirement. Amongst those who had already visited the country was John Cracroft Wilson, an officer in the Civil service of the Honourable East India Company, and he made up his mind to live here as soon as his time of service had expired. The son of Alexander Wilson, F.R.S., a distinguished judge in the Madras Civil service, and his wife Clementina Cracroft, John was born at Onore, in that Presidency, a little to the north of Madras, on May 21st, 1808. He went home for his education, as all young English boys had to, and having matriculated from Haileybury School, entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1826 and remained there two years. In 1828 he married at Brixton, Surrey, a daughter of S. Wall. He was then appointed a cadet in the Bengal Civil service, and with his own native ability, and the influence which a distinguished father lent him he made good progress. Before long he was assistant commissioner under Sir William Sleeman, and he made a name for himself by his successful exertions in the suppression of thuggism. While still a young man he was appointed Magistrate at Cawnpore; and in 1841 he was promoted to Moorababad as Magistrate and collector, a post which he administered until 1853.
During the War in Scinde he was attached in a civil capacity to the staff of Sir Charles Napier, and he took part in 1843 in the battle of Meanee, at which 2000 European troops after a desperate struggle defeated an army of 30,000 Baluchis and slew 6000 of them. His first wife having died, Wilson married, in 1844, Jane Torrie, daughter of James Greig.
In 1854, having accumulated a good deal of leave, Wilson decided to pay a visit to Australia for the benefit of his health, and he took with him, in a small ship, the Akbar, a veritable Noah's Ark of Indian animals, including some deer and a Damascus Arab horse purchased in Calcutta. He had also a number of Indian followers, some of whom settled in New Zealand in the fifties and remained here. After touching at Melbourne the Akbar sailed to Sydney and Newcastle, taking on horses, cattle, and a large number of sheep for New Zealand. The voyage was a rather unfortunate one, prolonged so that 1200 sheep had to be thrown overboard, and a call had to be made at the Croixelles for food, fuel, and water. At length, on April 6th, the Akbar reached Lyttelton, The last of the deer died that day, but the Arab Wanderer survived.
Wilson prospected the country, and fixed upon the rising ground at the foot of the Port Hills for his run, giving it the name Cashmere. There he made his home, working hard and long to get things into order before his leave expired. The period. ended in May, 1855, when he sailed on his return to. Calcutta, taking his wife with him, but leaving one son at Cashmere.
The next year passed quietly enough in his old post as civil and sessions judge at Moorababad, but early in 1875 India was convulsed by the outbreak of the mutiny amongst the native troops, which imperilled the lives of the whole of the white population and the existence of the British power. Moorababad was in the very heart of the disaffected area. Wilson was a man of action. "Without any undue appreciation of his own influence and capacity for good," says Kaye, the historian of the Mutiny, "he applied to the lieutenant-governor to enlarge his powers. The application was promptly granted and Wilson acted with characteristic resolution and sagacity." Kaye describes him as "a civil functionary of immense energy and courage, a man equal to any emergency and capable of any act of daring," As judge he had no control over executive details, but his enlarged powers gave him that. In his own district the 29th Sapoy Regiment was stationed, and the unflinching courage and resource with which he faced their mutiny made a great impression on the minds of the soldiers. On one occasion, his route lay past the lines of the native artillery, whose treachery had been known from the beginning. They laid their guns and lit their portfires, but "Wilson's clear blue eyes calmly confronted the murderous design. Without a sign of fear on his face he rode towards the guns, not from them, and waved his hat as a challenge to the gunners, who, abashed and overawed by the bearing of the intrepid Englishmen, slunk back and Wilson was saved ''
In his despatch of July 2nd, 1859, when the Mutiny had been suppressed, Canning referred to the services, rendered during the time of trial, and singled out Wilson for first mention amongst all the civilians who comported themselves so well. The pressure of the revolt was severer and longer in his part of India than anywhere else, and only isolated posts continued to recognise British authority. "I name this gentleman first," wrote Canning, "because of his enviable distinction of having by his obstinate courage and perseverance saved more Christian lives than any other man in India. He did this at the repeatedly imminent peril to his own life. He has since left the service of the Indian Government, and retired to New Zealand, where I respectfully hope that the favour of the Crown may follow him," Wilson was in fact made a C.B. for his eminent services during the Mutiny in the capacity of special commissioner for the trial of rebels and mutineers, and when the order of the Indian Empire was created in 1873 he was made a knight of it. The Mutiny over, he retired from the service in 1859, and came back to his quiet prospects in Canterbury, accompanied by quite a retinue of Indian servants, many of whom were to make their permanent homes in the country.
Wilson was not long permitted to remain out of public life in Canterbury. In 1861 he was elected member of Parliament for the City of Christchurch, which he represented until 1866, a picturesque and respected figure in the House. Then he was returned for Coleridge (1866-70) and from 1872 he was member for Heathcote. Meanwhile he was elected to represent Ashburton in the Provincial Council from 1862-66. Heathcote had his services in 1871 and again in 1875-76, and during the latter term he was for a short period, in 1870, president of the Executive. In Parliament he was for many years chairman of the Public Petitions Committee, to the duties of which he gave constant attention. Nor were local bodies beneath his notice. He served as a member of school committees for many years, some time as chairman of the Upper Heathcote Committee. He was on the road board and at the time of his death was chairman of the Amuri County Council, and of the Canterbury Saleyards Company. He imported stud sheep, (Chiefly Lincolns) and for many years exhibited at shows, and carried off many prizes. he was a model farmer. He was keenly interested, too, in acclimatisation, was chairman of the Canterbury Society for many years and also president. One of the early members of the Jockey Club, he was associated with Cass in the selection of the site of the racecourse. As a volunteer he was major, commanding the Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry. As a churchman, he was a churchwarden at Halswell, a prominent member of St. John's, and a member of the Synod. He was a constant patron of the opera and the drama.
Sir John Cracroft Wilson died on March 2nd, 1881, leaving a widow and a family of two sons and two daughters.
Press, Volume LXVI, Issue 19854, 15 February 1930