Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Conditions of use


Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Thomas Kirk's life

Thomas Kirk's life

As Thomas Cheeseman and Leonard Cockayne noted, Thomas Kirk (1828-98) was New Zealand's most important botanist in the decades following publication of Joseph D. Hooker's Handbook of the New Zealand Flora (1864-7). He wrote some 150 papers on the New Zealand flora, most published in Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. Thomas Kirk was born in Coventry (18 January 1828). He received no official schooling but was well educated by his parents. He worked first in the family nursery and landscaping business. His great interest in natural science was fostered at an early age, and his first paper, on ferns, was published when he was nineteen. At twenty-two he married and on the death of his father managed the page 116 nursery business for a time. However, the hard work involved affected his health and he developed a permanent chest weakness, possibly tuberculosis. He therefore sought less physically demanding work and became bookkeeper, and in time partner, at Newark's, a large timber mill in Coventry. Continuing health problems and hard economic times persuaded him to emigrate to New Zealand with his wife and their four children in 1862.

On arriving in Auckland, his first employment was, it seems, breaking rocks at Mount Eden, hardly an ideal way to recover from the effects of acute seasickness. He then became a timber merchant in Auckland. Soon after arriving, he began his botanical explorations. In 1866, with Frederick Hutton, a trained geologist and later professor of biology at Canterbury University College, he explored Little Barrier and Great Barrier Islands. Their suggestion that Little Barrier Island be made a plant and animal sanctuary produced no immediate results. In 1868, on the recommendation of Hutton, Thomas Kirk became curator and secretary of the Auckland Institute and Museum, and was also in charge of the Meteorological Observatory. During this time he explored much of the North Island and published descriptions of new plant species. Today, some 200 of the names he gave to what he considered to be new species are still valid (Moore, 1973).

As a former timber merchant, Kirk deplored the "wantonness" whereby best-quality timber such as kauri (Agathis australis) was used "for purposes that would be equally well served by timber of an inferior quality". He drew attention to trees like rewarewa (Knightia excelsa), which were left to rot when forest was cleared for farmland because they were too perishable for external timber and "difficult of combustion" for firewood. Yet such timber, with its attractive and unusual grain, would, he noted, yield a handsome profit if exported to England for cabinetmaking.

In 1874 Kirk was appointed professor of natural sciences at Wellington College (affiliated with the University of New Zealand). He later became a lecturer in biology and geology at Lincoln Agricultural College. While in Wellington, the Kirks lived in a small cottage in Tinakori Road, directly opposite the residence of the Premier, Julius Vogel. The cottage had no water laid on, and Thomas Kirk took the opportunity to discuss his ideas with the Premier when obtaining water from the Vogel residence. A result of this contact was the passing of the first New Zealand Forests Act (1874). Unfortunately, however, there were loopholes in the Act, and destruction of the forest continued. The second Forests Act of 1885, which was preceded by a report commissioned from Thomas Kirk, resulted in the setting aside of areas as state forest land under skilled management and control. The Act also provided for establishment of a school of forestry and agriculture. In that year Kirk was appointed chief conservator of forests in the newly formed forest and agriculture branch of the Lands Department. Within two years Kirk had some 800,000 acres proclaimed forest reserves. As chief conservator of forests he emphasised the increased employment and revenue that could be gained by the production of secondary forest products and deplored page 117 the current practice "to export kauri resin to the United States and import it in the form of varnish, paying outward and inward freights, with the addition of a heavy duty, and allowing another country the profit arising from the manufacture". Plans were made to establish a school of forestry, pomology and agriculture in Whangarei, but with the defeat of the Stout-Vogel Government in 1887, the new Atkinson Government cancelled these plans. Kirk pleaded vigorously and argued that it was sound economic sense to retain the forest and agriculture branch. However, his argument was unsuccessful and the branch was disbanded. The Government's cost-cutting measures included the compulsory retirement of Kirk, aged sixty, at the end of February 1888. He was employed for a further three months to complete the Forest Flora, but in fact the task took an additional nine months. An application for the extra salary (£300) gained Kirk only £100, leaving him out of pocket. From then on the Kirks led a "hand-to-mouth" existence.

In 1894 Kirk was commissioned by the Government to write a student's flora of New Zealand, which was to include all higher plants, rather than the common trees and shrubs covered in the Forest Flora. Work on this was incomplete when Thomas Kirk died, as the result of a burst pleural abscess, at Plimmerton on 8 March 1898. He was buried in a now-unmarked grave in Karori Cemetery, Wellington. The Students' Flora of New Zealand and the Outlying Islands was published in 1899. It deals with most but not all dicotyledonous groups of flowering plants and includes plants from overseas that have become naturalised, for example, clovers (Trifolium species). Conifers and monocotyledonous plants (grasses, orchids, etc.) are not included. An anonymous "Introductory Notice" in the book, from the Education Department, Wellington, stated: "The Government have in view the necessity for making arrangements for the completion of the work". A separate volume of illustrations was planned too, using the unpublished engraved copper plates that resulted from Cook's first voyage. These were to be supplemented by republishing plates from Sir Joseph Hooker's Flora Antarctica, Flora Novae Zelandiae and Flora Tasmaniae, but none of these plans materialised.

Thomas and Sarah Kirk had nine children, of whom five survived to adulthood. Kirk's two sons also had biological interests. Thomas William Kirk became head of the biological and horticultural divisions of the Department of Agriculture, and Harry Borrer Kirk was appointed the first professor of biology at Victoria University College (now Victoria University of Wellington) in 1903, retiring in 1944 at the age of 85!