William Barbour Wilson was born in Kirkcudbrightshire in Scotland. He started off his adulthood as a nurseryman’s apprentice. He then moved to Ireland where he worked as an overseer for a few estates there.
No one knows why he set his sights on New Zealand next. Maybe it was because New Zealand seemed a certain success for those willing to roll up the sleeves and do the hard yard.
William arrived in Port Chalmers, Otago in 1850. He toured the country, taking in the sights of Auckland, Port Nicholson (Wellington) and Nelson. He finally settled, choosing Christchurch in 1851. He opened a nursery on Oxford Terrace, opposite ‘The Bricks’ – an area where settlers left their bricks beside the Avon, returning for them later by dray as they were too heavy to continue by canoe into Christchurch. He ran that nursery until 1856.
William was quite a presence, 6 foot and weighing in at 18 stone. He was a man of immense energy, always walked at a fast pace – keeping one hand on his hat and the other motioning to others to make room for him. He had a ready smile for his friends but if he didn’t like you, his expression would confirm your suspicions. He proved to be a passionate man, who had no problem using additional emphasis whether he was taking about trees or politics.
He married Elizabeth Williams in 1856, the eldest child of John and Isabella Williams who journeyed to Christchurch on the ‘Randolph’ – one of the first four ships- with their 5 daughters and 2 sons. Just two days later, John would collapse dead on the Bridle Path, leaving all his women in his life quite lost and broke. Isabella got back on her feet and opened a drapery shop on Colombo Street and married off her daughters to the wealthiest men in town.
As there were two other prominent businessmen named Wilson, William earned the name of Cabbage Wilson. As he worked away in his nursery, he became known by his hat that was made of Cabbage Tree leaves, a gift that had been made for him by the local Maori.
In 1857, William opened his second nursery, 18 acres between Manchester and Madras Streets. Bedford Row would go straight down the middle of this nursery if it were here today. Although competition was strong by this stage, he remained the best in the business. In 1877, he sold his nursery and began to explore other business ventures. He delved in real estate, auctioneering, took an active interest in the Halswell Quarry and the trading vessel named ‘Rifleman”.
Over the next few years, William was elected to the Provincial Council. He was also the Chairman of the Municipal Committee that was responsible for the landscaping of the Avon River and the tree planting in Fitzgerald and Bealey Avenues. When the Provincial Government ended and the Christchurch City Council took over, William flowed with the change so well, he became Christchurch’s first Mayor.
In 1876, William’s world crumbled. He was serving his second term as president of the Christchurch Horticultural Society when he was accused of fraud. Not only did he lose his case at court, but his wife Elizabeth had approached the authorities with claims of being beaten by William to the point that she was in fear of her life. A protection order was put against him and William fell from grace.
Fellow landowner and business man – William Burke – later wrote about Cabbage Wilson: “The strong, vigorous man of the 1850’s and 60’s grew old and was, by a new generation, sneered at and caricatured.”
William withdrew from public life completely. He sold his land in 1882; The money, which I am sure he lived off until his death.
William died in 1897 and is buried at Linwood Cemetery. Next to him lay one of his sons. He is remembered today in the naming of Wilsons Road. A block down from Wilsons Road, as you travel down Ferry Road towards Woolston, the next road on your right is Barbour Street which is William’s middle name.
*image of William ‘Cabbage’ Wilson courtesy of http://winsomegriffin.com *
*photo of Wilsons Road Sign taken by Annette Bulovic*
*photo of William’s grave taken by Chris Bulovic*