The story of the Nathan family who arrived from London and Sydney in 1840 to build a new life and businesses in the newly founded city of Auckland. Read the fascinating history of two generations of this enterprising Jewish family as they negotiate their new life in Aotearoa. An abridged version of the family's history is presented here by David Cohen. The original text by Lawrence D Nathan is available from the Auckland Public Libraries (details below).
David Nathan, the founder of LD Nathan & Company, landed in Kororareka in the Bay of Islands on February 21, 1840. He had sailed from Sydney on January 31 on the barque Achilles and arrived just two weeks after the signing of the historic Treaty of Waitangi.
Kororareka, though only a tiny settlement spread along what is now the Russell waterfront was, at that time, the seat of government and principal port of the new colony. The bay was a port of call for all visiting vessels from Australia or further afield and a provisioning point for the whaling fleet operating off the coast of New Zealand's North Island.
David was born in 1816 in London. He had served his apprenticeship with an uncle, Henry Moses, and was ready to join his brothers and sisters in Australia. He sailed on the Orient and arrived in Sydney on December 8, 1939. It had been his intention to settle in Adelaide but when he reached Sydney he was told that business conditions were very depressed in South Australia so he decided to try his luck in New Zealand, which was, at the beginning of 1840, just in the process of becoming a British colony.
David erected his own tent in the little mercantile settlement on the beach in Store (later Commercial) Bay where Jean Batten place is today. He waited there until the section bought for him by Moses Joseph, on the corner of Shortland Crescent and High Street, became available. It was the second allotment sold at the sale. The area was two acres and the price £365-4-0. The Certificate of Title signed by W. Hobson is dated August 15, 1842.
The first Nathan and Joseph store was a single-storey kauri building with an attic above the shop where the owners lived. It had two dormer windows in the attic overlooking Shortland Crescent and the beach. On August 14, 1841 an advertisement appeared in the paper stating that the new store was open for business.
David Nathan and Israel Joseph were observant Jews and from its inception the firm closed its doors on Saturdays and on Jewish holidays. David's brothers and sisters soon found Jewish wives and husbands in Australia but the problem for the young man who was settling in New Zealand was acute because Jewish people generally marry members of their own faith and when David reached Auckland there was only one Jew, Barnett Keesing, living there.
Perhaps it is fortunate that he retained his little store in Kororareka because on a business trip there in October 1841 he learned that a young Jewish woman, Rosetta Aarons, had arrived and she had no friends or relatives ashore. She was the widow of Michael Aarons, a sea captain who had unfortunately been lost at sea on the voyage out, and the daughter of Laurence Jacobs of Kings Road, Chelsea, London.
David met Rosetta and they apparently became fond of each other because they soon decided to marry. Their marriage on October 31, 1841 was an historic occasion because it was the first Jewish marriage in New Zealand.
It must have presented some problems to organise a Jewish wedding so far from any rabbi or synagogue but all that is really required is a bride and bridegroom, a ring, a canopy to hold over the couple during the ceremony and two Jewish witnesses of whom one can be the celebrant.
All these were available. Israel Joseph acted as celebrant and the other vital Jewish witness was George Russell. He was owner of the Russell Hotel at Kororareka and came originally from London but had stayed some years in Tasmania before coming to New Zealand. Rosetta had with her the printed Hebrew marriage contract or ketuba which had been used for her first marriage and this document with the necessary alterations was faithfully copied in pen and ink. This Ketuba ormarriage contract written in Hebrew, which has attached to it an English marriage certificate signed by several prominent citizens of Kororareka who were present at the ceremony, is today a treasured possession of the fourth, fifth and sixth generations of the Nathan family living in Auckland. It is lodged for safekeeping in the Auckland synagogue.
It would appear from the newspaper account that the celebration of the wedding was quite an occasion in the small settlement and the wedding breakfast was attended by the officers and ship's company of a naval vessel in port, as well as by many local people who knew the bridegroom. David and Rosetta returned to Auckland and with Israel Joseph worked hard to establish their small store. David was twenty-five and his wife twenty-seven years old. A formal deed of partnership was entered into with Israel Joseph but he soon decided that life in Auckland was not for him. The partnership was dissolved in 1844.
Business conditions in Auckland in the 1940s were very bad. The government had no real source of revenue so could not regularly pay the salaries of its officers and workmen who, in turn, could not pay the storekeepers. There was great difficulty because sales of land from the Maori owners to the settlers were disallowed, first by Sir George Gipps of New South Wales while New Zealand was still a dependency, and later by the Home authorities when New Zealand was controlled by London. The actions of William Shortland, the colonial secretary who acted as Governor after Hobson had died in 1842 and before his replacement, Governor Fitzroy, arrived, became suspect because of his own irregular land dealings. Dissension caused by land transactions between the settlers who wanted to take up land for farming and the government which felt an obligation to protect the native owners dragged on for years and stifled development. The question was not really determined until the 1880s. Fitzroy got into trouble with London because when money became so scarce that trade was impossible he issued £37,000 worth of Government debentures without authority and these were disallowed.
But there is no record of David Nathan being involved in these quarrels. He was a businessman and was primarily concerned with his store and his auctioneering and his shipping agencies. His secondary concern was his growing young family and his deep interest in the tiny Jewish community, which he had established and fostered. He was not interested in land purchases from Maori owners, but in 1847 he did buy 2317 acres at Manurewa. David paid 2/1dper acre, held the property until 1853 and made the huge sum of £153-16-0 on the transaction.
In 1861 David opened an account with the newly formed Bank of New Zealand because he felt he should support a New Zealand-owned institution. When the bank reached its centenary in 1961 its manager presented to L.D. Nathan & Co. Ltd a facsimile copy of page one of its first customers' ledger, which records David Nathan's account. The gift has been framed and is preserved amongst the company's records. Before 1861 David had banked with the Union Bank, which was of course an Australian bank which had had a branch in Auckland since the earliest years.
A less fortunate connection of David with the banking field was his interest in the ill-fated Bank of Auckland. It started in Auckland in 1864 with a capital of £100,000. David was not a director originally but seems to have joined the Board a year or so later. He was certainly a Director when, in 1867, the other banks in town demanded payment in gold instead of bank drafts and the Manager left suddenly for Sydney. He was apprehended on the ship as it steamed down the harbour and brought ashore under arrest.
However, he seems to have been more incompetent than dishonest. The board decided that the bank could not continue and it was wound up. All depositors got their money back and in due course creditors were paid. At the final meeting all the directors, particularly Mr Nathan, were thanked for their efforts in resolving the bank's affairs.
By the mid 1860s fear of Maori attacks on the town was past and the 58th and 64th Regiments were in the process of being withdrawn. When the capital was transferred to Wellington in 1865 the Members of the General Assembly and quite a number of civil servants moved also. The drop in population affected trade quite seriously. The discovery of gold at Thames in 1867 saved the situation. Merchants were able to clear out their stocks and act as a supply centre for the 6000 miners and their families who rushed to the new towns. But the gold petered out and by 1872 the new boom had ended.
In 1863 a house in Waterloo Quadrant called Bella Vista was completed for David and Rosetta. It was built of imported bricks and apparently to the plans of a house they had admired in London. When, some years after David Nathan died, his second wife decided to return to England in 1894 the house was sold. It became the boarding house Glenalvon and when it was sold to a Catholic student organisation its name was changed to Newman Hall.
Rosetta died in May 1864. Very little is known about her. She was fair complexioned with the blue eyes that both her sons inherited and is said to have had a quick temper. About the same time, David's elder brother, Arthur Isaac Nathan, died in Launceston, Tasmania and his widow returned to live in England. David offered to give some of his nephews a start if they came to Auckland and in due course Louis Arthur and Arthur Hyam came and were employed in the business. Walter went to Wellington where he was employed by Jacob Joseph. Two other brothers, Sidney and Edward Nathan, came to New Zealand later.
In 1868 David decided to take things more easily and to allow his son, Laurence David, to begin to take some responsibility. He set up a partnership to be called L.D. Nathan & Co. in which Laurence, aged 22, would have a half interest and the other partner would be his cousin, Louis Arthur Nathan, who was two years older. It was agreed that when Nathan Alfred came of age in 1871 he would become a third partner and meantime his share would be held for him in trust. David did not transfer any capital to the young people. He lent them the amount they required and because of the large debt owing was able to control the whole enterprise.
By the turn of the century quite a large staff had been built up. It numbered 94 in 1904 and of these only three were women, Miss Smith, Miss Yates and Miss Bennett. E.B. Dufaur was the manager, and more and more of the day-to-day management was left to him, though the partners themselves still opened the mail every day. The salaried staff was paid on the fourth of each month. This was because bills of exchange were in common use as a means of settling business debts. The bill would normally be due for settlement on the first of month and three days of grace had to be allowed, so by the fourth, sufficient funds should be available from incoming bills make sure enough money was in the bank to pay the staff salaries.
Laurence Nathan and his brother Alfred, as they became more prosperous over the years, made frequent voyages abroad. They generally went for a year or longer, as it took three months for the two-way steamer passage and they made it a practice for one brother to remain in Auckland to look after the business. Alfred Nathan had married Emily Clayton, who was a niece of Lady Vogel, in 1884 and they had four daughters — Roie, Gladys, Mollie and Joyce — and only one surviving son, Harold. They lived at Wickford in Princes Street, Auckland. Wickford was sold after Alfred Nathan died in 1931 and became a nursing home and is now the administration centre of the University of Auckland.
Image header (above): David Nathan. Reproduced here with the permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library ©
- Abridged excerpts from As Old As Auckland, The history of L.D. Nathan & Co. Ltd and of the David Nathan family, 1840–1980 (Benton Ross Publishers, 1984) by Lawrence D. Nathan.