WILSON, Sir James Glenny, Kt.B.
Sheep farmer; member of Parliament, 1881–96; first president, New Zealand Farmers' Union, 1902–20; first president, Board of Agriculture, 1914–29.
A new biography of Wilson, James Glenny appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
James Glenny Wilson was born in Hawick in Scotland in 1849, scion of an old-established family of woollen manufacturers. His father, George Wilson, was the youngest of the 15 children of William Wilson, many of whom achieved more than local fame. One of them, James, was the founder of the Economist in 1843, and later became Minister of Finance in India under the Viceroy, Lord Canning.
George Wilson, a man of strong character and integrity, soon became wealthy; but, growing up in the period of economic stress following the Napoleonic Wars, he was grounded in Liberal traditions and in youth was an active and eloquent member of the Anti Corn Law League. In later life he acquired agrarian interests in Victoria and indirectly in New Zealand, and gave financial aid to his son, a young Conservative in the New Zealand Parliament. He married Jane Law, daughter of John Law, a handsome and vigorous preacher in the Teviot district who became known as “the Lion of Liddesdale”. James Glenny Wilson was the youngest of their four children.
James was educated at Bruce Castle School in London and, later, at the Edinburgh Institution, taking as well some arts lectures at the university. A misfit in the family business, he was sent as a cadet to a 700-acre farm, part of the estate of the Duke of Athol. Then, in his twenty-first year, in 1870, he went out to a large sheep station in western Victoria in which his father's firm had a financial interest. His position there as a part owner's young and inexperienced son was anomalous and, while he enjoyed a full and free social life and moved in Melbourne society, he felt he was “doing no good”. In 1873 he went on holiday to New Zealand and, after a general view of farming in Otago and Canterbury, he drew on his father to purchase an area of 6,200 acres north of the Sandon Small Farms Block. It was one of the last portions to be sold out of a block between the Rangitikei and Manawatu Rivers bought from the Maoris in 1866. Arranging for the purchase of stock and leaving a manager in charge, Wilson returned to Melbourne, where he married Annie Adams, daughter of Robert and Jane Adams, runholders in western Victoria. They returned to New Zealand to settle in 1874, built a house – “Lethenty” – in the village of Bulls as the property across the Rangitikei River was rather isolated, and there they remained for the rest of their lives, though “Lethenty” was rebuilt after the original home and much personal property were destroyed by fire in 1915.
Ngaio Station, as the run was named, was rather thin soil on clay, and in its native state was clothed with fern, tussock, toetoe, and manuka, with patches of useful bush in some gullies. Wilson was full of ideas but constitutionally not fit for heavy physical work; besides which he was irresistibly attracted to public life. He stocked the poor native pastures, such as they were, with the ewes of predominantly Merino blood that were still most common in the district, but with his father's help imported some Lincolns, and in later years experimented with Shropshires and other breeds. Disaster came almost at once with the bankruptcy of his father in 1875; the run had to be bought in from the creditors at a cost of £20,000 and refinanced. From that time, and especially in the eighties, till his father had re-established his business (which with remarkable ability he was able to do), Wilson was constantly in financial difficulties trying to make income do the work of capital in breaking in his large property, and bringing Ngaio from a state of nature to a state of grace. In his diary, on 25 April 1874, Wilson wrote: “How nice this place will look ten years hence, if it gets justice”. In a letter to her father-in-law, on 2 April 1887, Mrs Wilson wrote: “I have come to hate the very name of improvements”.
Fencing, ploughing, sowing turnips followed by grass seed – Wilson could never keep up with the work, and, as soon as one area was grassed, manuka seed carried in the sheep's fleeces caused more trouble. Prices were low. Topdressing and improved strains of pasture plants were still in the future, though in fact in 1890 Wilson did import basic slag – the first in New Zealand to do so. He exchanged information with farmers in other parts of the country, and a steady stream of advice and criticism from his father kept him abreast of British developments. From about 1900, when the sons had largely taken control and the burden of his mortgages had been reduced partly by bequests from his father and partly by the advantageous sale of sections on the margin of the run, things began to improve. Prices were at a higher level; prosperity was in sight. In 1881, in the midst of his struggles to improve his estate and to provide for his growing family, Wilson entered Parliament as member for the newly formed electorate of Foxton, and he retained the seat till he voluntarily retired in 1896. Thus he was in Parliament during a most interesting period of political change; but, though he spoke occasionally on such matters as land use, agricultural education, and forestry, and opposed Atkinson's Tariff Bill, he made little mark except as a conscientious local member eager to do what he could for the electors, whether friend or foe.
Out of Parliament, and with his sons now old enough to take a leading part in the management of Ngaio, Wilson found scope for his talents both locally in the county council and on the larger stage of the New Zealand Conference of Agricultural and Pastoral Associations where he gave leadership in relation to agricultural research and in rural education. He served on the Manawatu County Council from 1894–1925, most of the time as chairman, and for many years on the Palmerston North Hospital Board, the establishment of which he piloted through Parliament, and of which he was chairman at the time of his death. He was chairman of the private commission for the establishment of the Cawthron Institute. But the work that received widest public recognition was the establishment of the Farmers' Union, now Federated Farmers of New Zealand, of which he was the first president, an office he held from 1902 to 1920. Moreover, he gave energetic encouragement to education and research, and served as first president and, in effect, as chief executive officer of the Board of Agriculture established by the Massey Ministry in 1914. For his varied public services he was created Knight in 1915.
In private life Sir James Wilson and his wife presided over a home of culture and refinement where music, the arts, gardening, and nature study flourished. In his early years he was active in field sports, played cricket in 1881 for a Wanganui XXII that defeated the first Australian cricket team to visit New Zealand, and next year played for a Wellington XXII against A. Shaw's English team of professionals. He introduced polo to the Rangitikei and captained the team for many years, including 1894, when they won the Savile Cup. He played tennis at an age when most have given up athletic exercise.
Wilson's wife – Lady Wilson as she became in 1915 – was a lady of education, culture, and intelligence, and a writer whose prose and verse were published in England. She was her husband's constant inspiration and encouragement. They had three sons and two daughters. One son, Major R. A. Wilson, is widely known as farmer and naturalist. Miss Nancy Wilson was a Dominion leader in the Girl Guide movement.
Sir James Wilson died at Bulls on 3 May 1929.
by Leonard John Wild, C.B.E., M.A., B.SC.(HON.), D.SC., formerly Pro-Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, Otaki.
- Early Rangitikei, Wilson, J. G. (1914)
- Life and Times of Sir James Wilson of Bulls, Wild, L. J. (1954).