Story: Montefiore, John Israel

Page 1 - Biography

Montefiore, John Israel

1807–1898

Trader, merchant

This biography was written by Roger Wigglesworth and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

John Israel Montefiore, also known as John Julius Montefiore, was born probably in London, England, in 1807; his parents' names are unknown. He was a cousin of Joseph Barrow Montefiore, the notable early nineteenth century New South Wales merchant, who had trading interests in New Zealand. Although he never married, John Montefiore had a part-Maori daughter.

Montefiore arrived in Sydney, New South Wales, from London on 19 August 1829, and left there for Tauranga, New Zealand, in October 1831. His search for tradable commodities such as flax, pork and potatoes took him inland, and south to Rotorua.

By February 1836 Montefiore had moved to the Bay of Islands, where he lived alone with his servant, Bill, in Kororareka (Russell) and carried on business as a merchant. In August 1836 he purchased land at Manawaora Bay in the Bay of Islands and reportedly established himself there as a ship's chandler. Later that year he was among the 213 British nationals who petitioned William IV, seeking protection to enable them to carry out their business in New Zealand. Montefiore had learned to speak Maori, although he was contemptuous of Maori customs and habits. He tried to distance himself from the other Europeans, whom he regarded as ruffians: the trader Joel Samuel Polack regarded Montefiore as one of the few respectable Europeans at the Bay of Islands.

Montefiore left New Zealand on board the whaling ship Montreal on 24 December 1836, and arrived in Sydney on 11 March 1837. Between 20 March and 7 August 1837 he published a series of 15 articles entitled 'Sketches of New Zealand' in the Sydney Herald. On 6 March 1840 he returned to the Bay of Islands and opened a store in Kororareka, near those of Polack and David Nathan. He traded as a ship's chandler and bulk supplier of foodstuffs to visiting vessels.

Montefiore went to Auckland in March 1841 and in April, at the first land auction held there, purchased land on behalf of Sydney-based clients. Shortly afterwards he settled permanently in Auckland, where he established a land agency and general merchant's store at 3 Lower Queen Street. By 1845 he was the owner of three properties in Queen Street and two in Shortland Street.

In July 1841 Montefiore became the largest shareholder in the newly established Auckland Newspaper and General Printing Company, which published the first Auckland newspaper, the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Gazette. The newspaper, particularly under the editorship of Dr Samuel McDonald Martin from January 1842, adopted an anti-government stance and was particularly vitriolic on the subject of land claims. Montefiore became a trustee of the company in August 1841, but was alone in voting against the proposal of the other trustees on 7 March 1842 that the newspaper become solely an advertising sheet. As a result of that decision the company was liquidated late in March 1842, and the newspaper folded two issues later.

In 1846 Montefiore joined with 17 other businessmen in founding the Auckland Savings Bank. The bank, which opened on 5 June 1847, aimed to provide financial facilities for the working classes, both Maori and European; its safe was kept in Montefiore's store. He acted as a trustee and honorary accountant of the bank until its day-to-day administration was taken over by the government on 29 May 1848. His portrait can still be found in the bank's boardroom.

Around 1850 Montefiore left Auckland and went to live in London. He was, however, induced to return to New Zealand in 1855 by his friend John Logan Campbell, and was left to manage the firm of Brown and Campbell from November 1856 while the partners were both overseas. Although he appears to have kept their business profitable, some of his commercial decisions, together with what William Brown regarded as his uncontrolled passion for speculating in land, caused Brown and Campbell to ask Montefiore to resign as their manager in 1859. Montefiore then disposed of his assets in Auckland (although he retained the 1,228 acres he had acquired at Whakatane), and left New Zealand for the last time early in 1860.

Montefiore was much involved in community affairs in Auckland. He was a foundation member and a generous supporter of the Jewish congregation and, with David Nathan, on 4 December 1843 secured a grant of land from the governor for a burial ground to be established in Symonds Street. He also made donations towards the foundation of all the original chapels in Auckland, and organised the erection of a monument to his friend and the first Auckland magistrate, William Cornwallis Symonds.

In 1842 Montefiore led a deputation to Governor William Hobson expressing concern at the siting of the new customs wharf, and another to Governor Robert FitzRoy demanding the removal of the tax on bread and clothing in 1844. His was the first signature on the petition of protest delivered to FitzRoy after the fall of Russell in 1845, he chaired a meeting to protest against the 1845 militia bill, and he corresponded extensively with both the colonial and British governments regarding land prices and the handling of land claims. Montefiore assisted with the foundation of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce in 1856, served on its executive committee and first council, and became its second chairman in 1857.

After leaving New Zealand, Montefiore spent a period in Sydney, then returned to England; he lived first in London, then in Southsea, near Portsmouth, Hampshire, where he died on 14 February 1898.

Montefiore was an essentially private, rather aloof individual, who tended to look disdainfully on those around him. Although closely associated with the leading Auckland merchants, he did not share their aspirations for public office or social prominence. Nevertheless, he was regarded as an honourable man, and remembered for his philanthropy.