Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Crewes, John

Page 1: Biography

Crewes, John


Bible Christian minister, social worker, journalist

This biography, written by Mollie Chalklen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

John Crewes was born at Grampound, a small market town in Cornwall, England, on 15 July 1847. He was the son of Isabella Francis and her husband, Richard Crewes, a carpenter. At an early age John was converted to Bible Christian preaching, which had a considerable following in Cornwall. A splinter group of the Wesleyan Methodists, the Bible Christians followed teachings based on biblical precept and example. They were characterised by a revivalist, evangelical style of preaching, total abstinence from alcohol and an affinity with radical politics.

John Crewes was greatly influenced by the Bible Christian response to drunkenness, ignorance, and clerical apathy, and as a young man he was closely associated with city missions, especially in temperance and prison-gate work. Educated in London, he became first a lay preacher and later an ordained Bible Christian minister.

In 1877 the first Bible Christian missionaries came to New Zealand and began work in Christchurch. Two years later John Crewes and his wife, Martha Veale, followed. They had married at Plymouth on 1 September 1877. Early in 1881 Crewes had the satisfaction of seeing the laying of the foundation stone of a Bible Christian church in Lower High Street, their first church in New Zealand. Designed to seat 250 worshippers and opened free of debt, it was a testimony to his preaching and energy. At this time he was also taking services in surrounding country districts.

Not surprisingly, Crewes's health deteriorated, and he was forced to leave the ministry temporarily. In 1884 he stood for Parliament as a 'democrat' against Julius Vogel in Christchurch North, hoping to capture the working man's vote. He was unsuccessful, and again so in 1887 when he stood in Sydenham.

When he re-entered the ministry in 1888 Crewes was appointed 'special agent' in Addington. In his two years there he continued his work with prisoners, especially as part of a Salvation Army team involved in spiritual care and rehabilitation. As a prison-gate missioner he was able to use his considerable talents and knowledge to prevent miscarriages of justice, apparently once saving a man from the gallows. His association with the Salvation Army continued throughout his life.

Crewes was well known in Christchurch as a journalist and public speaker. A sermon preached in 1889 on sweated labour attracted wide interest. He was a strong supporter of temperance, stressing its political and social implications. He continued these activities when he was sent to Wellington in 1890. However, this ministry did not flourish and was abandoned after only two years. Crewes did not again work full time in a Methodist ministry, but he continued his association as a lay preacher, retaining his clerical title after the union of the Bible Christians with the Wesleyan Methodists and United Methodist Free Churches in 1896.

Settling in Newtown, Crewes's interest in social work found expression in new directions. He became secretary of several highly successful co-operative building societies, and was appointed a justice of the peace in 1898. From 1900 to 1903 he served a term as chairman of the Wellington Board of Conciliation established under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894. Contemporary reports refer to his mild manner and amiable disposition. In 1902 he made a last attempt to enter Parliament when he stood for the seat of Newtown, but withdrew before the election.

Crewes's other major contribution to Wellington life reflected his passionate interest in conservation. Through his wide reading he had become very knowledgeable about zoology, and he was the prime mover in establishing the Wellington Zoological Gardens at Newtown in 1906. In 1910 he became the first president of the Wellington Zoological Society, and was editor of its journal, the Zoo Standard, from 1916 to 1925.

Crewes's last years were clouded by a civil action brought against him by the Colonial Co-operative Building Society in 1915 over some disputed funds. In ill health, he had been granted a year's leave of absence as secretary of the society in October 1912, but the court found that he was nevertheless liable for deficiencies in the society's bookkeeping during that time. In retirement Crewes was occupied with preaching, and writing articles on animals and birds for the Dominion and the Salvation Army journal, the War Cry. He died at Wellington on 29 December 1925, survived by three sons and a daughter. His wife, Martha Crewes, had died in August 1913.

How to cite this page:

Mollie Chalklen. 'Crewes, John', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2c38/crewes-john (accessed 23 May 2024)