Joseph Edward Nathan was born probably on 2 March 1835 in Houndsditch, in the East End of London, England. He was the sixth son and eighth child of Jewish parents Rachel Davis and her husband, Edward Ezekiel Nathan, a tailor. He started life with few material advantages and received very little formal education. At the age of 12 Joseph started working with his father as a jobbing tailor. Later he worked in a furniture store and at the same time attended night classes at Bishopsgate Institute.
In August 1853 he emigrated to Australia, arriving in Melbourne on the William Ackers on 27 December. There he opened a miners' supply store behind a hotel in Little Collins Street. Because his prospects in Melbourne were limited by lack of capital, Nathan looked for new opportunities in New Zealand, where several of his relatives had settled. His sister Kate had married a Wellington merchant, Jacob Joseph (a relative of the Nathans), who although handicapped by blindness had prospered. Late in 1856 Nathan visited Wellington where Joseph, who was planning a trip to England, offered him employment. Nathan accepted on condition that he receive a salary of £300 per annum plus a share of profits. Before starting work he returned to Melbourne, wound up his affairs and on 18 November 1857 married Dinah Marks in a Jewish ceremony. The newlyweds arrived back in Wellington on the Cheetah on 9 December 1857. They were to have at least 13 children of whom 11, seven boys and four girls, were to survive to adulthood.
Jacob Joseph and Company imported goods from England for supply to the retail trade. Soap, candles, tar, ironware, stationery, drapery, groceries and patent medicines were unloaded in the company's Wellington warehouse and orders dispatched by horse-drawn wagons or bullock carts. In time, the company also bought wool from local farmers for export, and in season sold Wellington butter.
On 1 January 1861 Nathan was made a partner of Jacob Joseph and Company. The Nathan family then lived in the company's storehouse on Lambton Quay. Business hours conformed to Jewish practice, with the sabbath observed on Saturday. Nathan became a leader of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation; he was president from 1870 to 1874 and initiated the building of a synagogue, consecrated in 1870.
Joseph Nathan bought land in the interior, and by 1867 held one of the largest areas in Manawatu. One purchase method – viewed by some as sharp practice – involved buying land certificates (issued by the government in lieu of payment) from soldiers returning from the New Zealand wars. These government land grants, for which Nathan generally paid £25, were of moderate size but of variable quality.
Nathan's partner, Jacob Joseph, was a much older man and known to be difficult; the partnership dissolved on 26 June 1873. After Jacob Joseph retired that year Nathan purchased the assets of the business and set up Joseph Nathan and Company. He built a new four-storeyed office building on the corner of Grey and Featherston streets and a substantial family home in Hawkestone Street.
In 1876 Nathan established a London office and secured funds for capital expansion. Back in New Zealand, assisted by his eldest son, David, he rebuilt his business which was on the verge of bankruptcy. David did much of the travelling, by coastal vessel and on horseback with saddle-bags full of samples. By the end of the 1870s Nathan had acquired an interest in a number of retail outlets including a Ready Money Store in Palmerston North, which later became the Manawatu Farmers' Co-operative Association store.
Perhaps mindful of anti-Semitic attitudes in colonial society Joseph Nathan kept aloof from politics, although he supported the economic policies of Julius Vogel. In business he strove to develop family interests, and trade and commerce in Wellington. In 1870 he was a foundation director of the Wellington Patent Slip Company and in 1876 a founding committee member of the Wellington and Wairarapa Grand Trunk Tramway Company. He became a director of the Wellington Gas Company, the New Zealand Candle Company and the Wellington Woollen Manufacturing Company and was president of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce in 1881. He helped set up the Wellington Harbour Board in 1880 and with others inaugurated the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company in 1881. As its chairman of directors, Nathan officiated at the 'last spike' railway completion ceremony on 3 November 1886.
From 1887 onwards the senior Nathans lived in England. Joseph's wife Dinah died at sea between Portugal and Madeira in 1893. Afterwards Nathan visited New Zealand several times but resigned his directorships in favour of his eldest son. Joseph Nathan and Company was registered as a limited company in London on 19 July 1899 with a capital value of £127,000. While Joseph Nathan was chairman and retained control of finances, all of his sons were in some way involved in company business: Louis, Maurice and later Alexander in England; David, Philip, Frederick and later Charles in New Zealand.
From 1901 to 1903 the Nathans negotiated for the rights to manufacture dried milk in New Zealand. They employed an engineer to install milk-drying machinery in Nathans' Makino dairy factory near Feilding. In 1904 the Nathans built a new, specifically designed dried-milk factory at Bunnythorpe. Although twice sabotaged in its first year of production, from 1906 the factory manufactured dried milk in addition to cheese and other dairy products. Alexander Nathan went to England in 1907 and organised the marketing of dried milk or 'Glaxo' (registered in October 1906), using the once-famous slogan 'Builds Bonnie Babies'. (In 1937 control of dairy product manufacture was transferred to Glaxo, by then a separate company.)
Joseph Nathan died in London on 2 May 1912. Although the company was based in London, a Wellington office supplied imported merchandise to all parts of New Zealand, while a dairying branch manufactured and exported dried milk, butter and cheese from New Zealand. By his energy and business foresight Joseph Nathan played a major part in developing New Zealand's export dairy industry.