John Robert Lys, Transvaal merchant, mining enterpreneur and politician, was educated privately and at Christ's Hospital (a school for boys), London. After some private tutoring in Jersey he visited North America and the West Indies and in 1850 came to the Cape Colony. There he participated in the trigonometrical survey of the colony, then farmed for a short time near Harrismith in the Free State before settling in the newly founded Pretoria. In 1855 he established a trading business there, sending wagons to Durban. Two years later he assisted Pretoria's first landdrost, A.F. du Toit, to lay out the centre of town. In 1859 he was given a site on the south-east corner of Church Square, where he erected a house and shop. In August that year he married Olivia Selina Fry in Durban. Their only son, Robert (1860-1936), became a Rand pioneer and mining consultant.
Lys's residence became a centre of social and political life in Pretoria. He imported books and journals, mainly from Britain, to keep in touch with the outside world. His interest in developing the natural resources of the Transvaal led to his participation in founding the Transvaal General Mining Company, with the intention to mine lead, but the venture failed to attract capital. A second similar venture in which he participated, the South African Republic Mining Company, was also unsuccessful. In 1867 he showed Karl Mauch* a spot on the Witwatersrand where he had earlier found traces of gold in the conglomerate of what later became the main reef, but they did not take the matter further. Ten years later he took an Australian geologist, A.W. Armfield to the same spot. Armfield found gold from Driefontein to modern Orange Grove, but died of blackwater fever before he could prepare a report, which might have led to the earlier development of the gold deposits.
In September 1865 Lys entered the Volksraad as representative of Pretoria and as its first English-speaking member. He held progressive views and served on several commissions dealing with disputed boundaries between the republic and the territories that later became Mozambique, the Free State and Botswana. He served until the British annexation of the Transvaal in April 1877, after which he was appointed by T. Shepstone as landdrost of Pretoria in 1878, a position he retained to his death in 1880.
Lys was responsible for the earliest systematic meteorological observations in Pretoria (and in the Transvaal). He first reported the temperatures recorded during the previous week in De Volksstem of 18 December 1875, and regularly thereafter. The next year he imported a complete set of meteorological instruments from England, including a rain gauge, barometer, wet and dry bulb thermometer, and wind gauge. Monthly means of the daily maximum, minimum and mean temperatures (the latter based on five daily observations), number of rain days, etc, for the period October 1875 to October 1876, were published in the Transvaal book almanac and directory for 1877 (p. 34). Two years later his "Table of meteorological observations, taken in the town of Pretoria during the period from September 1st, 1875, to December 31st, 1878", containing maximum and minimum temperatures, rainfall, and observations of the weather, was published in the Transvaal almanac and directory for 1879 (pp. 105-106) and subsequently in the Zeitschrift der Oesterlische Gesellschaft fuer Meteorologie (1882). He was a member of the Transvaal Literary and Scientific Society, established by President T.F. Burgers in 1874, and one of the few who attended its first annual meeting in January 1875. During 1875 he chaired three public meetings to obtain funds for the Pretoria Botanic Garden, which was on the point of closing down owing to a lack of financial support.
Lys's other activities included the importation of thoroughbred horses and participation in establishing a stud-farm; starting Pretoria's first Masonic lodge in 1868; serving as a lieutenant in the Pretoria Volunteers and as the first commander of the artillery corps from 1875; serving on the Pretoria school commission, which supervised local education; making available a collection of books and a room in his house in 1878 to found what became the State Library in Pretoria; and starting a building fund in the early 1870's for the erection of the first St Alban's church.