Henry Wilding, born at Stepney in the East End of London, England, on 20 August 1844, was the son of Maria Gillard (née Loveday) and her second husband, Henry Wilding, a pawnbroker. Henry junior received sufficient education to become a bank clerk, and was sent by the London and County Bank to work in its Arundel branch in Sussex in 1861. There he met Kate Bull, whom he married at Trinity Chapel, Arundel, on 6 August 1867. Henry's career took the family back to London. At Brighton, in November 1872, Kate died of tuberculosis. There had been two sons of the marriage, the younger dying the same year as his mother. Henry turned to his sister-in-law, Alice Bull, for support and care for his surviving son and on 19 December 1873 they married at Neuchâtel in Switzerland.
Wilding's second marriage was not recognised in England, where it was illegal to marry the sister of a deceased wife, and Henry and Alice's first two children were regarded as illegitimate. This, and Henry's ill health, may have contributed to the Wildings' decision to emigrate to New Zealand. In February 1878, along with Alice's brother William, they left Plymouth on the Durham.
Arriving in New Zealand, Wilding joined the staff of the Bank of New Zealand. He was posted first to Napier and then to Waipukurau where he opened a new agency in August 1878. Lured by the prospects of self-employment, in early 1879 he gave up banking for a partnership with his brother-in-law. Together they milled the timber from Maori land leased at Takapau. Difficulties arose over the leased bush and in the mid 1880s the business was sold at a loss.
A period of unprofitable farming on the outskirts of Auckland and in the north followed before the family settled in central Auckland in 1892. Wilding opened a broker's office in Queen Street, and occasionally served on the bench as a justice of the peace. Exposed to the violence and instability of life in the city and influenced by his religious beliefs as a committed Methodist, Wilding became concerned about the decline of family life and morality. In April 1893 he attended a meeting on the problems of child neglect and cruelty and was spurred to action. He presided over the subsequent meeting on 25 April 1893 that formed the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, and chaired its executive committee from 1893 until his death in 1916.
The society aimed to help women and children who were the victims of violence and abuse and to give aid to unmarried mothers and women who had been abandoned by their husbands. It took court proceedings on their behalf and lobbied for changes to the law to give women and children greater protection. Wilding shaped the objectives of the society, recruited influential patrons and testified in court. Under his leadership all the major Christian churches and the Jewish congregation were represented, and many women interested in political and social reform became members. Branches were soon formed in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
The members agitated to raise the age of consent, criminalise incest, establish children's courts and increase the penalties for cruelty and neglect. They constituted an influential and effective pressure group, and their calls for reform were echoed by other societies. Partly as a result of their efforts the age of consent was raised from 14 to 15 in 1894, and to 16 in 1896; in 1900 incest became a criminal offence. In 1906 a separate court system for juvenile offenders was introduced – a major achievement for the Auckland society. Wilding led moral campaigns to get young people off the streets at nights and to make parents more responsible for their children.
The society pioneered social work with families. In 1894 Elizabeth Porter was appointed lady visitor; among her duties she was required to interview complainants and investigate and keep a register of cases. Wilding himself investigated some cases.
In 1898, not long after the demise of the Auckland SPCA, the Society for the Protection of Women and Children expanded its activities to include animal protection. Wilding acted as an animal welfare officer for several years. The SPCA was re-established in 1926. In addition to these duties, Wilding was in 1903 appointed deputy inspector of lunatic asylums, hospitals and licensed houses.
Wilding was a tall, dignified man, with a very dominant personality. He believed that his mission was to reassert Christian family values in a world that had become increasingly hostile to them. He was adamant that the family, when it functioned properly, provided the best protection for women and children. When the family failed, however, he was quite prepared to intervene. His dedication to the work of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children caused his financial affairs to suffer and in 1901 he was forced to file for bankruptcy. The following year the family moved to Devonport and he began a private enquiry agency which was eventually taken over by his daughter Katie. He died at Devonport on 8 June 1916, survived by his wife and seven children, six of whom were from his second marriage.