John Lomas was born in Disley, Cheshire, England, on 27 February 1848. He was the son of Ann Burgoine and her husband, George Lomas, a collier. Tradition has it that he began his working life in the nearby potteries at about the age of eight, and started his life as a coalminer a year or two later in southern Yorkshire.
By 1879, when New Zealand immigration officials visited the district seeking experienced colliers, he was making his way in an established coalmining community centred on Barnsley. He had married Elizabeth Cragg, also from a coalmining family, at Barnsley on 3 June 1867, and they had two children. John Lomas had made his mark in the dominant institutions of coalfields life – the union and the chapel. But neither a place on a pit committee nor the status of a Methodist local preacher offered the Lomas family any special protection against the vagaries of the coal industry. The chance of a free passage to New Zealand came at an opportune time: there was a rash of pit closures, and migration to the American coalfields – the traditional safety-valve for chronic underemployment on Yorkshire coalfields – had reached its limit.
The arrival of the Lomas family in Nelson in November 1879 was scarcely encouraging. Even before the Opawa docked, the Westport Coal Company, which had sought 50 experienced miners to open up the untouched coal deposits underlying the Denniston plateau near Westport, disowned the entire party. There was no place on colonial coalfields, said the company, for men infected with the twin evils of unionism and Methodism.
Several months passed before Lomas found work at a small pit in North Canterbury. Conditions were primitive, but there was some comfort in the existence of a strong Methodist community in the adjacent rural settlements. In a letter to the Barnsley Chronicle Lomas warned miners contemplating emigration to pass New Zealand by. Immigration agents, he claimed, painted the colony in 'too bright colours': unemployment was rife, the cost of living was high and wages were well below the 10s. a day the miners had been promised. The colonial coal industry, he rightly observed, was undercapitalised. He clearly believed that the migrant colliers had traded the uncertainties of a developed British coalfield for the even greater unpredictability and rawness of a mining frontier.
Colonial circumstances, none the less, provided Lomas with the stimulus and opportunity to become, within a decade of his arrival, one of the colony's foremost union leaders. Unable to find the skilled labour necessary to run its pit, the Westport Coal Company was forced to employ the men it had previously shunned. Lomas returned to the West Coast, and in September 1884 became the inaugural president of the colony's first coalmining union.
Denniston's remoteness, Lomas was quick to appreciate, was both a strength and a weakness. Isolation and deprivation engendered solidarity, but also made it possible for an employer to starve the miners out. The company responded to the formation of the union by cutting the hewing rate in a deliberate attempt to provoke a strike. Six weeks later the miners emerged victorious. But it was a close-run thing and the experience led Lomas to revise his conception of mining unionism. Previously inclined to see the Denniston Miners' Union as an exclusive brotherhood of colliers, he now saw its potential as the nucleus of a general union for the entire West Coast. Accordingly, in 1885 he launched the Amalgamated Miners' and Labourers' Association. It was a step which he regarded as even more imperative when the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand established a monopoly of the district's coal industry. It was in response to this and to the company's involvement in the Australian coal industry that Lomas affiliated with the embryonic Amalgamated Miners' Association of Australia.
By 1889 Lomas claimed to have recruited some 2,000 labourers. Success bred confidence and increased his faith in the power of unionism. The combination of all manual workers in one grand national trades union would, he believed, compel employers to concede a just and uniform wage for all labour. To hasten this end he instructed his members to refuse to work alongside non-unionists. This attempt to impose a closed shop and Lomas's conception of a common wage for labourers were regarded as revolutionary notions. The one was held to negate employers' right to employ as they saw fit; the other struck at the law of supply and demand regarded as the fundamental regulator of the economy. In Lomas's opinion such views and the laws on which they were based were not immutable; they were made by human beings and could just as readily be remade by them.
The campaign to establish the Amalgamated Miners' and Labourers' Association brought Lomas into contact with the leaders of emergent unions in the transport area: seamen, watersiders and railwaymen. In 1889 the Maritime Council, New Zealand's first colony-wide labour organisation, was established, and Lomas was elected treasurer. The new role provided the Denniston miner with a wider stage, and on it he presented a calm and reasoned case for a reform of working conditions. His conception of industrial relations was based on the assumption that so self-evident were the injustices of the workplace that a rational exposition of them would convince employers of the need for reform. Only when rationality was exhausted did he put his faith in unionism's capacity to confront employers at the point of production.
This confidence was put to the test in late August 1890 when an Australian maritime dispute expanded into a trans-Tasman shipping strike. The core unions of the Maritime Council stopped work in sympathy and Lomas found himself at the centre of New Zealand's first colony-wide industrial dispute, the maritime strike. On the coalfields it lasted 56 days and resulted in the almost total destruction of the Amalgamated Miners' and Labourers' Association. Lomas was blacklisted. He considered but rejected returning to England. Instead he watched as the Denniston Miners' Union crumbled.
Defeat in the maritime strike led Lomas to review his attitude to working-class political involvement. Throughout the 1880s he believed that parliamentary politics distracted workers from the more important struggle in the workplace. He was equally disparaging of aspiring middle-class liberals who promoted themselves as friends of labour. If and when workers entered politics they should be represented by men of their own class. By October 1890 that time had clearly come. There were rumours that Lomas was to stand for the Inangahua or Buller seats in the general election. He declined, but publicly supported the emerging Liberal party.
Lomas was personally a beneficiary of the political change which saw the conservative Atkinson government swept aside. In November 1891 he joined the fledgeling Department of Labour as a clerk, and in 1893 was appointed inspector of factories and workrooms for Canterbury and Westland, one of the first factory inspectors. In 1907 he became chief inspector of factories. Lomas remained with the department until his retirement in December 1913 and for the last two years was secretary of labour. He continued to be consulted on union affairs, but increasingly came to find himself out of sympathy with the new generation of radical unionists emerging on the coalfields. Sent to Blackball in 1908 to help settle the strike in the coal mine there, he was ill at ease with what he saw as the truculent behaviour of the union leaders.
After the death of Elizabeth Lomas in December 1901 Lomas had married Emily Ellman, a dressmaker, at Christchurch on 29 January 1903. After his retirement in 1913 they lived in Christchurch, where John Lomas devoted himself to his church, and was an ardent advocate of temperance. He died there on 16 November 1933, survived by Emily Lomas and a son of his first marriage.