John Graham Gow was born at Crieff, Perthshire, Scotland, on 5 May 1850, the son of Janet Graham and her husband, Peter Gow, a coal agent. Graham, as he was known, received commercial training in Glasgow, and was described as a provision merchant when he married Mary Anne (later Marianne) King at Langside, Perthshire, on 8 June 1876.
With his wife and two young children, Gow emigrated to New Zealand in 1880 on the William Davie. One of the children died on the voyage. For the next 21 years Gow worked as a commercial traveller successively for three provision merchant firms: W. & J. Scoular, W. & G. Turnbull and Company, and for J. Rattray and Son. During this period Gow lived in Dunedin. Although he travelled principally in the South Island, Gow was reputed to know New Zealand 'from the seaweed at the base of the Bluff to the top rock of the North Cape'. A contemporary description is of a 'deep-chested man, with a firm jaw, a travel-tanned face, deep-set eyes, bushy eyebrows…broad shoulders and a Scotch accent'. Gow was a fluent orator and storyteller, a crack rifle shot who started the first rifle club in Dunedin, an amateur strongman, and a keen bowler.
Presumably it was Gow's personal qualities, together with his knowledge of the provisions business in New Zealand and overseas, that brought him to the attention of the Liberal government and led to his appointment on 25 March 1901 as trade representative for New Zealand. This was the first appointment of its kind. Gow was to travel throughout New Zealand meeting producers and manufacturers, and obtain information and samples to bring before the commercial communities of South Africa, India, China, Japan and elsewhere. The instructions reflected an early effort on the part of the government to promote exports.
By 17 August 1901 Gow had completed the first part of his mission and set sail for South Africa, where he spent two months visiting the main commercial centres and exhibiting samples of New Zealand wares. He reported good prospects for a wide range of food and animal feeds. Gow focused, in particular, on the shipping services and cold-storage facilities available for New Zealand's business. He advised the minister of industries and commerce, Sir Joseph Ward, to offer a subsidy for a direct shipping service, but not to try to enter into the provision of cold storage. His advice was accepted in both areas and trade expanded over the first years of the new service.
In December 1901 Gow moved to the United Kingdom where he spent five months travelling widely and promoting New Zealand and its products. He wrote regularly to the minister; his reports were distributed to commercial interests in New Zealand and some were published in the annual reports of the Department of Industries and Commerce. Gow also wrote directly to the premier, R. J. Seddon, with accounts of his activities. Seddon was not always impressed. Writing to Ward from London in June 1902 he expressed disappointment at the results of Gow's travels and meetings.
This criticism, and that of opposition members of Parliament in 1908, seems not to have had any adverse effects on Gow's career. In May 1902 he left the United Kingdom for the Far East. From June to November he travelled in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India. The following year the New Zealand government decided to open an office in South Africa and Gow was appointed as commercial agent. He remained until late 1905, when the post was closed because of depressed economic conditions there. In April 1906 Gow was reporting from Kobe, Japan, and later that year he was sent to Canada where he was to spend the next 14 months.
Details of Gow's work after this time are scarce. The Department of Industries and Commerce was merged with the Department of Agriculture in 1909 and there was a lesser focus on trade development in departmental reports. In 1910 Gow was in Argentina presenting New Zealand products at an international exhibition. Apparently he continued his work overseas until 1913, but on returning to New Zealand suffered a severe illness and retired from public service. He went to live in Winton, where he died on 17 February 1917, survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.
In the 12 years he had spent pursuing and representing New Zealand's trading interests throughout the world, Gow charted a course followed since by many a trade commissioner, a title he was accorded in parliamentary and media comment. His reports, although on occasion sketchy and sometimes self-serving, generally were informative, to the point and frank. He faced the dilemma of all trade commissioners: 'It is for the exporters to decide upon the extent of the trade to be done; my duty is to give them the facts.' New Zealand's trading future was built on the foundations to which Gow contributed.