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Firth, Josiah Clifton


Flourmiller, politician, pastoralist, entrepreneur, writer

This biography, written by D. B. Waterson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Josiah Firth, later known as Josiah Clifton Firth, is said to have been born at Clifton, near Bradford, Yorkshire, England, on 27 October 1826. He was the son of Mary Bateman and her husband, the Reverend Benjamin Firth, proprietor and headmaster of the Manor House Academy, Hartshead Moor, near Leeds, and Congregational minister of Wyke Church. The Batemans of Park House, Low Moor, controlled prosperous wire-drawing ironworks, while the Firths had long been farming at Chats House, Oakenshaw, and had substantial woollen mill investments. Josiah's mother died when he was only seven years old and he was raised by his father and a female servant.

Josiah received a sound Classical and mercantile education from his father, and, after the 1847 crash ruined Benjamin, spent three years farming in Yorkshire. Between 1850 and 1854 he was manager of his maternal uncle's ironworks, then migrated to Melbourne, Australia, in the ship Golden Era. After briefly visiting Victoria and New South Wales he moved to Auckland, New Zealand, and with his capital of about £300 established a brickyard in Cook Street. In 1856 he built the Wharf Steam Flour Mills with his brother-in-law, D. B. Thornton, and W. B. Smith. This mill and its 1861 successor were the largest in the Auckland province, as was his pride and joy, the Eight Hours Roller Flour Mill opened on 13 April 1888. Josiah Firth married Anne Williams, daughter of William Williams, a land speculator and farmer, and his wife, Nancy Stockett, at Auckland on 16 September 1856. They had 12 children.

After his arrival in Auckland Josiah Firth became a key member of a group of merchants, financiers and land speculators who, under the aegis of Thomas Russell, embarked on a series of large banking and company promotions. These financial manoeuvres were founded on the twin pillars of the Bank of New Zealand and its offshoot, the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company. The direct purchase of Maori lands throughout the Auckland province and ultimate confiscation by the Crown of Waikato territory were essential items on the entrepreneurial agenda. With others Firth in 1859 formed a direct purchase association, with the object of urging settlers to defy existing regulations and to put pressure on the central government. Later that year he explored the Waihou Valley and cast covetous eyes on the fern-covered Matamata plains of Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi and Ngati Haua. War, however, seemed necessary to force the Waikato to lease or sell their lands. In 1860 Firth was an advocate of the war in Taranaki and, both as a citizen and as a private in the volunteers, was a militaristic gadfly on the South Auckland frontier.

His activities as part of the 'war party' in Auckland were continued in the House of Representatives, where he served briefly but effectively as member for Auckland West between 1861 and 1862. As a supporter of Premier Edward Stafford he advocated the total involvement of the British government and its military forces in a struggle which he regarded as being waged for sovereignty, law and order, and civilisation. Although recognising that the Maori saw their land as the spiritual and material foundation of their society, Firth, who saw himself as a secular, nation-making, Anglo-Saxon civiliser, was prepared to confiscate it for the benefit of the settlers.

With the extension of war to Waikato in 1863 Firth saw service as a private in the Auckland Naval Volunteers, although his activities were confined to burning villages, the destruction of crops and the seizure of canoes from friendly Maori. But for him the results of the war, particularly the confiscation of the Waikato lands and the detachment of Tamihana from the King movement, were fruitful. In 1865 he began leasing the Matamata lands from Tamihana and gradually converted them to freehold after the notorious Native Land Court at Cambridge had 'processed' the native titles under the crucial Native Lands Act 1865. By 1866 Firth had leased 20,500 acres of Matamata for a mere £170 per annum and the conversion process had begun. The recalcitrant Kingites of Ngati Haua were deliberately left out of the title determination and Firth was able to freehold extremely cheaply by discounting advances he had already made to the Maori proprietors in exchange for their lands. After Tamihana's death in 1866 Firth gained control of 55,000 acres of the Matamata plains at the bargain price of £12,000. Matamata remained an exposed part of the settler frontier until the middle 1870s when residual Maori resistance was overwhelmed by Firth's massive agricultural development.

He poured loan money into clearing the fern and ploughing and fertilising the soil to provide wheat for his Auckland mills. Thousands of pounds were spent on the most up-to-date American agricultural machinery, and in opening the Waihou River to navigation in 1880. From telephones to windmills, beehives to a dairy factory, Matamata was the New Zealand showpiece of modern rural technology. But the climate and soils proved unsuitable for growing wheat capable of competing with South Island and Australian grain. The mixed farming ventures of the 1880s produced fat sheep and cattle that could not be profitably disposed of, and interest payments began to prove burdensome. Firth subdivided part of the estate for dairy farming, and, as a necessary prelude to this, promoted a district railway through the Thames Valley. By the time this traversed the estate in 1886, it was too late to save the 'Duke of Matamata's' investment. On 13 July 1887, amid emotional scenes from his workers, the patriarch of the plains left Matamata for ever and the estate passed into the hands of the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company, before reverting to the Bank of New Zealand. As part of the holdings of that venture's Assets Realization Board it was resumed and subdivided for dairying by the state in 1904.

Firth's departure from Matamata was the beginning of his slide into bankruptcy on 26 July 1889. Speculations in companies of which he was a director, such as the Thames Valley and Rotorua District Railway Company, the Bay of Islands Coal Company, and the New Zealand Frozen Meat and Storage Company, were all as unprofitable as Matamata. He had lost heavily at the Thames in financing the Wild Missouri Battery, and, between 1883 and 1887, his massive investment in the intractable gold reefs at Waiorongomai, Te Aroha, drained him of further thousands. Falling land and commodity values played their part in his ruin, but financial institutions of which he had been a director showed surprising indulgence in extending advances on over-valued real estate, which was then used to generate further loans for farming, milling, mining and other company interests incapable of yielding even reasonable returns. Firth, with his liabilities of over £200,000 in March 1888, was found by subsequent committees of inquiry to have endangered both the Bank of New Zealand and the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company; the reverberations, resulting in the reconstruction of both enterprises and the involvement of the state, resounded until 1896. Firth mounted an intensive campaign in the press and actions in the courts to regain his mill. Although he won his publicity campaign and salvaged his reputation as a noble pioneer destroyed by money lenders and unfeeling capitalists, he lost all his assets except his Auckland mansion, Clifton, and a living allowance.

Firth was discharged from bankruptcy in 1890 and, with remarkable vigour and persistence, embarked on a new commercial career – applying pumice as an insulating material in the frozen meat and dairy foods trade, and promoting reinforced concrete construction techniques. He wrote extensively for newspapers, particularly editorials for the Auckland Star, and travelled to Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Firth's interests were not confined to business. He played a leading role in the Congregational church, the Auckland Sunday School Union and the Auckland branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society, of which he was president from 1860 to 1885. He conducted weekly evening classes in historical and scientific studies, took a keen interest in mechanics' institutes, and spoke frequently on topics ranging from Darwinism to religious belief. He was an early conservationist, warning of the dangers of deforestation and soil erosion. His books – Lions in the way and Luck (1877), Our kin across the sea (1888) and Nation making (1890) – are a curious amalgam of personal justification, social philosophy, religious homilies, autobiographical recollections, ethnographical observations and travellers' tales. He resolutely attacked Darwin's theory of evolution as materialistic, became disillusioned with the development of monopoly capitalism, and came to believe in the ultimate colonisation of the world by the English-speaking races; the consequence of this would be imperial federation. The apparent passing of the Maori he attributed to the effects of European colonisation on a people ridden with the 'unclean spirit of practical communism'; the alienation of their lands was inevitable.

Firth died of heart failure at his home in Mt Eden, Auckland, on 11 December 1897. He was a likeable man who made few open enemies. A tireless writer and a great conversationalist, he was a tall, athletic, dignified figure. A restless and ambitious nature was indicated by his clear, dark blue and penetrating eyes, 'continually rolling from side to side in their sockets'.

An eminent representative of an entrepreneurial group of colonists, Firth represented both their virtues and their faults. Yet his human qualities were more attractive than those of most of his business contemporaries, and his innovations and investments ultimately benefited some of his colonial successors.

How to cite this page:

D. B. Waterson. 'Firth, Josiah Clifton', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1f7/firth-josiah-clifton (accessed 13 July 2024)