top of page



To fans of The Lord of the Rings, Van Staveren may appear, in S.P. Andrew’s photo-portrait, like the wizard Gandalf, recast as a Victorian luminary. While it wouldn’t have been possible, the more that’s transmitted about Van Staveren from available sources, the easier it becomes to fancy Herman as a real-life goad to J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination. Take an additional sentence from ‘Syntyche’s’ stirring tribute to the rabbi in The New Zealand Times: ‘Wherever the bitter cry of one in sore distress is heard the name of Van Staveren comes as a light in darkness—as a draught of water in a thirsty land.’ If you transferred the context to Gandalf, the sentiment would continue to resonate obligingly. 



Here was a character who customers and shopkeepers all along Lambton Quay would come out from the shops to stand and gaze at as he trotted past on his horse, Yankel, having returned from Petone on his visits of inspection at the Gear meat works (it was the Gear company that provided kosher meat for his congregation, not least of all for his very considerable family).



Van Staveren might indeed have been Gandalf riding through the shire in Tolkien’s trilogy, projecting an image that was redoubtable, and even fierce to any watching eye; a picture mellowed by the reputation of his endless good heart, a beneficent impulse that appeared to give him little rest. Did he betray any peccadillo at all? Ever-imposing at over 1.85 metres tall, dressed in his black frock-coat and proverbial bell-topper, with coat tails likely flying in the city’s notorious wind, Van Staveren could be allegedly overheard, as he rode along, urging Yankel on in language that may not have been consistently benevolent.



The repetitive journey to and from Petone, which lay on the distant side of the harbour, thirteen kilometres from his residence on The Terrace, must have rankled a bit with him. Given that a train service had been inaugurated between Wellington and the Hutt Valley in 1874, three years prior to his arrival in the country, with four daily services, it is puzzling that Van Staveren resorted to Yankel, who, when not in service, was left grazing in a paddock at the corner of Clifton and Everton Terraces. At an early hour Herman would appear to saddle Yankel and set off before much of the city had woken.


The only compensation for Van Staveren in these continuous trips was joining the other recreational fisherman on the jetty at Petone, where he would take a little precious time for himself after finishing at the meat works before clambering back on Yankel for the journey home. This, when he wasn’t busy pursuing additional “hobbies” such as raising funds for public works to provide employment in the middle of an unemployment crisis. Or helping to secure patronage to put up a large statue of Queen Victoria in Post Office Square—which was to be subsequently carted away from that lively political meeting place, to the position it occupies today, in the middle of Kent and Cambridge Terraces. 

S.P. Andrew’s portrait of Van Staveren would have been taken at the photographer’s studio at 10 Willis Street, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, around or after 1925. At this time Van Staveren would have been in his middle to late seventies. It’s hard to imagine that Andrew could have produced an image more striking—or more formidable; though the longer it’s lingered upon, the more benign its subject’s refulgent poise appears to become. The photo-portrait even has a faintly unsettling humour. Otherwise, there is an organic quality in Herman’s composure: an aura of sartorial serenity, while an authority that is plainly prodigious is knitted into Van Staveren’s bones; accessorised by the stately bell-topper that seems to suit him so well.



Judging by the cigar (an indulgence that Van Staveren shared with his male offspring, who imported them into the country) the rabbi is no ascetic; for this reverend gentleman there can be no dour denial of the pleasures of life. The umbrella could surrogate for a cane; it is tempting to find a would-be staff, denoting tribal venerability or spiritual agency. But then it could just be a case of an elderly man whose restful grip on the handle of a brolly gives no indication of defying the blameless ambiguities of old age. 

With a hat that is a token of strictly secular priesthood, he probably wouldn’t arouse any suspicion of being tied up in the clergy. And yet clergyman was indeed the vocation of Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew’s client, who bore an emphatic appellation of his own—Reverend Herman Van Staveren. It’s a name that fits rather well a man who was a legendary rabbi, and a widely celebrated character of his time. He was spiritual leader of Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington’s Orthodox Jewish community, and the senior rabbi in Aotearoa New Zealand, for more than half a century; from 1877, when he was still in his late twenties and had just arrived in the country from England, until 1930, when he passed away at the splendid age of eighty-one.




He was almost better known as an almoner than a rabbi, a public official whose role it was to channel alms to those who were deemed the deserving poor. For the entire period of his ministry, Van Staveren was to play a famously commanding role in the administration of the city’s charitable institutions, and the distribution of those institutions’ funds—in an era before most of the mechanics of the welfare state had been set in place. This he deemed his “hobby.” Judging by every available account, the unrelenting self-sacrifice with which he engaged his “hobby” indicates a humorful excess of modesty rather than any flippant sanctimony. It seems that for Van Staveren there was nothing abstract or patronising in his conviction that human lives needed to be improved in any and every possible way, and that it was his life’s calling to engage with people in their difficulty, Jew or gentile, utilising whatever means he could secure, or conjure

The press of the time offers a hint of a prominent position held by Van Staveren in the consciousness of the period. In a column in 1988 in The New Zealand Times, a correspondent writing under the name “Syntyche” would write: ‘[With] a mind bound by no narrow notions of class or creed, the Rev H. Van Staveren stands upon a broad platform as a man amongst men—a humanitarian of the highest type … It is to break through his official life and penetrate into his daily work that one has to admire and revere the almoner of the poor—the Rev H. Van Staveren.’



Appearing in The Free Lance in 1909—a little over three decades after his arrival in the colony—is a cartoon that pays playful tribute to the rabbi. Van Staveren does not appear in the image, though there is a bishop, who is quizzing a group of schoolboys. “Now, my little friends,’ says the prelate, ‘can you tell me who was called “The King of the Jews?”’ A boy, Jimmy Jones, responds eagerly: ‘Please, sir, I can—Mr. Van Staveren.’ As the title notes, it was ‘not the answer the bishop expected.




*               *               *

He was born in Bolsward, in Friesland, the Netherlands in 1849, but was sent, by his own account, at “a very early age,” to be educated in England.



There is, to the whole image, a touching paradox. Here is a white-bearded patriarch who, while plainly at home in his own skin, has a gaze that is neither mirthful nor blithe. There is an inkling in Herman’s face of startlement, and faintly stern sorrow. With eyes wide open, and a mouth somewhat agape, it is as if he’s realised that the camera’s presence has drawn out a weariness he’s kept hidden from himself or a vulnerability that has been long neglected. Then again, Van Staveren’s watery eyes brim with honesty; there’s no hint of evasion in them, or any ambiguity, any more than sign of glib self-possession.

HVS, The Freelance, 19 Dec. 1903, reversed, png.png


Though the press would always refer to the celebrity rabbi dutifully as “Rev. H. Van Staveren,” he was known more commonly—to Jew and gentile alike—by the affectionate sobriquet “Mr. Van,” often shortened, behind his back, to simply “Van.” In time, “Mr. Van” became “Old Van.” Evidently there were children who grew up believing he had no other name. As Nigel Isaacs, a great-grandson of Herman’s, has noted, Mr. Van could be a cause of mystery, and occasional apprehension, in young children about the city. But as this snippet from The New Zealand Times in December 1925 indicates, the mystery of Mr. Van’s identity could be penetrated in ways that were on occasion humorous:



A delightful incident took place at Upper Hutt on Wednesday at the handing over of the motor ambulance to the Upper Hutt Town Board by the Wellington Hospital Board. Mr. C. M. Luke, chairman of the board, and other members were present, among them the Rev H Van Staveren. There was a good attendance of local people, and in the front rank were a couple of charming little maids of about four and six summers.


They walked up very confidently to the Rabbi, who looked quite a giant beside them, with his frock coat, silk hat and venerable beard, for he stands about six feet high. Looking up in his face with a beaming smile, one of them asked: “Are you Daddy Christmas?” The patriarchal old gentleman unbent at once and replied, “No, darling, I’m not; I’m his uncle.” Those around thoroughly enjoyed the incident.


... [Wellington's] most popular citizen.

—'The Free Lance', 1930


Though the identity of Andrew’s subject is, of course, firmly established, the image somehow invites reverie, or the pleasure of forgetting, if only momentarily, who the gentleman in the photograph really is. A moment’s appraisal fixes on his extraordinary gaze; one that appears neither to justify his prestigeful attire nor argue against it. He might be dressed in a cassock or in sackcloth, and his gaze would be the same: forthrightly wounded with piety; superior, and yet without presumption of superiority. 

It’s plain that the figure in the portrait is meant to be viewed as a personage of stature: a railroad tycoon of yore, perhaps, or a statesman before the First World War. But either of these would be prosaic—there seems more to his image than the pose of an erstwhile figure of influence. His theatre, which is poised, yet unforced, suggests a luminous identity waiting to be unlocked, while his lucent assuredness, mixed with pathos, really does offer an invitation to make up stories about him. His potential guises are innumerable. A none-too ascetical Scandinavian philosopher-king.  A noted dealer in rare books who enjoys a fine cognac, and lectures late at night, in a draughty hall, on mystical treatises to an esoteric fellowship. A well-established undertaker, who forgoing respectability, becomes a flaneur: ambulating, by day and by night, with cautious tranquility, around city streets. 

His eyes certainly convey a promise of authenticity. Is he some endearing old soul or is he a tyrant? It would be dismaying to perceive in him dismal transgressions of power or any of the vices that are peculiar to the patriarchy. But it would be heart-warming to discover in him an altruistic icon.






Uri Khein



So becoming is (or, rather, would be) the name Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew on this extraordinary studio photo-portrait, that it’s almost a shame the appellation belongs to the photographer, and not his esteem-worthy subject.



HVS SPA smaller.jpg
shul, sans text, vignette for magazine portal.jpg
HVS, vignette.tiff
1. Van
NZJA silver fern_edited.png

~~ Herman ~~

HVS monogram, turquoise_edited.jpg

Early Wellington's celebrity rabbi

click to scroll



HVS monogram, gold_edited.jpg
HVS, The Freelance, 19 Dec. 1903, reversed, png.png

Decades before Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Christopher Lee showed up in Wellington to play influential gentlemen with white beards in The Lord of the Rings, Rabbi Herman Van Staveren played a starring role of his own: striding (and riding) through the streets and institutions of the young nation's capital.

Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
National Library of New Zealand

the mensch

Alexander Turnbull Library
Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand

The world is a mirror, and one sees reflected in it the image of one’s own deeds and character.

—Herman Van Staveren, 1925


Wherever the bitter cry of one in sore distress is heard the name of Van Staveren comes as a light in darkness.
—‘Syntyche’ The New Zealand Times, 1888

HVS, SPA, detail.jpg
HVS, SPA, detail, 2.jpg
Gandalf, belltopper.jpg
HVS, Not the answer ....jpg

Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
National Library of New Zealand

Willis Street, early twentieth century, from the Muir & Moodie photography studio.

Te Papa Tongarewa
Museum of New Zealand

Ngauranga Station, 1900; the midway point for Van Staveren on his regular trips from Wellington on horseback to the Gear meat works in Petone.

Transpress NZ

Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
National Library of New Zealand

A caricature of Van Staveren, published in The Free Lance (1903).


From an image from New Line Cinema

The synagogue at 222 The Terrace, where Van Staveren would officiate for most of his ministry.

Image is adapted from a detail taken from an illuminated address, presented to Herman and Miriam Van Staveren in 1925, on their golden wedding anniversary.

The marketplace in Boslward, Friesland, in The Netherlands.




His birth certificate reveals the first name Manus. Hermans mother Seentje née Adelaar was Dutch, while his father Rabbi Isak Berends Van Staveren was English. Isak had been previously married; like his son Herman, he would serve his community for over fifty years. Herman had at least two siblings but there may have been others. His sister, Jane, eventually settled in Toronto. No information has come to light concerning his brother.   


At the time of his ordination as a Rabbi in 1868, Van Staveren was not yet twenty. In 1875 he was married to Miriam Barnett in London’s Grand Synagogue by none other than Dr Nathan Marcus Adler, the influential Chief Rabbi of the British Empire.

great synoagogue.jpg


Displaying a natural-born proficiency for his calling, and an early inclination to be involved in London’s charitable institutions, the young rabbi might well have been astounded had some oracle tipped him off that his destiny would lie in a presumptive colony at the other end of the world. And that, of Miriam’s and his many children to come, all, except their first-born daughter Manarah (who would be known, life-long, as Minnie) would enter the world as New Zealanders.


And yet, less than two years after their wedding, the Van Staverens would leave Britain forever, bound for a modest harbour town, some 7,500 nautical miles away. A town that in 1865, twelve years before the Van Staverens voyage, had become established, following a long campaign, as the capital city of the country that would permanently adopt Mr. Van.  | nzja | 







The Great Synagogue of London, where Herman and Miriam were married; an engraving from Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1810).

The earliest shul to be built 
(north of Aldgate) upon the return of the Jews to England in the 17th Century, the Great Synagogue was obliterated in the Blitz in 1941.


Lambton Quay, around the period of the Van Staverens' arrival in 1877.


Alexander Turnbull Library
Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand

© The New Zealand Jewish Archives Trust 2024. All rights reserved.



* The above is the preliminary part of our essay Mr. VanAn earlier version of the text appeared on 3 January 2023. It was updated on 5 August.





bottom of page