John Cracroft Wilson was born on 21 May 1808 and was baptised at Mangalore in the Madras Presidency of India, the only son of Alexander Wilson and his wife, Elizabeth Cleminta Cracroft. In 1826 he entered Brasenose College, Oxford. Probably on 4 November 1828 at Westminster, or Brixton, Surrey, he married Elizabeth Wall: they were to have eight children.
Returning to India after his marriage, Wilson joined the Indian civil service in Bengal and was soon promoted to become an assistant commissioner to Sir William Sleeman in his campaign against Thuggism. After serving as a magistrate at Cawnpore (Kanpur), he was transferred in 1841 to Moradabad, where he was appointed magistrate and collector, positions he retained until 1853. His wife, Elizabeth, having died in 1843, he married Jane Torrie Greig on 12 October 1844 at Bareilly, near Moradabad. There were no children of this marriage.
His health failing, Wilson left India on leave in October 1853, sailing from Calcutta on the Queen with his wife, daughter Emma, a retinue of Indian attendants, and an assortment of exotic livestock, including an Arab horse, birds, game, plants and seeds. In Melbourne he chartered the Akhbar and at Sydney and Newcastle took on sheep, cattle and horses. This Noah's ark arrived in Lyttelton on 10 April 1854, after a protracted voyage during which 1,200 sheep had to be jettisoned.
Wilson purchased the swamp at the foot of the Port Hills and threw himself into the hard work of draining the land. He named the property Cashmere. He leased the Broadlands, Cracroft and High Peak stations, and saw to the foundation of the Canterbury Jockey Club before leaving in December 1854 by the Waterwitch to return to India. His wife and daughter followed him some months later, arriving home in Moradabad in 1857. (On board ship Emma met John Logan Campbell, whom she married in Meerut in 1858.)
Wilson took up the position of judge at Moradabad and on the outbreak of rebellion at Meerut in May 1857 successfully applied to the government to be allowed 'carte blanche to do as I liked'. He organised a small force of irregular cavalry and roamed the country rescuing English fugitives. For his bravery he was mentioned prominently in dispatches by the governor general, Lord Canning, received the Indian Mutiny medal and was made a CB. In 1872 he was knighted (Order of the Star of India) for his services.
Wilson resigned from the service in 1859, and he and his wife returned to Canterbury on the Armenian, arriving on 7 April 1859 with their servants, 52 horses, two hares and a Bokhara jackass. Fifty years of age and as energetic as ever, despite a broken collar-bone sustained on the voyage, he returned almost immediately to Sydney to supervise the loading of a shipment of brood mares to Calcutta and arrived back in Canterbury on 28 May on the Lord Worsley, this time to remain.
Wilson soon became active in politics and local affairs. He was MHR for Christchurch (1861–66), Coleridge (1866–70) and Heathcote (1872–75). In the House he was a stickler for parliamentary procedure, defended provincial interests and advocated the use of Gurkha troops to suppress Maori rebellion. He was chairman of the Public Petitions Committee from 1866 to 1870. Refusing a position in the government, he criticised William Fox and Julius Vogel for extravagance and mismanagement, and swore to defend Canterbury's land fund to the point of 'rebellion and armed resistance'. In the Canterbury Provincial Council Wilson represented Ashburton (1862–66) and Heathcote (1871, 1874–76). At the last session of the council, as president of an executive determined to carry out policies of retrenchment and economy in opposition to William Rolleston, the superintendent, he conducted himself with 'a power of self-restraint which was not expected of him'.
Wilson was a major in the Canterbury Volunteers from 1868, a member of the Canterbury College board of governors in 1875, chairman of the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society, a patron of opera and drama, and a keen flautist. He was chairman of the Amuri County Council from its foundation in 1876 until 1880. Able to afford to leave the management of his runs to others, Wilson concentrated on his avowed ambition 'to put together a property worthy of being entailed on his eldest son' and conducted himself as a self-conscious descendant of the landed Cracrofts of Hackthorn, Lincolnshire. He was conspicuous for the large expenditure he incurred in improving his estate at Cashmere, and was a frequent exhibitor of stock (especially Lincoln sheep) at agricultural shows.
Described by the Lyttelton Times as 'Toryism on two legs', criticised for his one-sided Masters and Servants Bill of 1865, undoubtedly haughty, stubborn, egocentric, and with a reputation for paying low wages, 'Nabob' Wilson was nevertheless known for his honesty and straight dealing, speaking out against what he saw as dishonesty, and greed or hunger for office. A colourful figure, public-spirited and capable of great kindness, Sir John Cracroft Wilson died at Cashmere, Christchurch, on 2 March 1881.