John Christopher Bradshaw was born at Adlington, Lancashire, England, on 23 June 1876, the son of John Bradshaw, a chemist, and his wife, Louisa Ward Jackson. He was educated at Rivington Grammar School and studied the organ under James Kendrick Pyne at the Royal Manchester College of Music. By 1900 he held diplomas in organ and piano performance from the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music and the Royal College of Organists (London). In 1901 he graduated doctor of music from Victoria University, Manchester. On 24 February 1902, at Liverpool, he married Edith Garrod; they were to have four sons and three daughters.
Bradshaw early envisaged a career as a professional church musician and from 1891 held positions at Adlington, Horwich, Manchester, Llangollen and Scarborough. In 1901 he declined an appointment as organist at Ripon cathedral for health reasons, and instead applied for the vacant position of organist and master of the choristers at the Anglican cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was appointed in February 1902, and arrived in Christchurch in April.
Bradshaw quickly improved the musical performance of services at the cathedral and maintained a full choir of boys and men singing the regular round of the traditional cathedral liturgy. The choir's reputation, within and beyond New Zealand, came from Bradshaw's concentration on rhythmic precision, impeccable intonation and immaculate diction. He achieved results through extraordinary discipline rather than innovative training, and inspired a fierce loyalty by his tireless efforts towards perfection in all he undertook. Initially, the cathedral's service-lists reflected the repertoire Bradshaw had known in England. But after a return visit there in 1922 he replaced many of the once fashionable pieces by minor late nineteenth-century English composers with Tudor church music (then recently published in reliable editions), and championed the stronger writings of his English contemporaries Holst, Elgar, Bairstow and Bantock.
Bradshaw's renowned organ playing complemented the choir's performance. His accompaniments enhanced the texts, his extemporisations echoed the mood of the service and his voluntaries extended the act of worship. His technique was impeccable and his playing noted for its clear articulation, deft footwork and imaginative registration.
Bradshaw was also steeped in the late nineteenth-century English tradition of the public organ recital. With their programmes a mixture of descriptive pieces, transcriptions of orchestral works and items from the standard organ repertoire, these recitals brought music to a broad cross-section of the population. Bradshaw's own career as recitalist began as official organist at the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch in 1906–7. He was made city organist in 1908 and gave regular recitals at His Majesty's Theatre until 1917. His repertoire of nearly 700 items, extending from Bach to the music of his contemporaries (but excluding anything decidedly 'modern'), reached wider audiences from the late 1930s when programmes were broadcast from the Civic Theatre.
As conductor and choir trainer Bradshaw was soon in demand beyond the cathedral. From 1905 to 1917 he conducted the Christchurch Liedertafel and, from 1905 to 1912 and 1915 to 1921, the Christchurch Musical Union. Both groups improved under him, but he was most appreciated as founder of the Christchurch Male Voice Choir, and as its director from 1917 to 1940. This choir's unique combination of the voices of boys from the cathedral and some 25 men allowed the performance of the mixed-voice repertoire, with or without piano accompaniment. Programmes ranged from Elizabethan madrigals to stalwarts such as C. V. Stanford's patriotic Songs of the fleet, and for many years an immense public following required repetitions of each concert.
Bradshaw devoted 40 years to music education as lecturer at Canterbury College (later Canterbury University College). He was appointed part time in May 1902 (the only instructor in music) and became dean of the Faculty of Music in 1924. He left his position at the cathedral in March 1937, infuriated at what he took to be interference in his area of concern. He felt, too, that the cathedral chapter gave insufficient support to his music. Subsequently he was appointed to a full-time position as professor of music at the university college when the chair was established in late 1937; ill health forced his retirement at the end of 1941.
Bradshaw reoriented the music courses from a certificate of proficiency awarded after local examinations toward the more stringent requirements of the bachelor of music degree awarded by the University of New Zealand and examined in England. He taught the traditional subjects of harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation and form to an ever-increasing number of students. He introduced music appreciation classes, open to the public, at which gramophone recordings broadened the musical experiences of his students, and he emphasised practical music-making, establishing weekly midday recitals during term (from 1934) and conducting the college's choral society between 1937 and 1941.
Beyond the college, Bradshaw supported all moves fostering the involvement of children in musical activities, participated in both the Canterbury and the New Zealand Society of Professional Teachers of Music, and the Music Teachers' Registration Board of New Zealand, and became president, then patron, of the local branch of the Society of Registered Music Teachers in New Zealand.
Bradshaw did not confine all his energies to music, however. He was an avid motorist and had a particular interest in mountaineering, successfully climbing many of the South Island's major peaks. Climbing cured his asthma, but nearly killed him when he and a guide fell 1,000 feet. Edith Bradshaw died in 1944, and on 2 September 1946 at Christchurch Bradshaw married Muriel Agnes Innes. He died at Christchurch on 16 January 1950; Muriel Bradshaw lived until 1992.
Bradshaw's presence in Christchurch had ramifications far beyond his initial appointment as cathedral organist. While he reinforced the already strong English influence in local music-making and music education, he also introduced standards of excellence which he maintained uncompromisingly for nearly half a century in isolation from his own sources of inspiration. That he moved many to emulate him testifies to his dedication to his art and outweighs a generally conservative attitude to repertoire and teaching. His contribution to music has been recognised by a commissioned portrait presented to the city in 1934, and the endowed J. C. Bradshaw Memorial Prize awarded by the School of Music, University of Canterbury. His 'Cantuariensium carmen academicum', one of a handful of compositions, opens the university's annual graduation ceremonies, and the J. C. Bradshaw memorial organ (donated by Muriel Bradshaw to the university's School of Music) is fitting commemoration of his art.