By his own account Henry Burling was born at Stratford, Essex, England, on 1 May 1801, the son of Thomas Burling, a soap-maker; another account suggests he was born on 5 October 1807, the son of James Burling and Joanna Pike. He worked as a silk and satin printer. On 27 January 1839 he married Mary Worsley at Marylebone, Middlesex; they already had four children, and four more were born after their marriage. Henry and Mary Burling and their family emigrated to New Zealand on the London, arriving at Wellington on 1 May 1842; a son, Charles, died on the voyage.
Burling worked for a brief time as a gardener before purchasing a section of land, at what is now known as Otari, from a Maori named Hopapa. Although apparently illiterate – his marriage certificate is marked with a cross – he was employed as a mail carrier between Wellington and New Plymouth. The round trip of about a fortnight was one of strenuous physical endeavour; he swam rivers with the mail and his clothes strapped to his back and head. On these journeys he made the acquaintance of Te Rangihaeata, whom he called, familiarly, Rangi.
Burling's friendship with the Ngati Toa leader and his refusal to give cause for offence by carrying arms proved useful attributes in the alarms after the Wairau affray of June 1843. He met up with an armed party led by Chief Constable Richard Burgess Sayer which was carrying to New Plymouth dispatches, presumably intended for the government at Auckland, warning of the likelihood of war. Burling convinced them of the folly of being caught with arms. His offer to carry the dispatches himself was accepted; he was intercepted by a party of hostile Maori and brought before Te Rangihaeata, who gave him a safe conduct to Taranaki. Burling always insisted that Te Rangihaeata had been much maligned by the settlers, who made little effort to understand the Maori.
In 1847 Burling acted as foreman of a gang employed in cutting a path to Wairarapa through the Remutaka range. He subsequently purchased land at Paetumokai from Te Mānihera Te Rangi-taka-i-waho and Wī Kīngi Tū-te-pākihi-rangi. While driving his 60 or 70 head of cattle to his run, he cut a track from Morrisons Bush to Burlings (known since 1856 as Featherston). In 1849 he was granted a licence to establish a 'house of entertainment', Burling's Bush Inn, at the foot of the Remutaka range; the low standard of accommodation – Donald McLean complained of the fleas – caused this licence to be revoked in 1852.
Some time after 1860 Burling moved to newly purchased land at Waiorongomai; later still, he had holdings at Alfredton and Pongaroa. At the time of his death at Waikanae on 17 September 1911, Henry Burling had become a byword for longevity and innumerable descendants – he had more than 600 by some accounts. He lived under six different British monarchs and saw Halley's comet twice. To the end of his life he retained both his mental alertness and his physical strength, although an early accident had greatly impaired his eyesight.