Page 1: Biography
Wilson, James Glenny
Farmer, politician, farming lobbyist
This biography, written by Tom Brooking, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
James Glenny Wilson was born at Hawick, Roxburghshire, Scotland, probably on 29 November 1849. His father, George Wilson, was a woollen manufacturer, and his mother, Jane Law, the daughter of a minister in the Church of Scotland. James, the youngest of four sons, was educated at the local parish school until age 11. He then went to Bruce Castle School, Tottenham, London. At the age of 15 his father sent him to the Edinburgh Institution to learn more practical business skills. During this time he also studied physics and attended some arts classes at the University of Edinburgh.
On his return from Edinburgh Wilson was given a job in the office of the family firm. He showed little aptitude and was sent as a cadet to a farm at Dunkeld, on the estates of the duke of Atholl, where he whiled away two leisured and unprofitable years. In 1870 he travelled to Australia to the Briebrie run in western Victoria to learn more about pastoral farming. Wilson's duties were light and he had time to engage in an active social life. He joined the Melbourne Club, attended race meetings and met his future wife, Annie Adams. She was well educated, highly intelligent and proved to be a more astute business adviser than James's own father.
After deciding that New Zealand was a better country in which to establish a farm, Wilson sailed there in January 1873. He chose to buy rather than lease, purchasing a 6,210-acre block between what are now Bulls and Sanson for about £10,000. The land was rough and he was forced to pour most of his capital into developing it.
James Wilson was now in a position to marry, and wed Annie Adams at St Enochs station, near Skipton, Victoria, on 21 January 1874. Soon after, James's father ran into business difficulties and it was Annie's inheritance which carried them through. Wilson worked hard to convert poor scrub-covered land into productive English pasture. He was an innovative farmer who experimented with different fertilisers and various kinds of labour-saving machinery. He made many mistakes in developing a cross-bred flock suited to this relatively unknown piece of country. His grain crops produced only modest returns, and clear profits were not made until the depression lifted around 1895–96. The property itself was expanded slowly until the late 1890s when several lots were sold off as small farms. Wilson's flock never rose much above 9,000, so he was never among the wealthiest of the runholders.
In 1881 Wilson was elected MHR for the new electorate of Foxton; he represented it and its successor, Palmerston, until 1893, and Otaki from 1893 to 1896. He was a very popular local member. Wilson had little love for parliamentary politics and served out of a sense of duty, speaking only rarely in the House. He opposed Premier Harry Atkinson's limited tariff of 1888 but was not an ardent free trader, believing that the state had an important role to play in economic development. During the 1890s he became an admirer of John McKenzie, minister of lands, and supported most of his policies. He advocated women's suffrage, supported the property tax and tried to ensure that children in remote areas received a sound education.
Wilson seemed relieved to leave parliamentary politics and thereafter turned his attention to promoting better farming and rural education. During the 1890s he served as president of the annual conference of the agricultural and pastoral associations (begun in 1892). He became the obvious choice for president of the New Zealand Farmers' Union when it was established in 1902, and retained this position until 1920. Wilson's strong leadership was instrumental in winning Crown tenants the right of purchase at original valuation, and he successfully applied pressure to increase the purchase of Maori land. Wilson also served as president of the Board of Agriculture from its establishment in 1914 until 1929. It assisted in the reorganisation of the Department of Agriculture, extended the work of agricultural farms, and provided support for the setting up of the New Zealand Meat-producers Board in 1922.
Wilson always wanted an agricultural college for the North Island and a veterinary school. He lived to see the establishment of Massey Agricultural College, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Dairy Research Institute in 1926–27, and served on the first Massey Agricultural College council from 1927.
James Wilson will, however, probably be better remembered as an early conservationist than as a rural advocate. He was primarily responsible for the re-establishment of the State Forest Service – its predecessor had been abolished in the 1880s – and was president of the New Zealand Forestry League between 1916 and 1925. He was also a strong supporter of the Cawthron Institute and advocated the replanting of native forests.
Wilson was knighted in 1915 and spent his last years as the grand old man of New Zealand agricultural politics. His urbane pronouncements came to carry more and more echoes of a bygone era and bore little relation to the mundane concerns of hard-working dairy farmers. He also became fixated with the countryside and gave little thought to urban problems other than fulminating against 'shirker' unions and blaming the emergence of a 'nasal' accent on the poor adenoids induced by unhealthy urban living conditions.
Somehow this extraordinarily busy man managed to find time to serve on the Palmerston North Hospital Board and to promote scouting in his district. He also published a local chronicle, Early Rangitikei, in 1914, and in 1919 joined the New Zealand Institute and became president of its agricultural section. Little wonder that he became known in later life as the village 'squire'.
James Glenny Wilson died at Bulls on 4 May 1929. He was buried in the village cemetery under the shade of an old tree, a spot he had selected with some care. His funeral was as well organised as his very full life. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.