John Chambers was born at Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, England, and baptised there on 22 October 1839. He was the son of Ann Wyman and her husband, George Chambers, a farmer. After an apprenticeship as a coppersmith in Greenwich, he established a business on his own account in Nottinghamshire. Chambers married Martha Chambers Moginie on 24 August 1861, in Kentish Town, Middlesex. The family emigrated to New Zealand in 1864, arriving at Auckland aboard the Columbus on 10 October.
Within a few years of his arrival in New Zealand, Chambers had become active on behalf of the New Zealand Iron and Steel Company in seeking to exploit the potential for establishing an iron-smelting industry based on the North Island's west coast ironsands. In 1876 he and others arranged for sand samples to be sent to England and the United States for assessment. The response from Sir Henry Bessemer in England was guarded. He drew attention to the need for investigation of the technological uncertainties in devising a satisfactory smelting process. The response from the United States was much more positive and encouraged Chambers and his backers to use a patented US process for their New Zealand plant.
A very ambitious scheme was devised, and after initial difficulties a plant was established in 1883 on a five-acre waterfront site in Onehunga. After initial success at producing a satisfactory quality of iron, samples of which were exhibited at exhibitions in Europe, the whole enterprise suddenly failed. An American ironmaster, W. H. Jones, whose expertise in the process was vital, had been appointed plant manager; after only a few months in the position he was convicted of attempted murder and gaoled. With no adequate replacement available, the plant closed and was later exported to China.
From 1865 Chambers had been connected with E. Porter and Company, a firm of ironmongers and importers. Here he became involved in specifying equipment for goldmining operations at Thames and other parts of Auckland province. His association with mining continued until his death. He may also have been involved in coalmining at Kamo and cement making, probably at Portland. In 1887 he withdrew from E. Porter and Company, and became managing director of T. & S. Morrin and Company.
Chambers was also associated in business with his son, John. As a result of his father's contacts with overseas manufacturers, John junior twice spent periods in England with the prominent engineering firm Tangyes. In 1892 the pair established the firm of John Chambers and Son. This business, which became a limited liability company in 1898, imported, sold and serviced a wide range of equipment used in the mining, water distribution and dairy industries. After the death of John Chambers senior, it expanded into the supply of farm equipment, including one of the leading brands of agricultural tractors. The company was absorbed by Andrews and Beaven in 1965.
John Chambers died at the family home, Oakdene, in Parnell, Auckland, on 27 September 1903; he was survived by his wife, who died in 1920, and two children. His energy and entrepreneurial skills had made him the driving force behind some of the largest contemporary industrial enterprises in Auckland province.