Croker, John Wilson (1780–1857), politician and author, was born in Galway 20 December 1780, eldest among two sons and a daughter of John Croker (1743–1814), exciseman and surveyor general of Dublin port 1800–07, and his second wife, Hester (née Rathbone), daughter of a Co. Galway clergyman; there were also a son and daughter from John Croker's first marriage. After passing his early years in Newport, Co. Mayo, at the age of 10 he attended a school run by French émigrés in Cork, and in 1792 he went to Willis's school and later to the Rev. Richmond Hood's school, both in Portarlington. He entered TCD 5 December 1796, and graduated BA (1800). He was a noted speaker in the College Historical Society (managing to overcome a childhood stammer), and won several of the society's essay prizes, including its first gold medal. During his time at Trinity the 1798 rebellion broke out and he joined the college yeomanry corps. The rebellion left him with a lifelong fear of the danger of violent popular disaffection, and convinced him that catholic emancipation was essential for the political stability of Ireland. On 3 February 1800 he entered Lincoln's Inn and spent two years in London, where he moved in literary circles and gained some attention with a letter to The Times (6 April 1801) satirising the welcome given by the whigs to the captured French revolutionary Jean Tallien. He also contributed to two short-lived publications, the Cabinet and the Pic Nic. Called to the Irish bar in 1802, he returned to Dublin and wrote an anonymous pamphlet, The opinion of an impartial observer (1803), defending Dublin Castle from charges of incompetence during the rebellion of July 1803. In 1804 he published two satires, Familiar espistles . . . on the present state of the Irish stage, which ridiculed Dublin's theatrical standards, and An intercepted letter from Canton, which mocked Dublin's dull society and run-down buildings, although he stopped publishing satires when a work satirising the Dublin Castle set was ascribed to him.
As a barrister he worked the Munster circuit and was appointed customs comptroller of Wexford, Waterford, and Ross (1804–7). In 1806 he stood as the tory election candidate for Downpatrick, but was defeated. However, he was elected the following year with government support, and sat as tory MP for Downpatrick (1807–12), Athlone (1812–18), Yarmouth (1819–20), Bodmin (1820–26), Aldeburgh (1826–7, 1830–32), and Dublin University (1827–30). In reply to praise from Henry Grattan (qv) for the recently defunct Grenville ministry, he made an impressive maiden speech in the commons (26 June 1807) which brought him to the attention of leading tories. His Sketch of Ireland past and present (1808) went through twenty editions (it was reprinted as late as 1884) and gained him further notice. It advocated catholic emancipation, a system of national education for all sects, and the payment of the catholic clergy by the state to undermine the influence of Rome. In June 1808 Sir Arthur Wellesley (qv), before sailing for Portugal, entrusted him with his responsibilities as Irish chief secretary. Croker, who always spoke of himself as Irish, performed his duties well, and ever afterwards this was the political position he most coveted.
Highly articulate and with an excellent command of detail, he expertly defended the duke of York in 1809 from charges of complicity in the unauthorised sale of military commissions. When Perceval became prime minister (October 1809) he appointed Croker first secretary to the admiralty (1809–30), with a salary of £4,000 a year. At the admiralty he gained a reputation for hard work and integrity, and in parliament established himself as one of the government's best debaters. A small, slightly built man, he had an intense and animated manner of speaking compared by one member to ‘a hen on a hot griddle’; another noted that his delivery was ‘manly and authoritative, whenever it was not diabolical and vindictive’ (Brightwell, 62). He continued to support catholic emancipation, arguing that the abolition of outmoded anti-catholic legislation was the best way to secure the position of the established church in Ireland, a cause to which he was strongly committed. Although party loyalty precluded him from raising the issue, he seconded Grattan's emancipation motion in May 1819. He disapproved of the manner in which relief was finally conceded in 1829, believing that by then the government had lost catholic goodwill and appeared to be surrendering to the threat of force.
In 1818 he was deeply disappointed by his defeat by W. C. Plunket (qv) for Dublin University, a seat he dearly wished to hold. Disappointed also by his failure to be promoted to the cabinet or the Irish chief secretaryship, he accepted appointment to the privy council on 16 June 1828 as a consolation. He coined the name ‘the conservatives’ for the tories and numbered several of the party's leading figures among his friends: a lifelong friend of Wellington, he was also close to Canning, Perceval, and especially Robert Peel (qv). He was a favourite of George IV, who requested that Croker accompany him on his state visit to Ireland in 1821. Although often severe and overbearing with strangers and those he disliked, he was noted for his kindness to family, friends, and a host of supplicants: in 1818 he obtained a clerkship at the admiralty for Thomas Crofton Croker (qv), although he was not a relation.
As secretary to the admiralty, he encouraged the exploratory expeditions promoted by his friend and second secretary Sir John Barrow (1764–1848) and was elected FRS. He was cautious with admiralty expenditure and saw no need for the creation of new hydrographical charts for the navy, maintaining that Britain had done well enough with its old charts. However, in 1819 his proposal in parliament for a new geographical, maritime and statistical survey of Ireland led to the detailed and comprehensive ordnance survey of Ireland begun in 1824. He sometimes welcomed new scientific developments and encouraged the government to fund the completion of Charles Babage's ‘analytical engine’ – a forerunner of the modern computer. Active in encouraging the fine arts, he helped acquire the Elgin marbles for the British Museum in 1816. He had a strong interest in public architecture and encouraged the erection of Nelson's pillar and the Wellington monument in Dublin (suggesting that the latter should be placed in TCD); he later promoted the building of Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square, London.
The founder of London's Athenaeum Club (1824) for literary, scientific, and artistic men, he was friendly with leading literary figures such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey, and he regularly read work for the famous publisher John Murray (1778–1843). He had some literary talent himself and in July 1809 he wrote The battles of Talavera, celebrating Wellesley's victory, which quickly went though four Dublin editions; he also wrote two books for children (1817, 1828), and edited a five-volume edition of Boswell's life of Johnson (1831). A founder of the Quarterly Review in February 1809, he contributed about 270 political, historical, literary, and miscellaneous essays (1809–54). Many of these were on the French revolution, an event that fascinated him: contrary to whigs who argued that the revolution showed the need for periodic reform, Croker maintained that it showed the dangers of irresolute government. He visited France regularly after 1814 and spoke to many surviving participants. He became a leading authority on the revolution and built up a huge collection of revolutionary pamphlets (almost 50,000 items) which he sold to the British Museum shortly before his death.
Conservative in literature as in politics, he admired the precision of the Augustan school, especially Pope, and detested the excesses of Gothic and romantic literature. His waspish and often incisive reviews became a mainstay of the Quarterly. He wrote of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that ‘our taste and our judgement alike revolt at this kind of writing’, and of Melmoth the wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin (qv), that it united ‘all the worst particularities of the worst modern novels’ (Quarterly Review, May 1818, Jan. 1821). In April 1818 he wrote a savage review of Keats's Endymion that Byron and Shelley claimed hastened Keats's death. His invective gained him many literary and political enemies, notably Lady Morgan (qv) and Thomas Macaulay; the latter described him as ‘impudent, leering Croker . . . I detest him more than cold boiled veal’ (Brightwell, 63–4). Macaulay savaged Croker's Boswell in the Edinburgh Review (Sept. 1831), and Croker retaliated with a similarly scathing review of Macaulay's History of England (Quarterly Review, Mar. 1849). Few men of the day were loathed as much by their enemies, one of whom claimed that Croker would ‘go a hundred miles through sleet and snow, in a December night, to search a parish register, for the sake of showing that a man was illegitimate or a woman older than she said she was’ (Fraser's Magazine, Mar. 1831). He was harshly caricatured in several fictional works: as the contemptible Rigby in Disraeli's Coningsby; as Wenlan in Thackeray's Pendennis, and as Counsellor Con Crawley in Lady Morgan's Florence MacCarthy.
Strongly opposed to the parliamentary reform bills of 1831–2, Croker was the leading tory spokesman against reform, claiming it would subvert the British constitution and lead to political anarchy; during these debates many believed that he bested Macaulay. After the passing of reform he refused to stand for parliament again, although fatigue and illness probably contributed to this decision as much as political principle. He continued to support his old colleagues, using the Quarterly Review as his main platform, but fell out with Peel after his decision to abolish the corn laws in 1846. Having earlier strenuously defended the corn laws at Peel's instigation, he regarded Peel's about-face as a betrayal. After this he largely withdrew from political and literary life. He died 10 August 1857 at Hampton, Middlesex. Although he was a man of considerable talent, his rigid outlook and severity towards opponents prevented him from realising his full potential in public life.
He married (1806) Rosamond (1789–1880), daughter of William Pennell of Waterford, later British consul general to Brazil; they had one son, Spencer Perceval, who died in 1820 aged 3; in about 1815 Croker adopted his wife's sister Nony, then aged 6. They lived at Minster House, Fulham (1809–21), and in West Molesey (1828–57). Croker's portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence is in the NGI.