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.

RAAF Museum

Just when we thought we had seen everything Werribee has to offer, we discovered the RAAF Museum just 10km down the road. Point Cook is the birthplace of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) which was renamed to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1921. It was the Air Force’s only base from 1912 to 1925, when RAAF Laverton was built 20km away. The two became amalgamated in 1989 under the one name, RAAF Williams, named after Sir Richard Williams. The first military pilot to graduate from Point Cook in November 1914, he is considered the ‘father of the RAAF’. We felt a sense of privilege as we were handed our permits to enter the facility at the security gate.

Having only seen these aircraft in movies, I was awed by the magnitude of the de Havilland Canada Caribou on display between the hangars.

3.de Havilland DHC-4 Caribou A4-152

The RAAF Museum was established in 1952 to preserve aircraft, documents and memorabilia associated with the Air Force and opened to the public in 1972.

There is so much to see, even before reaching the aircraft hangars. This little woollen airman doll was carried as a good luck mascot by Squadron Leader A.S. McCracken in his Halifax bomber during World War II. A.S. was thrown through the cockpit canopy following a crash landing in 1944 and survived unscathed. The medals belonged to Air Vice Marshal Sir George Jones who shot down seven German aircraft during World War I. He became Chief of the Air Staff during the World War II and led the RAAF until 1952 when he retired.

6.mascot & medals

The information accompanying various displays of uniforms, rations and kit made for very interesting reading, far too involved for me to summarise.

The exhibits continued throughout the hangars with the added dimension of magnificent aircraft. We started in the Training Hangar to see how RAAF training has advanced over the years. To me, some of the earlier aircraft were real works of art with the use of beautiful polished timbers and complex mazes of wires. The Maurice Farman Shorthorn was the first armed aircraft to engage in aerial combat in World War I. Known as ‘Rumpety’ to the students because of the noise it made while travelling over the ground, it was used to train pilots until 1919.

Used by the RAAF throughout the 1920s, the Avro 504K was the first training aircraft that could be flown aerobatically. It is also linked to the first death in training of a RAAF airman at Point Cook following an accident in 1921.

The Tiger Moth on display was built at the de Havilland factory in Bankstown in 1942 and entered service in November 1943. It has been restored to original military configuration including the training colours of its wartime service.

The aircraft silhouette changed dramatically after World War II with the single-seat fighter, Vampire, initially in RAAF service in 1949. The two-seat trainer version was introduced in 1951 and the first ejection performed in Australia was from a Vampire in September 1952.

20.de havilland Vampire T Mk 35

The Winjeel, designed to replace the Tiger Moth as a basic trainer, first flew in 1951.

The Winjeel was replaced in 1972 with the CT4 Airtrainer. It was nicknamed the ‘Plastic Parrot’ because of its lightweight construction and green and yellow colours.

24.CT4A Airtrainer

The Italian designed Aermacchi MB 326H on display, known as the Macchi in Australian service, was the first received by the RAAF in October 1967.

Simulators are an important part of training, the RAAF now have a simulator for each aircraft type in service. The older models might have required a certain amount of imagination.

Manufactured shortly after World War II, the ‘Pie Cart’ was used to teach students how to hand-start an aircraft engine. It was nicknamed the “Terror Machine” for its ability to inflict serious injury. The yellow and black safety stripes are a recent addition.

We ventured next into the Technology Hangar to experience the evolution of military aviation, stepping back in time once again to 1913 and the magnificent wood, wire and fabric construction of the B.E.2a.

The SE 5 is an exact replica of an aircraft that entered service in 1922. The original was damaged in 1928 when it taxied into a DH9 and again, a month later, in a forced landing. The run of bad luck ended when it was eventually destroyed by fire in June 1929.

36.SE 5a

I can only describe the Supermarine Walrus as extraordinary. It looks like the most cumbersome and least likely to stay aloft aircraft ever conceived. On the contrary, it was designed to be catapulted from warships and was used for reconnaissance and air-sea rescue until 1946.

37.Supermarine Seagull V:Walrus

Suspended from the rafters, the Iroquois helicopter is one of two involved in the mission to re-supply ammunition to ground troops at Long Tan in 1966. After retirement in 1984, the aircraft was used as a training aid at the RAAF School of Radio before being transferred to the RAAF museum in 1993 and restored to its Vietnam War configuration.

38.Bell UH-1B Iroquois

The Vampire F-30 began service in the RAAF in 1950 and five years later, was converted to a target-towing aircraft with the addition of a hook and release mechanism below the cockpit. The striking paint scheme was designed to prevent the towing aircraft being mistaken for the target.

The Boston Bomber on display arrived in Melbourne in 1942 and carried out missions from Goodenough Island until it crashed on the airstrip due to battle damage a year later. It was recovered from there in 1987, restored and transported to the RAAF Museum in 1998, the only survivor of 69 Bostons operated by the RAAF.

41.Douglas A-20C Boston Bomber

An assortment of missiles are on display, including the Bloodhound surface-to-air missile of the 1950s and the more recent ASRAAM heat seeking air-to-air variety.

We finished off with a quick peek in the Restoration Hangar, a boggling collection of aircraft in various states of repair (or disrepair, depending on your viewpoint).

44.de Havilland DH-60M Gypsy Moth45.de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito

If you want to read more about the de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito restoration, take a look at Aces Flying High, Deano is a mine of information.