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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


WILSON, Sir John Cracroft, K.C.S.I., C.B.


Indian Civil Servant and New Zealand politician.

A new biography of Wilson, John Cracroft appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

John Cracroft Wilson was born on 21 May 1808 at Onamore, in the Madras Presidency, India, the son of Alexander Wilson, F.R.S., a Judge in the Madras Civil Service, and botanist of distinction. His mother was Clementina, née Cracroft. He was educated at Haileybury School and Brasenose College, Oxford, and entered the Bengal Civil Service as a cadet. He became an Assistant Commissioner under Sir William Sleeman with whom he distinguished himself in suppressing Thuggism. As a reward for these services he was appointed Magistrate at Cawnpore, but, in 1841, transferred to Moradabad, where he acted as Magistrate and Collector until 1853. During the Scinde War Cracroft Wilson was attached to Sir Charles Napier's staff in a civil capacity; but, notwithstanding his status, he took part in the Battle of Meeanee on 17 February 1843. In 1853 his health broke down and he was ordered to convalesce in a cooler climate. Accordingly, he sailed to Australia and, after purchasing sheep and cattle in Sydney, brought them to Lyttelton in the Akbar. He arrived on 8 April 1853 and at once took up land in the Cashmere Hills. By the time his leave had expired, his station was well established. In May 1855 he returned to Moradabad, where he resumed his position in the magistracy. During the Mutiny, when Europeans living in Moradabad were endangered by the 29th Sepoy Regiment, Cracroft Wilson secured special powers from the Lieutenant-Governor and acted to prevent the spread of disaffection. His intervention was so effective that, after the Mutiny, he was appointed Special Commissioner for the Trial of Rebels and Mutineers. In 1859 he resigned from service and came to New Zealand, bringing with him a number of Indian retainers. Lord Canning, the Viceroy, recommended him for a distinction “because he has the enviable distinction of having, by his obstinate courage and perseverance, saved more Christian lives than any man in India … at the repeatedly imminent peril of his own life”. Queen Victoria awarded him the C.B. and, when the Order of the Star of India was instituted in 1872, Cracroft Wilson was offered, and accepted, the rank of Knight Commander.

In New Zealand Cracroft Wilson was returned to the House of Representatives for Christchurch City (1861–66), Coleridge (1866–70), and Heathcote (1872–75) and was for some years Chairman of the Public Petitions Committee. He was a forceful and, at times, provocative debater. During the sixties, when Maori affairs were frequently before the House, Cracroft Wilson drew freely on his Indian experiences to reinforce his arguments. He strongly urged the use of Gurkha troops as the most effective means of bringing the war to a speedy and successful conclusion. He represented Ashburton in the Canterbury Provincial Council from 1866 to 1870 and Heathcote in 1871 and 1875–76. For a short time in 1875 he was President of the Provincial Executive. In addition he served on numerous local bodies and was a keen member of the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society. He was an early member of the Canterbury Jockey Club and helped Cass to select the site of the racecourse. He commanded the Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry, was a patron of opera and drama, a governor of Canterbury College, and a diocesan synodsman. As a farmer, he imported pedigree sheep, principally Lincolns, and founded a stud flock.

Sir John Cracroft Wilson was twice married: first, on 4 November 1828, at Westminster, to Elizabeth Hall; and, secondly, on 12 October 1844, at Moradabad, India, to Jane Torie Greig. He had four sons and three daughters. Cracroft Wilson died at Cashmere, Christchurch, on 2 March 1881.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • History of the Sepoy Mutiny, Kaye, J. (1867–76)
  • Press, 4 Mar 1881 (Obit)
  • Lyttelton Times, 4 Mar 1881 (Obit).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.