Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Mary Wilson Stevenson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
James Wilson is said to have been born at Prestwick, Ayrshire, Scotland, on 14 March 1814, the eldest of the 11 children of Ruth Kerr and her husband, James Wilson, a bootmaker. After attending Wallacetown Academy, Ayr, James worked for a local farmer, and then trained in farm management in the north of Ireland. Back in Scotland, he decided to emigrate to New South Wales, sailing from Plymouth on the Earl Grey on 9 March 1841.
Wilson worked as a farm manager near Bathurst, then as overseer of a government agricultural station at Bathurst. In 1848, after his marriage in Sydney on 21 February to Louisa Benson, he became a farm manager in the Georges River district. Here two daughters, Charlotte and Ruth, were born, but in 1852 Louisa Wilson died in childbirth. Wilson then left his daughters with friends in Sydney, to follow the goldrushes in New South Wales and Victoria. He became friends with a Highlander, John Robertson, and the pair, on the recommendation of two Southlanders, Alexander McNeill and John Howell, decided to move to New Zealand.
Wilson sailed from Sydney with his daughters in 1856, arriving at Dunedin in the Thomas and Henry on 16 March. He and Robertson set out on horseback for Bluff, where they joined with John and Adam Wilson and Lachlan Fraser in exploring the New River Estuary. Deciding to make his home at Waianiwa, Wilson purchased land in the area, and with Robertson's help built Etham, a fern-tree and wattle-slab cottage and the first European home in the Waianiwa district. When, a few months later, the Wilsons lost many of their possessions in a sudden flood, local Maori brought food to replenish the larder. In 1858, when Wilson discovered the first gold in Southland at Oteramika, the Maori fed his young daughters when his return was delayed. Wilson was married on 14 February 1859 at New River, near Invercargill, to Janet Ross. She does not appear to have lived with Wilson at Waianiwa. Their one daughter, Louisa, died of 'exhaustion, resulting from excessive sea-sickness', in August 1864 while on a voyage to Sydney with her half-sister Charlotte.
James Wilson took an active part in local affairs. He served as secretary and chairman of the Waianiwa School Committee for over 30 years, acted for a time as postmaster at Waianiwa, and was one of the first justices of the peace in Southland. In 1861 he was elected to the newly created Southland Provincial Council, on which he represented Waihopai from July 1861 to July 1867, Waianiwa from August 1867 to September 1869, and Waihopai again from October 1869 to October 1870.
Wilson played a leading part in the council's turbulent affairs. By 1864 heavy expenditure on constructing a harbour at Bluff, a railway to Bluff, and a road and railway to the goldfields – these latter in the hope of sharing in Otago's new-found wealth – had left the council with liabilities of £400,000, and members were expressing dissatisfaction with Superintendent James Menzies's exercise of his powers. In February 1864 Wilson was one of nine members who criticised Menzies for his failure to honour a pledge to act only with the advice and consent of his executive. Menzies proved obdurate, and Wilson moved the setting up of a special committee, chaired by himself, to inquire into the construction of the Bluff Harbour Railway, the Invercargill Railway and the Northern Railway.
The wrangling was exacerbated by Governor George Grey's refusal to give his assent to two out of three important appropriation ordinances, and by the almost complete failure of an attempt to sell provincial debentures in London. In July Menzies was charged with reckless expenditure on public works, although the council itself had considered the works to be important. The failure of the council to reduce its expenditure to the level of its revenue led to Menzies's proroguing it on 9 August.
When the eighth session of the council opened in December 1864, Wilson was elected speaker, with J. P. Taylor soon replacing Menzies as superintendent. The province's financial position did not improve, and the council, in 1869, finally decided to rejoin Otago. In its final months Wilson served as treasurer and deputy superintendent. He later represented first Southland, then Makarewa, on the Otago Provincial Council, until it in turn was dissolved in 1876.
About 1884 James Wilson sold part of Etham, including the old home, to Humphrey Howells. He lived for a time with the family of his daughter Charlotte, then built on the Flaxhill part of his farm, where he lived until his death on 19 August 1898.