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The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Auckland Provincial District]

Mr. Josiah Clifton Firth

Mr. Josiah Clifton Firth, an ex-member of the House of Representatives for Auckland City, who had a most active and remarkable colonial career, was born at Clifton, Bradford, Yorkshire, England, in 1826, and passed away to join the great majority on the 11th of December, 1897, to the profound regret of the community at large. Mr. Firth was the son of the Rev. Benjamin Firth, minister of the Congregational church at Wyke, was educated at a private academy, and learned the manufacture of iron ware—now a colossal trade, but then in its infancy. Mr. Firth, who rose to the position of manager in the iron works of his uncle, shortly afterwards left for Melbourne in the ship “Golden Era.” Subsequently coming to New Zealand, he joined his brother-in-law, the late Mr. Thornton, and Mr. Smith, an old schoolfellow, in the still well-remembered firm of Thornton, Smith and Firth, flour millers. This soon became the leading flour milling business in the Colony, and, though the founders have ceased to have any connection with it, is still a great and profit able concern, now known as the Northern Roller Flour Mills. In 1866 Mr. Firth purchased from the natives 55,000 acres of land in the Upper Thames Valley, and well known as the “Matamata Estate.” This was a bold undertaking as the estate was unpleasantly close to the stronghold of unfriendly natives, unapproachable either by road or river, and covered withal by fern and scrub. The workers engaged on the estate had frequently to protect themselves with rifles and revolvers, and some very narrow escapes were recorded. On three occasions all the women were sent to Cambridge, and the work of sub-dividing the estate had to be abandoned. Subsequently a concrete defensive tower was erected with salutary effect, for, though often threatened, it was never attacked. In the protection of his estate Mr. Firth took an active share, though for the most part himself unarmed. His intimate acquaintance with the leading friendly chiefs gave him a powerful influence. These chiefs endeavoured to appease the anger of Te Kooti, and were so far successful as to induce that famous rebel warrior to seek an interview with Mr. Firth. Hearing that this remarkable meeting was to take place, the late Hon. Dr. page 104 Pollen advised Mr. Firth to use his best endeavours to secure Te Kooti's surrender. The renowned warrior, while extending a courteous greeting to Mr. Firth, replied “No, I will fight till I die.” The difficulty with the Maoris at length subsided, and a road was constructed across mountainous ranges to Cambridge, twenty miles distant, and Te Kooti was subsequently chased along the Thames river by the colonial forces. The difficulty of water communication was next taken in hand. The Thames river, which runs through the Matamata Estate for some ten miles, was then navigable only by rowing boats. No Government subsidy being forthcoming for the improvement of this river, Mr. Firth undertook the work, and in seven years spent £7,000 in forming a channel forty feet wide navigable for steamers drawing up to five feet of water, from Paeroa to Stanley. This work was accomplished more than twenty years ago, and the estate, thus improved, has passed into other hands. During his occupation of Matamata Estate, Mr. Firth succeeded in cultivating 25,000 acres, and much interest was centred in the colossal undertaking. Into his last venture—the pumice-insulation industry—Mr. Firth threw all his characteristic energy and determination. From the splendid testimonials from all parts of the Colonies, it seems certain that “Firth's Pumice-Insulation” is destined to eclipse all other insulation material. It was in the highest degree creditable to Mr. Firth that he spent his declining years in fighting a hard battle in the interests of one of the most important branches of colonial commerce, viz., the cool-storage trade. He was elected a member of parliament in 1861 and was an active supporter of the Stafford administration, in opposition to that of Sir William Fox; among other positions, he held that of chairman of the first railway committee. It was in connection with the part he took in the settlement of the native disturbances that he earned for himself the cognomen of “British Lion of the North.” In conjunction with Mr. S. Jackson and the late Mr. W. Morrin, Mr. Firth was deputed by the Auckland Rifle Association to encourage the settlers on the frontier to resist the encroachments of the Maoris, and these gentlemen convened meetings in churches and chapels, being most successful in the work they had undertaken. For many years Mr. Firth was a zealous worker in the Auckland Congregational church and Sunday school, and was a ready helper in all philanthropic movements. He occupied positions, either as chairman, secretary, or treasurer, in more than twenty institutions of a public and semi-public character. During the last forty years of his life he was a prolific contributor to the press, and was the author of “Perils of the Age,” “Luck,” “Our Kin Across the Sea,” and “Nation-Making.” His long residence in the Colony was broken by only one trip to the Old Land in 1890. He was married in 1855 to Miss Williams, daughter of the late Mr. W. Williams, of Auckland, and nine children survive him. Although for some months previously, Mr. Firth's health had been very weak, no immediate anxiety was felt by his family until the evening preceding his death, which took place at 12.45 p.m. on Saturday, the 11th of December, 1897.