John Vigor Brown was born in London, England, on 18 June 1854. He was one of three sons of Jessie Gilmour and her husband, John Brown, a banker's clerk and later a commercial traveller; both were of Scottish descent. The family lived briefly in France before emigrating to Australia. The three boys and their mother arrived on the Water Nymph in Hobsons Bay, Melbourne, on 22 January 1862. Presumably their father had preceded them.
The family settled in South Yarra and John Vigor Brown attended the nearby parish school, which later became Melbourne Grammar. On leaving school he was apprenticed to Sargood, King and Sargood, merchants in the wholesale clothing trade. In 1875 he moved to Wellington, New Zealand, finding employment as a traveller with A. P. Stuart and Company. Two years later he became manager of the Napier branch of the importers Archibald Clark and Sons. He was to remain in Napier for the rest of his life.
On 27 November 1880, in the Anglican cathedral, Napier, John Vigor Brown married Caroline Balaclava Cook. Four daughters and two sons were born to the couple before Caroline died from peritonitis on 6 September 1891, at the age of 36. On 19 September 1894 in Napier's new Anglican Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, Brown married Violet McConechie Bogle. There were no children of the marriage.
A businessman of considerable talent and energy, by 1898 John Vigor Brown was managing director of the merchant firm Neal and Close and involved in the management of numerous other enterprises. In the same year he was elected to the Napier Harbour Board and to the Napier Borough Council, the two local bodies which would give him the opportunity to influence the development of the town. Brown saw the value to Napier of a deep-water harbour to handle the growing export trade, and during 23 years' service as member or chairman of the harbour board persevered to promote this concept.
His forceful personality and business acumen made Brown an obvious choice for the Napier mayoralty and he was first elected to this office in 1907. Mayor until 1917, then from 1919 to 1921 and 1927 to 1933, he introduced many new amenities and public works, notably the salt-water baths, the children's paddling pool, the Municipal Theatre, a joint electricity and tramway system and improved parks for recreation.
Buoyed by his success locally, John Vigor Brown entered national politics. He was elected to Parliament as an independent Liberal member for Napier in 1908 and retained the seat as a Liberal and then an independent Reform member until 1922, despite the growing popularity of the labour movement. Election nights were memorable occasions: after making his victory speech, to the cheers of enthusiastic supporters, he would throw his distinctive white top-hat into the crowd. Brown always promoted the interests of workers in his electorate and in turn received their support. He was instrumental in the building of several post offices, the East Coast railway and the bridges between Napier and Wairoa.
Disaster struck Napier on 3 February 1931 when the town was extensively damaged by a major earthquake and subsequent fire. Still mayor at the age of 76, John Vigor Brown acted promptly and with wisdom. He obtained government finance to erect temporary shops and requested the appointment of two commissioners to take full control of the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the town. Interviewed shortly after the earthquake, Brown, with characteristic optimism, said, 'The Napier of the future will be far finer than that of the past.' The new Napier was a model of town planning for the time and has become renowned for its art deco buildings, which date from this period.
John Vigor Brown was a well-known figure in Napier. He was a director of the Napier Gas Company and chairman of the White Swan Brewery, Hawke's Bay Soap and Tannery, Criterion Hotel, Theatre Royal and J. Vigor Brown companies. Robust and comfortably dressed, complete with watch and chain, side-whiskers, glasses and top hat, he often featured in cartoons. His large property on Hospital Hill, South Yarra Villa, was named after his boyhood home. Before the earthquake he also owned a large summer residence on the shores of the inner harbour, where he entertained visiting dignitaries, friends and supporters. He was actively involved in numerous business, professional and community organisations and was a generous supporter of sporting clubs. Predeceased by his second wife on 23 February 1924, he died on 2 September 1942 in the town he had served for so many years. After his death his family assumed the name Vigor-Brown.