John Logan Campbell is said to have been born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 3 November 1817, the only son of John Campbell and his wife, Catherine Logan, of Ayrshire. His father, as a younger son of Sir James Campbell, fourth baronet of Aberuchill and Kilbryde, had been obliged to make his own way. So did John Logan, or Logan as he was more generally known, and he like his father studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Just before graduating MD he decided not to practise in his homeland, but to go to the antipodes backed by £1,000 (which his father had provided) and try his hand at sheepfarming.
He left Greenock for Australia on 3 July 1839 as surgeon on an emigrant ship, the Palmyra. After that voyage he never again formally practised medicine. But neither did he take up sheepfarming. Of that ambition he was soon cured when he made an inland tour of New South Wales during a drought stricken summer. Instead, in March 1840, he left on the Lady Lilford for New Zealand.
On 13 April 1840 Campbell joined forces at Herekino on the Coromandel Peninsula with William Brown, a Scottish lawyer whom he had befriended on the Palmyra. After some three months together as guests of Ngāti Tamaterā on the Coromandel coast, they sailed to Motukorea, an island at the mouth of the Waitematā Harbour. On this island, which they bought from Māori owners for a few goods, they waited, confident that the capital of the colony would be established on the nearby Tāmaki isthmus. In Poenamo Campbell recalled that the partners had 'one fixed determination, and that was to become purchasers of town lots in the new capital and settle down there, acting as very small landsharks.'
While on the island their ambitions widened. They decided to abandon 'quill-driving and pill-making' and become traders in the new capital, Auckland. On 21 December 1840 they began operations as Auckland's first merchant firm, Brown and Campbell, when Campbell pitched his tent on the edge of the small bay, at the foot of present day Queen Street.
At the first Crown land auction held in the capital, on 19 April 1841, the partners bought an allotment beside Shortland Crescent, then the main thoroughfare. To the rear of this allotment they built for Brown and his wife a cottage of pit sawn kauri. (This dwelling, Acacia Cottage, survives as Auckland's oldest house, in Cornwall Park to which it was shifted in 1920.) On their street frontage the partners put up a two-storeyed warehouse, from which they conducted their business as general merchants (with Māori trade particularly profitable), auctioneers, shipping and commission agents, and land speculators.
During the 1840s Auckland grew from a handful of tents and huts to a township of over 8,000 people. The firm of Brown and Campbell, supported by the capital of a sleeping partner back in Scotland, grew up with the town. But the pioneer life, which was quickly making Campbell wealthy, did not satisfy him. He felt 'banished from every thing that can be called society.' Pioneering was a life of 'eternal slavery': it was 'only for clodhoppers…not for civilised beings.' In June 1848 he seized an opportunity to make an extended tour through the Middle East, Greece, Italy and western Europe, culminating in a visit to Edinburgh.
On his return on 21 November 1850 he buried himself in business once again; but not with gusto. He no longer looked on himself as a raw colonial. He had acquired an enthusiasm for the visual arts, and the long-range goal of returning to Europe to live as a cultured rentier on the earnings of his colonial firm. In the meantime there was much to occupy him: a trip to San Francisco to salvage an unprofitable goldrush speculation (February to August 1851), exports to Australia and cargoes of timber and kauri gum for Britain, and a wide range of agency and commercial activities. The speculative coup of this period was the purchase in September 1853 of a superb 1,000 acre suburban farm, which Campbell renamed One Tree Hill.
By 1856 Campbell and Brown decided that their enterprises and properties, now worth £110,000, could be entrusted to a salaried manager, while they lived on the dividends as expatriates. Brown and his family left early in the year, but Campbell's departure was delayed. Much against his inclinations he became caught up in politics, serving as provincial superintendent from November 1855 to September 1856, as a member of the House of Representatives for the City of Auckland from October 1855 to November 1856, and briefly (June to November 1856) as a member of the colony's first stable, responsible ministry under E. W. Stafford. These 'earthly baubles' he gladly resigned in September. On 20 November 1856 he left the colony, he hoped for good.
While travelling by steamer from Sydney to Galle (in Sri Lanka), Campbell met a woman much younger than himself, Emma Wilson, daughter of John Cracroft Wilson, who was returning to India. After some months in Europe, Campbell went to Meerut in India and married Emma Wilson on 25 February 1858. They returned to Europe to resume his 'wandering vagabondism', his 'season of enjoyment'. Apart from an interlude during 1860 and 1861, when he was obliged to go to Auckland to reinvigorate the firm – now called Brown Campbell and Company – and to install a resident partner, he stayed abroad until 1871. The Campbells with their two girls, Ida and Winifred (two other children, a girl and a boy, had died in infancy), travelled about with a retinue of servants. Theirs was, in Campbell's phrase, a dolce far niente existence, living at resorts and spas in Italy, Switzerland, France and Britain.
But by 1870 Campbell recognised that the firm could not be operated indefinitely by remote control. He had been helped to this conclusion by the suspicion that his resident partners were misappropriating the firm's capital for their own goldmining speculations. On his return early in 1871 Campbell took over full control. Two years later he bought out Brown's partnership share for over £40,000 (borrowing to do this). Thereafter, although the firm continued under the style of Brown Campbell and Company, Campbell was its sole proprietor.
By the 1870s Campbell had become a considerable figure in the Auckland community. True, he held aloof from all party-political affairs. But this added to his reputation for integrity and high-mindedness. And he continued to serve on boards controlling financial institutions, companies, artistic and scientific organisations, and non-political organs of local government. Above all he became cemented into the Auckland financial élite which dominated the Bank of New Zealand, the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company, the New Zealand Insurance Company, and related companies. He also acquired a reputation as author when his pioneer reminiscences, Poenamo, were acclaimed as a classic shortly after publication in 1881. He founded Auckland's first school of art in 1878 and supported it for 11 years. At an age when others had retired he throve on work, possessing great mental alertness, stamina and physical vigour – on his 60th birthday he vaulted a five-barred gate at his farm.
In 1878 he acquired a large timber mill in the northern Wairoa, north of Auckland, a cattle station at Whakatāne, and greatly enlarged his Domain Brewery at Newmarket. But they brought him little profit and much anxiety in the next decade, the beginning of which was shadowed by the death in London of his favourite daughter, Ida, on 8 October 1880. When depression overwhelmed Auckland in 1885 a desperate struggle for financial survival began. 'I am positively bled to death' by creditors, he complained in 1886. He was fortunate to be able to sell both his timber mill (1888) and his Whakatāne farm (1890) without great loss of his original capital.
Thereafter his efforts were concentrated on Brown Campbell and Company, now specialising in liquor imports, and on his brewery, which was doing, as Campbell put it, such a 'rattling' and 'thundering' business in the later 1880s it 'will pull me through'. In 1897 these liquor interests were merged with those of the firm of Ehrenfried Brothers. The amalgamation brought to the old man 'peace of mind which for nearly twenty years had been unknown to me'. Henceforth his one driving ambition was so to reorganise his finances that when he died the bulk of his One Tree Hill estate would pass as a public park, and 'a glory forever', to the people of Auckland.
At the age of 80 Campbell began withdrawing from business and public affairs. But he remained fixed in the public eye and regard. Here was one who had, over five decades, served on more than 40 committees, boards, trusts or directorates. His book had publicised his role as founding father of Auckland and his enduring affection for it. The other pioneer identities had dropped off one by one, until he alone remained. He was acclaimed Father of Auckland. No ceremonial occasion was complete without his presence. Little wonder this 'venerable figure' became 'as familiar to Aucklanders as Mount Eden'.
When it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and of York would visit Auckland in May 1901 there was much concern that Campbell, as 'the most esteemed citizen of New Zealand', should be the mayor to welcome them. Campbell agreed, but only for the three months of the royal tour. This visit seems to have persuaded Campbell to give the park to the nation while he yet lived. He could use 'the presence of Royalty to give some éclat' to the gift of the 'cream of the Estate' – 230 acres of One Tree Hill to be called Cornwall Park to honour the heir apparent.
It caused little surprise but great satisfaction when on the day intended as the coronation day of Edward VII, 26 June 1902, Campbell was made knight bachelor. Subsequently the grateful people of Auckland donated by public subscription a bronze statue in mayoral robes, inscribed 'John Logan Campbell He gave Cornwall Park to the People of New Zealand', to stand at the gates of the park. Sir John, though he was virtually blind, delivered a highly emotional address at its unveiling on 24 May (Empire Day) 1906.
Through the auction of suburban villa sites on the margins of the One Tree Hill estate, Campbell was able to clear his mortgage on the remainder of this property. In 1907 he made a second gift of 104 acres, and then in 1908 donated a further 143 acres of endowment land for the upkeep of the park. In addition Campbell gave generously to a variety of charitable causes, especially those involving mothers and young children. In his will, after providing annuities for his wife and daughter, Campbell directed his executors to devote the bulk of his residuary estate to assist social, charitable and educational causes.
Campbell died on 22 June 1912, after a brief illness. The Auckland Star captured the city's feelings when it announced 'The Passing of a Patriarch'. On 25 June 1912 his body was borne from his Parnell home, Kilbryde, to its burial place on the summit of Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill), followed by the largest funeral cortège in Auckland's history.