Thomas Vernon Griffiths, known in his adult years as Vernon, was born on 22 June 1894 in West Kirby, Cheshire, England, the son of Clara Augusta Isabel Vernon and her husband, John Herbert Griffiths, a chemist, who was later an Anglican vicar. Music was an integral part of his childhood, which was spent in Norwich. He attended Norwich Grammar School and pursued his musical studies after moving to London in 1913 to work as a bank clerk. During the First World War he served as an officer in the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment). He was invalided home and was later attached to the army's education service. After the war he won an organ scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where he was the Pembroke College organist from 1919 to 1922. He gained a BA in history in 1921, and a MusB in 1922.
Declining a full-time position at Cambridge, Griffiths embarked on a career in schoolteaching. An appointment as senior music master at Downside School in Somerset in 1922 was followed a year later by a similar post at St Edmund's School, Canterbury. Seeking to escape his family's adverse reaction to his conversion to Catholicism, coupled with an abhorrence of the poverty he witnessed in England, he emigrated to New Zealand at the end of 1926 to take up the newly created position of lecturer in music at Christchurch Teachers' Training College.
As well as being responsible for the musical training of the student teachers at the college, and for the overall development of music in schools in Canterbury, Griffiths immersed himself in music-making within the community. In 1929 he founded the training college music classes, a scheme providing children with tuition in groups on Saturday mornings at a minimum cost. The classes were highly successful during their five-year existence and were later the inspiration for the Christchurch School of Music. Also notable was Griffiths' editorship of the national periodical Music in New Zealand from 1931 until its demise in 1937.
In December 1932 his tenure at the training college was terminated as part of the government's retrenchment policy. In 1933 he moved to Dunedin as music master at King Edward Technical College. Music had received little attention at the school and Griffiths grasped the opportunity to develop his own scheme. With the co-operation and support of the principal and the college board, he put into practice his belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to experience making music in groups. He set up classes with a variety of orchestral instruments, formed orchestras, military bands and chamber groups, and introduced music into the daily life of the school. The success of his efforts was such that similar programmes were adopted in other schools in New Zealand. His work received international recognition when, in 1941, he published an account of the development of his scheme, An experiment in school music making.
Griffiths also found time to further his own studies, gaining his MusD in 1937. He returned to Christchurch in 1942 to take up an appointment as professor of music at Canterbury University College. Although this provided him with new challenges in tertiary and adult education, he maintained his interest in school music. He also continued his involvement in community music, producing a wide range of compositions for use in schools and churches and by adult amateur groups.
On 10 May 1944 Griffiths married Daphne Spear in Christchurch. He was made an OBE in 1957 and on his retirement in January 1962 became an emeritus professor. He died in Christchurch on 23 November 1985 at the age of 91, survived by his wife and five children.
Energetic, ambitious and enthusiastic, Griffiths displayed a single-minded devotion to his career. He was genial and gracious, deeply committed to his family, students and spiritual beliefs, and an unashamed Anglophile. Some found him conservative – he abhorred the gramophone, radio music and jazz – and autocratic. Although his intention to create a nation of musical amateurs was not realised, he set a powerful example as a teacher, music leader and innovator.