Firth Tower Museum

On the way to Matamata we spent some time exploring Firth Tower Museum. Resembling a small village, the colonial buildings are set in manicured grounds on land that was once the centre of the 56,000 acre Matamata Estate established by Josiah Clifton Firth. Not knowing where we would be at lunchtime, we had purchased sandwiches earlier in the day and the lovely ladies at reception suggested we enjoy them on the verandah of the homestead. As a light drizzle set in, we did just that.

In 1904, the estate was divided into 117 farms and the then manager, John McCaw, attained the Tower Farm. The old station homestead, built in 1879, was razed by fire and the present one replaced it in 1902. The house is beautifully preserved and presented to reflect life at that time.

Englishman Josiah Firth moved to New Zealand in the early 1850s and settled in Auckland. Coming from a family background of farming and industrial development, his entrepreneurial skills soon saw him pouring money into land clearing, introducing new agricultural machinery and opening the Waihou River for navigation to send farm produce to Auckland markets. One of the earliest reinforced concrete buildings in New Zealand, the tower was built in 1882 and was used as the estate office and sleeping quarters for single men.

At 16 metres tall, it also provided a lookout across the estate and countryside beyond.

The village buildings have been brought to the present location and are maintained by the Matamata Historical Society.

The old Matamata Methodist Church was built in 1914, closed in 1972 and was moved here in 1978.

Okoroire post office began in 1891 when the postmaster was also the hotel keeper. The original building burnt down in 1912 and was replaced by this one in 1928. A century of communications development is on display, including old letters and Morse code transmitters.

The school building has a varied history. Built in 1893 as part of a planned Armadale Township, it was used as a community hall as well as a school. The village of Armadale never eventuated and so it was renamed Gordon School after the Gordon District in 1896. A new school building was erected in 1938 and the old one sat abandoned until it was moved to Selwyn School as a second room to accommodate more students in 1946. Seventeen years later, once again redundant, it was bought by a local farming family and used as a hay shed. The old Gordon School was brought to Firth Tower Museum in 1983 and is set up as a pre and early 1900s classroom.

There is a memorial cairn close by dedicated to Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi Te Waharoa, a Māori statesman, also known as ‘The Kingmaker’. Josiah Firth was on good terms with the Māori and supported Wiremu Tamihana’s efforts to establish a Māori king and later, in 1870, attempted to broker peace between Te Kooti and the government. Firth erected a monument following Tamihana’s death in 1866 which was later destroyed. This one was erected in the same spot in 1966 but was moved to the museum in 1978 to protect it from vandalism.

A settler’s cottage was moved from ‘behind the butcher’s shop’ in Waharoa and is furnished as a workman’s home of the 1900s.

The jail was built in 1892 in Karangahake and was moved to Matamata in 1920 where it served for the next thirty years.

Many activities are offered for groups at the museum including interactive days for school children. Unfortunately, the gallery-workshop wasn’t open this day.

There are a number of outbuildings housing interesting displays of life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The history of movie going and Matamata’s doctors, dentists and hospitals are among those featured in The Barn.

‘From Horse to Tractor’ was the theme in the Mark Madill Shed. I love the old farm machinery, they are real works of art.

The Joan & David Stanley Shed is all about dairy farming and 100 years of milking methods are on display.

Sheep farming was next in the John McCaw Woolshed with shearing equipment, fleece sorting table and wool bales.

Next to the original stables, a typical 19th century vegetable garden, complete with a scarecrow, is brimming with produce and flowers.

As we returned to our starting point, a pair of old railway goods wagons contain the story of the Kaimai Tunnel construction but they are in such a state of dilapidation, the exhibit is no longer accessible due to health & safety concerns. Plans are underway to move the display to a new environment in the near future.

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