John Eldon Gorst is said to have been born at Fishergate, Preston, Lancashire, England, on 24 May 1835 and was baptised on 30 May. He was the second son of Elizabeth Nesham and her husband, Edward Chaddock Gorst (later Lowndes). He was educated at Preston Grammar School and St John's College, Cambridge, where he was third wrangler in the mathematics tripos. He began reading law in London, but soon returned to Lancashire to teach mathematics at Rossall School and to be near his ailing father.
When his father died in 1859, Gorst inherited a considerable fortune. But, instead of settling into a comfortable life in England, in early 1860 Gorst sailed for New Zealand via Australia, on the Red Jacket. On board he became engaged to Mary Elizabeth Moore, who was bound for Melbourne. Gorst went on to Auckland but soon travelled to Melbourne and was married on 12 August 1860 at Geelong. Mary and John Gorst then came to Auckland, and in October 1860 went to live in Waikato, where their first son, also named John Eldon, was born. Another seven children – six girls and a boy – were born subsequently.
Gorst taught at a mission school for Maori boys at Hopuhopu, near the Reverend Benjamin Ashwell's Anglican mission at Taupiri. Then in November 1861 the premier, William Fox, sent Gorst to inspect government-subsidised mission schools in Waikato. In January 1862 he was appointed resident magistrate for Waikato. The Gorsts resided at Te Tomo, near the Reverend John Morgan's mission station at Te Awamutu, until June 1862. Gorst visited Auckland briefly, then returned to Waikato as civil commissioner and lived at Morgan's mission station until 18 April 1863, when he and his family were driven out by supporters of the Maori King. They returned to Auckland, where Gorst was briefly employed as private secretary to the native minister, Francis Dillon Bell, before accompanying him to Sydney, Australia, in August to recruit military settlers. Gorst then returned to England and did not visit New Zealand again until 1906, when he was sent out as special commissioner to the International Exhibition in Christchurch.
In the interval Gorst had achieved some distinction in British politics. He resumed his law studies and was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1865. A year later he was elected to the House of Commons as Conservative MP for Cambridge, only to lose the seat in 1868. Then, at Benjamin Disraeli's request, he spent five years organising the Conservative party on a popular basis, paving the way for the Tory victory of 1874. He re-entered Parliament in 1875. Although he retained the confidence of Disraeli, he lost his chance of attaining office by becoming associated with the so-called Fourth Party, led by Lord Randolph Churchill. But when Churchill joined the Conservative administration in 1885, Gorst was appointed solicitor general and knighted. He became a privy councillor in 1890, was under secretary of state for India from 1886 to 1891, and financial secretary to the Treasury from 1891 to 1892. He retired in 1902.
Perhaps the most significant and certainly the most exciting phase in Gorst's career was his residence in Waikato from 1860 to 1863. He was both an actor in and interpreter of the turbulent events preceding war. The 'unhappy quarrel', Gorst asserted later, 'might have been avoided by wiser people than ourselves'. Like his mentor, F. D. Fenton, a former resident and magistrate in Waikato, Gorst believed that if Governor Thomas Gore Browne had consistently applied law and order to the district there would have been no need for the Maori to set up their own government. But Fenton had been withdrawn, a Maori King had been selected, the governor had blundered into war over the Waitara land purchase in Taranaki, and some of the King's Waikato supporters had joined in the Taranaki fighting. When Gorst was appointed resident magistrate and civil commissioner, in a second attempt to bring the Waikato tribes under British law, the situation was tense. Some observers believed it was already too late for war to be averted. Gorst himself, for all his well-intentioned attempts to cultivate the 'moderate' Kingite leaders, such as Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi, was a source of aggravation. He provoked the King's followers by attacking their newspaper, Te Hokioi, in his own journal, Te Pihoihoi Mokemoke, and by 'i ana kupu pokanoa ki te whakahe ki te Kingi', (his unwarrantable words against the King).
In the end it was not his own actions but those of the government he represented that brought about Gorst's downfall. Governor George Grey had been professing peace while constructing a military road south from Auckland to the lower Waikato, and a military barracks at Kohekohe, within the King's boundary. So the Kingites expelled Gorst, along with the timber for the barracks, while they awaited the invasion they knew would come. Gorst's final act was to accompany Bell to collect oaths of loyalty to the Queen from some of the Maori caught between the opposing forces.
Although he demonstrated a ready sympathy for his Kingite foes and for their growing sense of nationalism, Gorst became resigned to war as a last resort – to impose the law and order that neither he, nor the Maori King, could assert over the Maori. As he put it on one occasion, 'A common object may keep natives together for an indefinite time, and give the appearance of unity, but as soon as a difference of sentiment arises, each man will go his own way.' Gorst wanted to exploit the differences, since he believed that, 'in the event of open hostility on the part of the King natives, nothing but our success in maintaining a body of Native allies, can prevent the struggle from becoming a war of races.' The strategy met with some success, in that a small body of 'Queenites' from the lower Waikato were detached from the King.
In 1864, after his return to England but before the end of the war, Gorst published The Maori King; or, the story of our quarrel with the natives of New Zealand. This work is essentially a detailed account of his residence in Waikato. It is also a perceptive commentary on the causes of the war and a veiled attack on prevailing administrative policies. It has become one of the classics of New Zealand literature. New Zealand, Gorst said, had been quoted 'as proof of the impossibility of civilizing barbarous races'. But his book was a protest against that assumption.
More than 40 years later, when Gorst revisited New Zealand, he took the opportunity to visit his old haunts, to renew acquaintances with surviving Maori adversaries, to reminisce, and to reiterate much that he had said before. If he often remained critical of what had passed, he was now confident of the future. 'The public opinion of the country regards the Maories as entitled to equal rights and equal justice'; he reported in New Zealand revisited: recollections of the days of my youth (1908) that 'they are looked upon as a unique distinction of the New Zealand State, and the community is not a little proud of their success in assimilating into their civilization this ancient and picturesque race. They treat the Maories, both politically and socially, as perfect equals'. Gorst, in his old age, was seeing New Zealand through rose-tinted spectacles.
Mary Gorst died in early 1914. On 20 September of that year at Harrogate, Yorkshire, John Gorst married Ethel Johnson. He died in London on 4 April 1916, in the midst of a great European war that was threatening to destroy the very civilisation he confidently assumed had assimilated the Maori in New Zealand.