The eldest of eleven children of Samuel and Mary Ballance, was born in a cottage sited next to the restored house at Glenavy on 27 March 1839. His father was a tenant farmer on land belonging to the Hertford Estate and as the family grew in size the farmhouse was built to accommodate them. Disinterested in farming, John left school at fourteen and went to Belfast where he was apprenticed to the hardware trade. At eighteen he left Ireland for Birmingham where he was a hardware salesman.
In 1863, at the age of 24, John Ballance married Fanny Taylor. Fanny suffered poor health and this, as well as the earlier settlement of her brother at Wanganui, spurred the couple to New Zealand in the hope that the conducive climate would aid her. Here John Ballance established the Evening Herald later called the Wanganui Herald. He owned it until his death, editing it whenever parliamentary duties permitted.
Fanny died in 1868 and two years later Ballance married Ellen Anderson, a native of County Down.
John Ballance entered Parliament in 1875 and made his reputation in the spheres of the economy and land use. He held office as Colonial Treasurer (1878), as Minister of Lands, Native Affairs and Defence (1884-7) and as Premier (1891-3). He was instrumental in giving women the vote - a world first - and paved the way for the liberal triumphs of his successor, Seddon.
Ballance died of cancer on 27 April 1893 and was buried under an Irish granite headstone at Wanganui.