Alexander Cracroft Wilson, 1840-1911

Alexander Cracroft Wilson, the second youngest son of the Sir John Cracroft Wilson of Cashmere, and his wife, Elizabeth (née Wall), followed Francis Stedman as registrar of Canterbury University College and thus also as librarian of the public library. Just as with Stedman, most of the day-to-day work of the library was done by sub-librarian, Howard Strong, and his assistant, Mr. S. Pointon (who served the library for 29 years until his retirement in 1922), but the title belonged to Cracroft Wilson.

Early Life

Alexander was born in Cawnpore, India on 5 March 1840, where his father was serving as a magistrate in the Indian civil service. The following year, the family transferred to Moradabad, where they remained until 1853. Alexander's mother died there in 1843 after the birth of her 8th child, and the following year, his father married Jane Torrie Greig. There were no children of this marriage. Alexander was educated in England and seems to have remained there during his parents' first brief stay in Canterbury in 1854, when his father bought the property at the foot of the Port Hills which he called Cashmere. John Cracroft Wilson returned to India at the end of 1854, serving in Moradabad during the Indian Mutiny, when he earned considerable praise for his bravery, but he and his family settled in New Zealand again in April 1859. Having completed his education, Alexander rejoined the family a few months later, sailing to Lyttelton on the Cresswell.

Banker and Businessman

In Christchurch, Alexander began a career in banking. He was the first teller in the Bank of New Zealand when it began operations in Cashel Street in 1862, and by 1871, was the manager of the Lyttelton branch. At the same time, be began buying land and property around Christchurch, some of which he rented out. At the end of 1871, he moved briefly to Auckland, where he met his future wife, Laura Mary Munro, the daughter of Native Land Court judge, Henry Munro. The couple were married on 20 June 1877, and had 9 children, 4 of whom died as children. Two sons were later killed during the first World War.

During the 1870s, Cracroft Wilson went into business with Henry Sawtell. Sawtell & Wilson traded as general merchants in High Street. Wilson was a trustee of the Lyttelton Permanent Land Building & Investment company, and secretary of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce. He was also an influential member of the board of the New Zealand Shipping Company and acted as the Italian consul in Christchurch. He belonged to St. John’s Church in Latimer Square, where he was a member of the synod. His sporting interests included horse racing (he was a committee member of the Canterbury Jockey Club), and he was also a gifted cricketer. Elected as a member of the Christchurch Club in 1872, he had a “happy knack as an after-dinner speaker”. A phrenologist’s report on Wilson carried out in 1867 suggested he was an active, healthy and vigorous man, “of much … adaptability & general capacity and intelligence”. He was said to be ambitious, determined to win honours through hard and honest service, and well suited to the management of men

Becoming Registrar and Librarian

Wilson replaced Stedman as registrar of Canterbury University College in January 1891, having been acting registrar since Stedman’s illness the year before. During his period as librarian of the public library, a number of changes and improvements took place. The book collection grew considerably, largely as a result of the very generous bequest of James Gammack, who in 1896, left 1678 acres of land to the institution. Revenue from this bequest, which amounted to nearly £40,000 over the next 50 years, was spent, as stipulated, entirely on books for the lending library. Nevertheless, the lending collection remained as a subscription-only service. In 1899, another bequest from Arthur Postle bequeathed a sum for the benefit of the reference library, with some £5000 being spent on reference volumes in the following decades. By the time of Wilson’s retirement, the book stock numbered more than 30,000 volumes, double the number held when he took over in 1891. Changes were also made to the library buildings. A new room had been added in 1893 at a cost of £315, but the Gammack bequest allowed for more radical developments. In 1901, the original wooden building was demolished and a new permanent material structure was erected at a cost of £4,307.

Failing health compelled his own resignation in 1908 and for the last years of his life, he was an invalid. He died on 21 January 1911, and is buried in the Halswell Cemetery.


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