James Henry Gunson was born on 26 October 1877 in Auckland, New Zealand. He was the son of Jane Burton and her husband, William Gunson, a storeman who became a grain and seed merchant. Both parents were from the north of England. William Gunson was an active Methodist churchman, and, in 1902, was chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board.
After schooling at the Auckland College and Grammar School James Gunson joined his father's firm in 1892. He quickly made his mark in business, and had become managing director of the company by 1902. In 1910, already recognised as a man of dynamic energy, he was elected president of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce – the youngest president in its history. A year later he became chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board and retained that office for four years. In 1913 he helped organise non-union labour during the waterfront strike in Auckland, and kept Prime Minister William Massey informed of the strike's progress. He was elected mayor of Auckland in 1915, and was returned unopposed for a further four terms until he retired in 1925.
Gunson was a natural leader. He was regarded by some as dictatorial, but was also skilled in persuasion. As president of the Chamber of Commerce at a time of rapid growth in Auckland Gunson had fought for improved shipping and railway connections for the city. As mayor he presided over a major expansion of Auckland's infrastructure: the purchase of the city tramways, the establishment of the Auckland Electric Power Board, the extension of the water supply from the Waitakere dams, the construction of the waterfront drive (during which Gunson and the council displayed a most unsympathetic attitude towards the Maori community at Okahu Bay and Orakei), the widening and paving of city streets in concrete, the absorption of Point Chevalier into the city, and the establishment of the Auckland Zoological Park. Only his promotion of a competition for the design of a civic centre came to nothing.
Gunson's mayoralty covered most of the period of the First World War. He was extremely active in recruiting while at the same time meeting criticism that he himself had not joined the armed forces. From 1918 to 1938 he was chairman of the Auckland Provincial Patriotic and War Relief Association and joint committee of the New Zealand Branch of the British Red Cross, and Order of St John. From 1917 to 1925 he was president of the Auckland Institute and Museum. In these roles, linked in a citizen's committee of which he was chairman from 1920 to 1927, he led the drive for funds for the building of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. This project derived considerable support from the Auckland City Council during his mayoralty.
During 1922 Gunson came into conflict with James Liston, then Roman Catholic coadjutor bishop of Auckland. At a St Patrick's Day rally in the town hall, Liston roundly criticised the conduct of British troops in Ireland. Gunson took vehement exception to this, demanding that Liston be charged with sedition. He was put on trial and acquitted. It is said that the two men later became friends.
During his mayoralty Gunson received a number of honours: in 1918 he was made an OBE, in 1919 a CBE, in 1922 a CMG and in 1924 he was knighted. After quitting local body politics in 1925 he stood twice, unsuccessfully, as a Reform Party candidate for Parliament, contesting Eden in 1926 and Auckland Suburbs in 1928; he had contested Roskill as an independent in 1919. From 1931 to 1935 he was a member of the Government Railways Board, but it is probable that he derived most pleasure from his chairmanship, from 1927 to 1956, of the Cornwall Park Trustees. There he was directly responsible for much of the tree-planting and the fulfilment of Sir John Logan Campbell's dream of his own and a Maori memorial at the summit of One Tree Hill.
Gunson had also become increasingly involved in business. He became a director of the New Zealand Insurance Company in 1921 and chairman in 1926, 1936–37 and from 1945 to 1947. He was also a director of the Kauri Timber Company, the Auckland Gas Company, J. Wiseman and Sons and the Dominion Investment and Banking Association.
Gunson built three notable houses. The first, in St Andrews Road, became the Auckland home of the Tongan royal family. The second, at Manurewa, in native bush and parkland which he named Totara Park, is now public property. His last house, Rydal Mount, built in Penrose Road in the late 1940s and designed by M. K. Draffin, the architect of the War Memorial Museum, was, unusually for Auckland, constructed of bluestone.
Gunson had married Jessie Helen Wiseman, a member of another prominent Methodist family, on 11 December 1905 at Auckland. Active in community affairs, Jessie organised women's groups to pack Red Cross parcels during the First World War, and took a leading part in organising relief work for returned servicemen. For this work she was made an OBE. She was a keen amateur naturalist, and a member of the Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand. She also belonged to the Pakuranga Hunt Club and the Auckland Lyceum Club. Alone and with her husband, she travelled widely in Europe and America. She died in January 1959. On 19 August of that year, James Gunson married Margaret May Ryan at Sydney. He died at Auckland on 12 May 1963, survived by his second wife, and two sons and a daughter of his first marriage.
There are several engaging family stories about Gunson. One relates how, on a visit to Washington, he was shown immediately into the president's office when he presented his card as mayor of Auckland. On the same trip, he bought a Cadillac and drove it high up on Pikes Peak in Colorado on tracks not intended for automobiles, then later complained to the makers that it lost performance in the rarefied atmosphere.
James Gunson was a man of ideas and foresight, endowed with extraordinary energy, both physical and mental – at 80 years he still ran up stairs two at a time. His untiring work for Auckland was vital at a crucial stage of the city's development.