FIRTH, Joseph [Pentland], C.M.G.
Headmaster of Wellington College.
A new biography of Firth, Joseph appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Joseph Firth was born on 25 March 1859 at Wellington, the son of Aaron Firth, a stonemason, and Ann, née Priestnell. At an early age he accompanied his family to Cobden on the Nelson-Westland border. From there he won a scholarship which took him to Nelson College. Later, he attended Canterbury College where he graduated B.A. in 1889. On 8 May 1889, at the Church of St. Michael, Christchurch, Firth married Janet, daughter of Nehemiah McRae, a Marlborough runholder. There were no children.
Firth taught at Nelson College, Wellington College, and Christ's College, Christchurch, and, in 1892 became principal of Wellington College where he remained until his retirement in 1921. During his term he nurtured Wellington College from its comparative obscurity until it became one of New Zealand's leading secondary schools. It is of interest to note that, during his early years as teacher, he had “acquired” a second initial, “P”, to his name. Not surprisingly he soon became known as “Pentland Firth”.
Several inches over 6 ft tall, with a well-trimmed beard, vigorous, dignified, masterful in presence, J. P. Firth has become a tradition far beyond the school he served for over 30 years. He was known among his boys as “The Boss” and later among his old boys, as “the dear old Boss”. Like that of J. W. Tibbs, of Auckland Grammar School, his influence came not so much from precept as from a single-minded devotion to ideals, a steady personal example, and from a complete understanding and genuine love of boys as persons. Firth believed in the virtues of manliness, toil, and duty in preference to ease and pleasure, and transmitted to his pupils an abhorrence of slovenliness, sneaking, and all things mean and unworthy. He gave of himself to the utmost to build with his boys and masters a school of the noblest repute.
In its earlier days, like other New Zealand secondary schools, Wellington College was hampered by lack of the money necessary to pay the masters adequate salaries and to meet the needs of a progressive building and grounds policy. Firth was untiring in his efforts to overcome this lack, and was in fact partly responsible by the sweat of his own brow and that of his boys for the improvement of grounds and the provision of playing fields. At the same time he ceaselessly worried his Board of Governors for salary increases for members of his staff. The introduction of the “free place” system in 1903 relieved the school of much financial worry and Firth proved himself able to adapt himself and the school as units under the Education Department without loss of individuality and enthusiasm.
Though Firth was not a scholar, his knowledge particularly of English literature was as wide as it was exact, and his detestation of slovenly speech notorious. Though it has since grown to be one of the largest schools in the Dominion, in Firth's time Wellington College was still a small school by today's standards. Firth made a practice of visiting each classroom at least once each day, if only for a few minutes, so that he had a thorough knowledge of all his boys and the masters. He was keenly interested in boxing, military drill, athletics, cricket, and in football (he served for a period as chairman of the Wellington Rugby Union and as a referee) and this further enabled each boy to feel that his efforts outside were as well known and as much appreciated as in the classroom. Throughout his time as headmaster, too, he and Mrs Firth remained in sole charge of the growing boardinghouse and thus carried unceasing responsibility for 24 hours of the day for seven days of each week. This exacting work was done naturally and unselfishly, for childless themselves, both loved the close associations of boarding-school life and realised the incalculable influence that a sound “core” of boarders makes upon the school as a whole.
The years of the First World War were a testing time for the school, past and present. Hundreds of old boys served in the armed forces in New Zealand and overseas, whilst under the headmaster's leadership the school raised in various ways £2,945 for patriotic funds. Before the war had ended Firth and his wife gave generously for the building of the Memorial Hall, opened in 1928, following the erection of the present modern buildings. The inevitable time of resignation and retirement came in 1921 and the Firths went to live on one of the Western hills, at Wades-town. In 1922 Firth was awarded the C.M.G. To the end he retained his consuming interest in the school and its members and attended many functions as a venerable well beloved guest. He died on 13 April 1931 at 16 Wade Street, Wadestown, Wellington.
by Herbert Alexander Horace Insull, M.A., DIP.SOC.SC., Principal, Marlborough College, Blenheim.
- Firth of Wellington, Elliott, J. (1937)
- Evening Post, 16 Apr 1931 (Obit).