He was born at Galway, the only son of John Croker, the surveyor-general of customs and excise in Ireland. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in 1800. Immediately afterwards, he entered Lincoln’s Inn, and in 1802 he was called to the Irish bar.
His interest in the French Revolution led him to collect a large number of valuable documents on the subject, which are now in the British Museum. In 1804, he published anonymously Familiar Epistles to J. F. Jones, Esquire, on the State of the Irish Stage, a series of caustic criticisms in verse on the management of the Dublin theatres. The book ran through five editions in one year. Equally successful was the Intercepted Letter from Canton (1805), also anonymous, a satire on Dublin society. During this period a rather scathing poem attributed to Croker led to the suicide of actor John Edwin, husband of Elizabeth Rebecca Edwin. In 1807, he published a pamphlet on The State of Ireland, Past and Present, in which he advocated Catholic emancipation.
The following year he entered parliament as member for Downpatrick, obtaining the seat on petition, though he had been unsuccessful at the poll. The acumen displayed in his Irish pamphlet led Spencer Perceval to recommend him in 1808 to Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had just been appointed to the command of the British forces in the Iberian Peninsula, as his deputy in the office of chief secretary for Ireland. This connection led to a friendship which remained unbroken until Wellington’s death.
The notorious case of the Duke of York in connexion with his abuse of military patronage furnished Croker with an opportunity for distinguishing himself. The speech which he delivered on 14 March 1809, in answer to the charges of Colonel Wardle, was regarded as the most able and ingenious defence of the duke that was made in the debate; and Croker was appointed to the office of secretary to the Admiralty, which he held without interruption under various administrations for more than twenty years. He proved an excellent public servant, and made many improvements which have been of permanent value in the organization of his office. Among the first acts of his official career was the exposure of George Villiers, a fellow-official who had misappropriated the public funds to the extent of £200,000.
In 1824 he helped found the Athenaeum Club, and became the subject of the lampoon beginning “I’m John Wilson Croker, I do as I please…”
In 1827, he became the representative of Dublin University, having previously sat successively for the boroughs of Athlone, Yarmouth, Bodmin and Aldeburgh. He was a determined opponent of the Reform Bill, and vowed that he would never sit in a reformed parliament; he left parliament in 1832. Two years earlier he had retired from his post at the admiralty on a pension of £1500 a year. Many of his political speeches were published in pamphlet form, and they show him to have been a vigorous and effective, though somewhat unscrupulous and often virulently personal, party debater. Croker had been an ardent supporter of Robert Peel, but finally broke with him when he began to advocate the repeal of the Corn Laws.
He was for many years one of the leading contributors on literary and historical subjects to the Quarterly Review, with which he had been associated from its foundation. The rancorous spirit in which many of his articles were written did much to embitter party feeling. It also reacted unfavourably on Croker’s reputation as a worker in the department of pure literature by bringing political animosities into literary criticism.
He had no sympathy with the younger school of poets who were in revolt against the artificial methods of the 18th century. In April 1833 he savagely criticised Poems, published the previous December by Alfred Tennyson – an attack which, coupled with the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, discouraged the aspiring poet from seeking to publish anything more for nine years. He was also responsible for the famous Quarterly article on John Keats’s Endymion. Shelley and Byron erroneously blamed this article for bringing about the death of the poet, ‘snuffed out,’ in Byron’s phrase, ‘by an article’ (they, however, attributed the article to William Gifford).
His magnum opus, an edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1831) was the subject of an unfavourable review by Macaulay in the Edinburgh Review (a Whig rival/opponent of the Quarterly Review) The main grounds of criticism were echoed by Thomas Carlyle in a less famous review in Fraser’s Magazine
*** that Croker had added extensive notes, which were to little point, being superfluous or declaring Croker’s inability to grasp Johnson’s point on matters where the reviewers had no difficulty. Macaulay also complained (with numerous examples) of factual errors in the notes; Carlyle of their carping attitude to Johnson’s motives (Carlyle, whose father was a stonemason, and who (like Johnson) had scraped a living as a schoolmaster, before writing encyclopaedia articles for bread-and-butter wages, also took great exception to one note which took for granted that when Johnson spoke of having lived on 4 ½ d a day he was disclosing something of which he should have been ashamed to speak)
*** that Croker had not preserved the integrity of Boswell’s text, but had interpolated text from four other accounts of Johnson (Hawkins, Mrs Thrale, etc.), distinguished only from genuine Boswell by being inside brackets, so that “You begin a sentence under Boswell’s guidance, thinking to be carried happily through it by the same: but no; in the middle, perhaps after your semi-colon, and some consequent ‘for’ – starts up one of these Bracket-ligatures, and stitches you in half a page to twenty or thirty pages of a Hawkins, Tyers, Murphy, Piozzi; so that often one must make the old sad reflection, Where we are, we know; whether we are going no man knoweth.”
Croker made no immediate reply to Macaulay’s attack, but when the first two volumes of Macaulay’s History appeared he took the opportunity of pointing out the inaccuracies in the work. Croker was occupied for several years on an annotated edition of Alexander Pope’s works. It was left unfinished at the time of his death, but it was afterwards completed by the Rev. Whitwell Elwin and Mr WJ Courthope. He died at St Albans Bank, Hampton.
Croker was generally supposed to be the original from which Benjamin Disraeli drew the character of “Rigby” in Coningsby, because he had for many years had the sole management of the estates of the Marquess of Hertford, the “Lord Monmouth” of the story. Hostile portrayals of Croker can also be found in the novels Florence Macarthy by Lady Morgan (a political opponent whom Croker subjected to notoriously savage reviews in the Quarterly) and The Anglo-Irish of the Nineteenth Century (1828) by John Banim.
The chief works of Croker not already mentioned were:
Stories for Children from the History of England (1817), which provided the model for Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather
Letters on the Naval War with America
A Reply to the Letters of Malachi Malagrowther (1826)
Military Events of the French Revolution of 1830 (1831)
a translation of Bassompierre’s Embassy to England (1819)
He also wrote several lyrical pieces of some merit, such as the Songs of Trafalgar (1806) and The Battles of Talavera (1809). He edited the Suffolk Papers (1823), Hervey’s Memoirs of the Court of George II (1817), the Letters of Mary Lepel, Lady Hervey (1821–1822), and Walpole’s Letters to Lord Hertford (1824). His memoirs, diaries and correspondence were edited by Louis J Jennings in 1884 under the title of The Croker Papers (3 vols.).