John Peter Bollons was born at Bethnal Green, London, England, on 10 November 1862, the son of Thomas Bollons, a cab master, and his wife, Helen Elisha. His mother was Jewish but Bollons was brought up as an Anglican. At 14 he began his long sea career by shipping out aboard a barquentine bound for the West Indies.
Bollons made landfall in New Zealand the hard way when the barque England's Glory ran ashore near the entrance to Bluff Harbour on 7 November 1881 while altering course to pick up the pilot. The kindness of a Pākehā whaler and his Māori wife endeared the Māori people and the town (in which he settled) to the young seafarer. After the wreck, Bollons joined the crew of the Bluff pilot cutter, transferring a few months later to the government ketch Kekeno, at the time engaged in the suppression of seal-poaching. For the next decade he served aboard a variety of Home trade, intercolonial and coastal vessels, working his way up through the grades. He gained his master's certificate in 1892 and from 1893 was employed on the steamers of the Marine Department. He became master of the Hinemoa in 1898.
In Invercargill on 28 November 1896 John Bollons married Lilian Rose Hunter. Like most events in Bollons's life this had its nautical connections. Lilian was the daughter of a retired master mariner, John Hunter, and the couple's eldest son and eldest daughter received their middle names from ships that Bollons commanded: the Tūtānekai and Hinemoa respectively. From around 1911 the Bollons family lived in Wellington.
It was on the steamers of the Marine Department that Bollons made his real contribution to New Zealand's maritime history. The duties of these well-known ships took them to all parts of New Zealand's coastline and its subantarctic dependencies. They serviced lighthouses, maintained navigation aids, charted the coast, replenished relief depots and conducted search and rescue missions, often spending long periods hugging dangerous coasts. Over the years Bollons developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of New Zealand's coastline. He rescued several crews, most notably that of the barque Dundonald, wrecked off Disappointment Island in the Auckland group in 1907. The government steamers also transported scientific expeditions and ferried dignitaries. During these voyages Bollons befriended many senior politicians.
His work enabled Bollons to pursue his interests in natural history and Māori culture. He always welcomed scientists and scholars aboard his ship and was himself a keen and observant naturalist, carrying a small dredging plant with him for collecting specimens. He spoke and wrote Māori fluently and was a friend of the ethnographer Elsdon Best. Bollons researched Māori folklore and cultural practices and made a special study of Māori fishing equipment. His collection of artefacts remains one of the more significant at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
John Bollons was a tall, deep-voiced man with a King George V beard and an energetic manner. It is said that he never used bad language. On one occasion, after avoiding rocks by just inches, he limited his exclamation to 'Holy sailor – we nearly did it that time!' In 1928 he was made an ISO. The Marine Department extended his retirement age to enable him to oversee the delivery of the Tūtānekai's replacement, the Mātai. Just before leaving for Britain, however, he underwent surgery for a hernia, relapsed and died unexpectedly in Wellington on 18 September 1929. He was survived by his wife, Lilian, and by four daughters and four sons. Bollons was buried at Bluff, home town of his wife and whose inhabitants had given him refuge 50 years earlier. The crew of the Tūtānekai erected a plaque to his memory in All Saints' Church, Kilbirnie, which Governor General Sir Charles Fergusson unveiled two months later.