John Henry Howell was born in Frampton Cotterell, Gloucestershire, England, on 31 October 1869, the son of William Mends Howell, a Congregational minister, and his wife, Harriett Brown. He was educated at Caterham Congregational School in Surrey and attended University College of Wales, Aberystwyth; he graduated with a BA and a BSc with first-class honours in physical science. He then did postgraduate work at University College, London, and spent some time at university in Strasbourg and at the federal polytechnic in Zürich. The combination of arts and science gave him the broad view of education that he was later to apply to his work in New Zealand. After graduation Howell was for a year assistant to the professor of mathematics at Aberystwyth, then from 1894 to 1899 he was senior master at the Strand School, King's College, London, and for two years science master at the county school, Aberystwyth.
John Howell married Ellen Vickers Wheeler at Redland, Bristol, on 8 September 1894; they apparently had no children. In 1901 the couple arrived in New Zealand where Howell (selected out of 48 applicants) took up an appointment as science master at Auckland Grammar School. He immediately listed a large supply of chemicals and apparatus to be ordered from London, and he and the headmaster, J. W. Tibbs, conspired to make the science department the school's showpiece.
Some had seen Howell as the eventual successor to Tibbs, but in 1906 he applied for the post of director of technical classes in Christchurch. He was selected by only a narrow margin, which made his initial relations with the board of managers somewhat difficult. There was no school as such, simply a collection of evening classes. Howell's first task was to put those for apprentices on a proper footing; he then worked to create a full-time technical day school, achieving his objective in July 1907 by which time a school building had been constructed.
The first eight years of Howell's directorship of the Christchurch Technical College were remarkable: he overcame prejudice against technical education and acquired ample land, with adequate classrooms, workshops and laboratories, an assembly hall and a residential hostel for girls. By 1914 he had built up a well-organised evening school with 1,000 students and an ably staffed day school of more than 400 students. Howell emphasised the value of social and cultural activities. French and matriculation subjects were taught, and he introduced sports, in which pupils could choose to play the games they liked best. Such was Howell's reputation and influence that six of New Zealand's eight largest technical schools were for long periods controlled by Howell himself or by men he had trained.
In 1914 Howell was granted leave to study educational systems abroad, and spent eight months in Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Australia. He derived inspiration from the newer technical and vocational schools in the United States and applied the lessons he learned with great effect on his return to New Zealand.
In March 1919 Howell was appointed director of Wellington Technical College. Since his student days he had suffered from a chronic illness of the oesophagus and a recurrence of this meant that it was six months before he could take up the position. He inherited a school occupying six unsuitable buildings in central Wellington. New premises on a new site at Mount Cook were begun in 1921 and not finished until 1924. Buildings were not his only problem. Howell once more fought to secure acceptance of a wide-curriculum technical education at a properly staffed and equipped secondary school. All students also received a general education that included English, history and science. In 1931 the last of the buildings that Howell had laboured for were finished, and in August of that year, suffering again from ill health, he retired, despite pleas that he remain.
Howell helped to form the Technical Education Association of New Zealand, and became its first president in 1922. He served as the teachers' representative on the Victoria University College Council from 1923 to 1931, contributing to the re-organisation of the Sarah Anne Rhodes fellowship and the design and establishment of Weir House, the hostel for men. Although he occasionally wrote on education questions, Howell's contributions to the council were principally on practical matters.
John Howell's energy and vivacity, breadth of vision, firmness of purpose and unwillingness to tolerate any transgressions impressed themselves on his pupils and contemporaries. He himself followed a strict code of principles and conduct. In 1906 he became a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers). Their rejection of armed conflict matched his own views, and in 1911 he became active in the work of the National Peace Council of New Zealand. He also joined the Canterbury Fabian Society after it was formed in 1908. During the First World War he was appointed official visitor to Quakers imprisoned for their stand against military service, and weathered the storm that arose over his refusal to cease offering prayers for the enemy at daily assembly. During the Second World War he appeared on behalf of Quaker conscientious objectors at hearings of the military service boards.
In February 1940 the Quakers in Wellington gained permission for Howell and Richard Ricketts Harris to visit the enemy aliens interned on Somes Island. Howell took a large part in helping the internees and their families. Books, recreational materials and plants were provided by Friends, and John Howell donated his own loom so that internees could take up weaving. Friends acted as intermediaries with the Social Security Department to obtain adequate support for families in need and organised help with clothing and shoes.
John Howell served on the Quakers' education committee from 1915 to 1921, lending his organisational talents to the establishment of Friends' School at Wanganui, which opened in February 1920. In 1934 he served on a commission set up to resolve the school's financial difficulties.
With his wife, Ellen, Howell shared a deep concern for animal welfare, and around 1929 he became a life member of the Wellington Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He served on the committee from 1930 and became president of the New Zealand SPCA, an office he held until his death. He also helped to reorganise the society's constitution. In 1941 Howell's health forced him to give up most of his activities, but in 1943 he was able to give the end-of-year address to pupils at the Wellington Technical College. He died at Wellington on 20 June 1944, survived by his wife.
Howell was genial and, in later life, white-haired with lively eyes. Energetic and full of vitality, he was able to accomplish much in the face of prejudice and difficulties. His piety, questing intellect and moral courage led him to engage in unpopular activities; his integrity and engaging personality nevertheless helped him to retain his standing in the community.