Page 1: Biography
Shopkeeper, financier, community leader
This biography, written by A. Agnew and R. Agnew, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was updated in October, 2017.
Henry Keesing was born in Amsterdam, the United Provinces of the Netherlands (the Dutch Republic), on 31 December 1791, the second son of Tobias ben Hartog and Clara Jacobs de Jong. His Jewish name was Hartog ben Tobias but he officially adopted the name Hartog Tobias Keesing in 1811. After serving as a conscripted soldier in the Napoleonic army, he made his way to England during 1813. By 1815 he had anglicised his forename to Henry and had become a tailor in London. On 14 August 1816 Henry Keesing married Rosetta Barend Kasner, daughter of Isaac Kasner and his wife, Hannah Raphael; the marriage was registered at the Great Synagogue, London. The couple raised their nine children at 98 Great Saffron Hill, where Henry had a clothing shop.
A son, Barnet, was already in New Zealand when Henry and Rosetta Keesing sailed from England in 1842 with six of their family. They endured a five month voyage in the barque Union, which arrived at Auckland in March 1843. Henry quickly became established as a small trader in Shortland Crescent, later Shortland Street. Before many years he was able to leave the running of the thriving store, London House, to his sons while he engaged in other enterprises. By 1844 he had begun to acquire property by lending money on security of the borrower's land. His financial dealings soon expanded and he became the owner of many prime building sites in the business district of Auckland. Four of Keesing's properties were destroyed by fire in 1858.
The arrival of the Keesing family signalled a new era in the lives of the few Jewish traders in Auckland. There were now enough men to form a Minyan, and regular services got under way. A Hebrew Congregation was later formed, meeting in a little building in Emily Place. Henry Keesing was proud of his position as first president of the congregation, and enjoyed representing the Jewish community at public events.
In 1849 Henry and Rosetta Keesing shifted to a country property, Bird Grove, in Manukau Road, Epsom. They left on an extended overseas trip in 1853, and the property was leased and eventually sold. By 1856 they had returned and taken up residence at 4 Waterloo Quadrant, opposite Government House. After Rosetta died in 1862, Henry Keesing continued to buy and sell land, invest in the sharemarket and take part in social life. He received occasional visits from George Grey: the two men discussed, among other subjects, the Hebrew language, which Grey was endeavouring to learn. Until his death on 10 May 1879, Henry played an important but unobtrusive part in the community, keeping a sharp eye on his financial affairs and his numerous descendants.