John Williamson was born probably on 25 August 1815 at Newry, County Down, Ireland. His parentage is unknown. Probably educated at one of Newry's three National schools, he served a printer's apprenticeship. Probably in 1833 or 1834 he married Sarah Barre. They had five children, two of whom died in childhood.
Williamson emigrated to Sydney, Australia, in 1840, worked on the Australasian Chronicle and the Sydney Monitor, and came to Auckland, New Zealand, on the Shamrock under engagement to the Auckland Printing Company on 1 July 1841. On 7 June 1845 he purchased the Reverend H. H. Lawry's Wesleyan South Seas Missions printing press and established the New-Zealander, being joined by a partner, W. C. Wilson, on 1 January 1848. Their newspaper, sustained by lucrative government and jobbing printing and stationery contracts, became the leading Auckland journal. Philo-Maori and supporting Governor George Grey, it advocated the liberal land settlement schemes and assisted immigration policies of its major editor, Williamson. Disagreements over such policies led Wilson to leave the partnership in 1863. The New-Zealander became a daily in 1863 and the first penny morning paper in the colony on 3 April 1865. But the newspaper faltered and Williamson relinquished control in 1864. He briefly resumed ownership in 1865 and after January 1866 operated the paper as a bi-weekly. Profits dropped, however, and the burning of the premises on 7 May ended the paper.
By then Williamson was the Auckland province's first successful full-time politician. After visiting the Californian goldfields in 1850, he sat in the first Auckland Provincial Council as member for Pensioner Settlements (1853–56). On 11 November 1856 he was elected superintendent of Auckland province, was re-elected unopposed the following year, and was barely victorious on 9 November 1861. Frustrated by a hostile council and bitterly opposed to the Native Lands Act, he resigned on 18 October 1862, but, surprisingly contested the election against Robert Graham. He was defeated on his conciliatory Maori policy. Nevertheless he topped the poll for the provincial council in November 1865, joined Frederick Whitaker's executive as commissioner of waste lands and succeeded Whitaker as superintendent, unopposed, in April 1867. Narrowly beaten by T. B. Gillies in 1869, he was again successful on 20 November 1873 and remained superintendent until his death.
Throughout his political career he was also member of the House of Representatives for Pensioner Settlements (1855–60) and City of Auckland West (1861–75). Except for three weeks in 1861 as William Fox's stop-gap minister without portfolio, he remained a private member, jealously guarding Auckland's interests. Williamson also served as Crown lands commissioner (1866–70) and curator of intestate estates for Auckland district, with a salary of £600 per annum. His emolument as superintendent was a princely £800 per annum, but he died a relatively poor man and the province, as one of its last measures, granted his widow £1,000.
Williamson's formative 25 years in Newry, with its diverse religious population, and his Wesleyan and temperance connections, were crucial to both his beliefs and political skills. The Wesleyans, initially anti-ascendancy, anti-Catholic and resenting Presbyterianism, gave Williamson an instinctive sense of complex caste and religious politics and social nuances that he applied to some effect in Auckland's malleable society. He participated in Methodism's unique circuit ministry and carried over into New Zealand provincial politics a Dissenter's distrust of Presbyterianism and Anglicanism.
Williamson's enemies doubted the sincerity of his religious convictions and the durability of his salvation from drunkenness by the Reverend Walter Lawry soon after his arrival at Auckland. John Logan Campbell remarked that hypocrisy and backsliding were fatal flaws in his character. Campbell's partner, William Brown, whose political career Williamson destroyed, shared this reaction to the superintendent's skilful use of religious piety, political sectarianism and roads and bridges patronage. But Williamson's role as founding father of Wesleyanism in Auckland, and his activities as a moving spirit in the total abstinence movement, the Good Templars, British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Mechanics' Institute, and as co-founder of the Odd Fellows, the first Auckland friendly society, suggest a personality of dogged conviction, dedicated to deeper concerns than religious expediency, editorial influence and social respectability.
Williamson believed in settling and developing Auckland, both town and country, through immigration, public works, and the encouragement of small-scale artisan and farming enterprise. A conciliatory, missionary-oriented Maori policy of assimilation and final amalgamation would underpin the disposal of 'waste lands' on which all depended. 'Bring out multitudes of people, and have the country overspread with an intelligent population, and…New Zealand would become what it is destined to be, namely, the Britain of the South', declared Williamson. Only if the opportunities and privileges of the wealthy and powerful provinces were thwarted and the monopolists of capital broken could Auckland assume its rightful position as the premier colony. Agricultural development should take priority over commerce, and capital and labour should collaborate by establishing a viable settler society based on a small-scale landed proprietary. If the Fencibles were his political instrument, the Nova Scotians of Waipu, the Germans of Puhoi and the Ulstermen of Katikati were his model migrants.
Williamson supported the eight hours movement, a national education system based on religious instruction rather than 'godless atheism', and dispensed government funds for relief works during the frequent hiccups in the trade cycle. Yet it was Williamson's strong philo-Maori stance that set him apart from most of his contemporaries. Favouring the 'intermingling of the races' in small-farming and artisan activities, Williamson opposed the Taranaki and Waikato wars as unnecessary confrontations, offensive to evangelical humanitarianism and threatening both the safety of the Pakeha community and the orderly disposal of Maori lands to the Crown and small settlers. He favoured the King movement, incorporation rather than coercion, and Christian salvation rather than confiscation. Maori land, he argued, could be acquired through the process of peaceful agricultural penetration. Government-sponsored immigration would soon convert the Maori from a landed majority to an incorporated minority.
From his first election Williamson stood firm for the provincial structure, even occasionally arguing for the complete separation of the Auckland province as well as of the two islands. In the end he recognised the incompatibility between Vogelism, of which he was the greatest champion in Auckland, and provincialism; but death ended his delaying moves as 'the old family physician' to bring 'life and vigour' into 'this dying province'.
Williamson's electoral successes derived from his appeal to the broken-down pensioners of Howick and Onehunga, struggling Aucklanders of the lower orders, the extractive workers and small farmers of the marginal settlements of the province and, later, the goldminers of Coromandel and Thames. He was trenchant in debate and capable of wielding a vitriolic pen. On 6 June 1864 sailors from the Esk attempted to pull down his newspaper offices after he had castigated British actions at Gate Pa. Williamson made skilful use of Roman Catholic fears and aspirations. His roads and bridges largesse, combined with electioneering tactics that were both seedy and effective, usually circumvented his enemies.
Williamson's gifts suited a superintendent's functions, which were an amalgam of official appearances, administrative duties, popular leadership and Auckland advocacy. A representative of the masses, 'well qualified to reach the hearts of voters, or to excite their itching palms', Williamson was in a unique political position, as the superintendent directly elected by the enfranchised males of the whole province who could select his executive from the council. Facing great difficulties over land disposal and fluctuating and declining revenues, maintaining civil government in a war society and economy, coping with the loss of the seat of government to Wellington and the domination by the south, Williamson successfully rode out most storms. Yet although sharing many of Grey's beliefs, he was much more than the pliant territorial tool of the governor and the Wesleyan mafia that his enemies of the Progress Party suggested he was.
Williamson's sacrifice of his private interests to public duty and personal beliefs are exaggerated. He was a keen, if unsuccessful, land speculator. A racy, fluent and persuasive speaker, Williamson possessed a warm sense of humour and a feeling for the political numbers and pulse in a crude yet dynamic frontier society. But 'Carbuncle Jack', as the saturnine, black-haired, pale-faced, pock-marked Irishman was nicknamed, was certainly willing 'to go to the helm in all weathers' for the province, his supporters and his friends.
In 1875 John Williamson expired with the provinces. He died at his house, Pine Lodge, in West Newton, Auckland, on 16 February. The man on whom his enemies bestowed a coat of arms with a prowling shark in a meadow was remembered mainly as a relic of the turbulent colonial past. Grey eulogised him as one whose life offered an object lesson for service and use of skills and talent to rise to position and power. Williamson's grave in the Grafton cemetery is marked with his motto: 'Be just, and fear not; let all the ends thou aim'st at be thy country's, thy God's and truth's.'