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Story: Kelliher, Henry Joseph

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Kelliher, Henry Joseph


Businessman, brewer, publisher, managing director, art patron, credit reformer

This biography, written by R. C. J. Stone, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Henry Joseph Keliher was born on 2 March 1896 in Waikerikeri valley, Central Otago, the son of Mary Carter and her husband, Michael Joseph Keliher, a goldminer and later a farmer. Henry was educated at the public school at Clyde. By the age of 17, it seems he was a drover at Carterton.

When war began in 1914, Kelliher (as he spelt his name) enlisted as a private in the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment. During service at Gallipoli in 1915 he transferred to the artillery, and when the New Zealand Division shifted to France he was drafted into a newly formed trench mortar battery. His war service ended in 1917 after he was gassed.

On 21 July 1917, while on leave in Belfast, Kelliher married, in a Roman Catholic ceremony, Evelyn Janie McLaughlin (née Sproule), a young widow; they were to have four daughters and a son. Evelyn was recorded as a 'dealer' at her marriage; her father was a decorative artist. She was an attractive, assured woman, whose social skills were to be an asset to Kelliher in his subsequent career.

When the war ended the Kellihers were already in New Zealand. For a short time after demobilisation Kelliher farmed in Wairarapa, but sold out to invest in the Marquis of Normanby hotel at Carterton. As this hotel lay on the margin of a no-licence district, it proved to be a goldmine. He also dealt in properties, some of them Māori lands in the Bay of Plenty.

In 1922 Kelliher shifted to Auckland, believing that for entrepreneurs like himself, the best opportunities lay in that swiftly growing northern city. There he formed Kelliher and Company, a firm importing goods from Asia and exporting primary produce, mainly butter, to Britain. He also held the lucrative sole New Zealand agency for J. H. Dewar and Company, the Scottish whisky distillers. In 1926, already in printing and publishing, he moved further into the licensed trade by purchasing the wine and spirits business of Levers and Company, and later by acquiring a bottle-manufacturing interest.

In 1923 Kelliher took over an ailing women's magazine, the Ladies' Mirror (later the Mirror), and restored it to full health. Although under its new owner the periodical seemed to retain its original character, reporting on society weddings and giving advice to the lovelorn, it subtly changed its course to express the ideas of progressive women. Articles such as 'The problem of mateless women' began to appear, offering advice for a generation in which so many potential husbands had been eliminated by war. Women were told to fulfil themselves by university education, and to break their way into occupations and professions previously shut off to them by outworn prejudice. The propagandist character of the Mirror became even more pronounced when Kelliher assumed full editorship in 1930.

By 1930 Kelliher had become a wealthy man, recently returned from a world tour with his wife. Although only 34 he could have retired to a life of leisure. Characteristically, however, he launched himself on a new career in the brewing industry, entering into a partnership with the Coutts family, who the year before had opened the new Waitemata Brewery at Ōtāhuhu. In spite of the onset of the great depression, and the indignant opposition of both prohibitionists and established Auckland brewers, the venture was a success, particularly after it was converted in October 1930 into a public company, Dominion Breweries. On Kelliher's urging, the company periodically increased its capital, mainly using it to acquire hotel outlets, on which (he was convinced) the expansion of the firm depended. By extending its market area first through the North Island, and then, in the 1960s and 1970s, through the South Island, Dominion Breweries became in fact as well as in name a nationwide concern.

Until his retirement from its board in 1982, Kelliher contributed more than anyone to the success of Dominion Breweries. He was an astute manager of talented executives, exploiting their abilities yet retaining their loyalty. His flair for an innovative brand of advertising helped to open up a mass market. Even in the years of the six o'clock swill he renounced the tradition of beer barns, installing in his hotels carpeted lounges with original paintings on the walls.

Kelliher seemed to epitomise the traditional successful Auckland businessman: erect, immaculately attired, driving a Rolls Royce, with a fine home in fashionable Remuera and a rural estate raising pedigree stock and racehorses on Puketutu Island in the Manukau Harbour. But he was essentially a maverick, subject to intense, usually generous, but often unorthodox enthusiasms. During the depression he formed a League of Health of New Zealand Youth to advocate the issue of free milk to all schoolchildren. His great passion was monetary reform; in the 1930s he published a pamphlet, New Zealand at the crossroads, and used the Mirror to promote the idea that the state alone should create credit. A term as director of the Bank of New Zealand confirmed his views, and in 1956 he gave evidence to the Royal Commission on Monetary, Banking, and Credit Systems.

He also set himself up as a patron of the arts. In 1956 he established the Kelliher art awards, offering annual prizes of up to £500 for a traditional and realistic landscape painting. A prize for a non-abstract watercolour painting was offered from 1964. The inherent conservatism of these awards greatly annoyed sections of the art community.

Henry Kelliher's leisure pursuits included motoring, hunting, and extensive travel. He practised yoga well into old age. He was a generous donor to many charitable causes, and in recognition of his work as industrial leader and philanthropist he was knighted in 1963. He retired as chairman of Dominion Breweries at the age of 85. From then until his death at Ōtāhuhu on 29 September 1991 he lived at his home on Puketutu Island which, attractively enlarged, he had made his permanent home in the 1950s. Evelyn Kelliher had died in 1986, and Kelliher was survived by his four daughters.

How to cite this page:

R. C. J. Stone. 'Kelliher, Henry Joseph', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4k5/kelliher-henry-joseph (accessed 23 July 2024)