John Holland Baker was born on 4 December 1841 at Chilcomb, Hampshire, England, one of 10 children of Catherine Mathias and her husband, Thomas Fielding Baker, an Anglican clergyman. He was raised by his grandmother for three years, and from 1851 to 1856 lived with his parents at Königswinter, Germany. Lively, enterprising and a prankster, he did well at grammar school but left at 15 after punching a master. When Catherine Baker's brother, Archdeacon Octavius Mathias of Christchurch, New Zealand, offered to take one of her sons, it was decided that John should go. He received tuition in the elements of carpentry and blacksmithing, and the necessary funds were provided by another uncle, John Baker.
Baker sailed on the Māori in January 1857, and on 1 January 1858 began a three-year apprenticeship in the Canterbury Survey Office, his uncle John Baker paying the £200 tuition premium. By choosing to carry the equipment on survey trips he drew 8s. pay per day. In December 1858 he bought his first land, and in 1860 his first horse. He found about 15,000 acres of unclaimed open sheep country, and in 1860 was granted a lease which he sold for £300. Later he became an inveterate land speculator without ever amassing great wealth.
Following his apprenticeship, Baker made a month-long expedition into the Canterbury hinterland with Samuel Butler, looking for new sheep country which they could turn to profit. They found a pass – later named the Whitcombe Pass – to the West Coast, but since it was densely forested and impassable for sheep they did not pursue it. They found no new pasture land of value. Later in 1861 Baker travelled south and became the first European to find what was later named Haast Pass.
Baker decided that Southland promised more for his career than Canterbury, and after spending a month with the Mathiases, headed south again. Waylaid by gold fever, he spent six sobering months on the Tuapeka goldfields. In May 1862 he finally reached Invercargill, where Chief Surveyor Theophilus Heale employed him as a sub-assistant surveyor. Baker endured long working days, often in bad weather over difficult terrain, camping out for weeks at a time. The work was varied: mapping, pegging parts of the main road to Dunedin, block and section surveys, a hydrographical survey of the New River estuary. In 1863 he was promoted to carry out the triangulation of western and central Southland and given his first cadet. He required of his men no tasks or risks he was not himself prepared to undertake, and was always to attract staff support and loyalty. On 4 July 1865, aged 23, he was appointed chief surveyor for Southland. Tall and personable, Baker now became prominent in social life. In 1867 he was elected to the Rural Deanery Board of Otago and Southland, and from 1869 represented the Invercargill parish on the Dunedin Anglican synod.
In 1870, when Southland again became part of the province of Otago, the survey departments merged under John Turnbull Thomson and Baker remained in Southland as inspector of surveys. Thomson told Baker that he would not interfere with his survey methods, which were 'the very best under the circumstances', and that he would be happy to receive suggestions from his subordinate. Thomson extended Baker's responsibilities, thus keeping his popular, hard-working inspector even more occupied. Baker was granted leave in 1875; en route to England he met Isabel Strachey, a petite, determined Englishwoman of the upper middle class. They were married at St George, Hanover Square, London, on 10 December 1875.
John and Isabel Baker sailed for New Zealand in 1876. Following the abolition of the provincial governments Thomson, now surveyor general, appointed Baker chief surveyor of Canterbury where survey affairs were known to be in a state of serious disarray. Baker replaced incompetent staff with men he trusted, put in place a resurvey and triangulation of large parts of the province, and set about dealing with land dummyism, by which landowners, some prominent in public affairs, had improperly increased their holdings. Baker persisted in the face of unpopularity and hostility. Some of his strongest opponents were later to praise him publicly for his fairness and impartiality. He was appointed commissioner of Crown lands for Canterbury in 1884 and given responsibility for road construction in 1889. He also showed an awareness of conservation issues: his investigation of the rabbit menace in South Canterbury finally spurred the government into action, and he reported on the adverse effects of the destruction of high country vegetation in the Tasman valley.
Baker's personal and social life continued to flourish. A son had died in infancy, but a daughter, Isabel Noeline (known as Noeline), was born in 1878. The Bakers' Fendalton home, formerly owned by Edward Jerningham Wakefield, was a magnet for visiting English gentry, and there were frequent long visits from English relatives and friends. Isabel Baker was connected by marriage to Robert and Emma Campbell of Ōtekaieke, and to Canterbury landowner John Raine and his wife. James and Mary Lance and other prominent Canterbury families were close friends. The Bakers took part in dinner parties and balls, tennis and garden parties, musical evenings, the November races, and country house visits. Snatching time when he could, Baker launched into these frivolities with gusto. He was now a big, red-faced, full-featured man with muttonchop whiskers, a high bald dome of a head, and an explosive laugh. When indignant he became inarticulate, which, in turn, made him more indignant. A great walker, in town he charged along, head down, with long fast strides. He kept spirited horses, would unquestioningly surrender his chair to the family cat, and went out of his way to give pleasure to children, story-telling, making a snowman, or collecting them to have fun at a garden bonfire.
In 1891 Baker was transferred to Wellington as commissioner of Crown lands to clean up land dummyism there; he was later also appointed assistant surveyor general. He continued to work long hours and encountered problems in administering and revising the 1885 Land Act. Deskbound, overworked and with little time for the open country sorties that had always rejuvenated him, his health failed. He retired pensionless in October 1896 and returned to England with his wife and daughter. Baker was deeply attached to New Zealand, especially its back country, and left with sadness. It was said of him that 'his honesty was unimpeachable, and he had ever done his duty with a stern integrity.'
Free of bureaucratic pressures, however, Baker regained his health, took up gardening and golf and travelled widely, often camping out in primitive places with his daughter Noeline as companion. She was awarded an MBE for her pioneering work with the Women's Land Army in Britain from 1917 to 1919, and edited and published her father's autobiography in 1932. Isabel Baker died in 1920. John Holland Baker died at his home in Shalford, Surrey, on 5 February 1930 and his body was cremated. Noeline Baker returned to New Zealand to live at Stewart Island, where she donated a botanical reserve in the family name.
John Holland Baker made a considerable contribution to surveying and land administration at a time when New Zealand's laws were at a formative stage. He was a strong advocate of the use of land reserves for public purposes, especially education, and set aside large areas for this purpose in both Southland and Canterbury. He was a foundation member of the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors; the New Zealand Alpine Club, of which he was a vice president from 1891 to 1894; and the Polynesian Society, being a council member from 1893 to 1895. A paper in which he explained his pioneering method of measuring glacial movement was published by the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1891. A man of cheerful optimism and wide human sympathies, Baker tempered his vigour and resourcefulness with method and reliability in his professional duties. He is commemorated in Baker Peak, Baker Glacier and the Baker Saddle.