A Celebration of New Zealand’s Agricultural History: Firth Tower Museum

8 April 2009

Firth Tower Museum

Firth Tower Museum is located in picturesque grounds on Tower Road, Matamata. The name Matamata means ‘headland’. It was the name given by the famous Ngati Haua chief Te Waharoa to his new pa in 1830. The pa was situated a few kilometres north-west of present day Waharoa, built on a ridge of high ground projecting into the surrounding swamp and bordered by the Waitoa River. The name, Matamata, was subsequently given to the Matamata Estate and to the township that developed further to the south.

The museum property is the site of the old headquarters of the huge 56,000 acre (26,400 hectares) Matamata Estate which was established in 1865 by British entrepreneur and flour miller Josiah Clifton Firth. Firth lived in Auckland but successfully leased land from Kingmaker Wiremu Tamihana and later purchased it for wheat farming, using large scale farming methods.

Firth Tower is a landmark in the Matamata district and the focal point of the Museum. It was built by Firth in 1881/2 as a lookout and status symbol.  Firth had a fascination with castles and towers with their ramparts. His sketchbook (held in the archives at the museum) shows several drawings of castles in England that inspired him. It was used as an office and also as accommodation for estate workers in its time.

Firth spent the years 1873 – 1880 clearing the Waihou River for navigation which then provided access for transportation of farm machinery, fertiliser and farm supplies into, and produce out of, the estate.

In Firth’s time, Matamata was a hub of rural activity and technology. The most up to date agricultural machinery was imported from America. Firth Tower Museum holds a large collection of early horse drawn implements and tractor and engine powered machinery, as well as steam driven engines and many other agricultural tools.

The Bank of New Zealand took over the Matamata Estate and Firth left Matamata in 1887.  The Bank formed the Assets Realisation Board in 1895 and John McCaw, a Scotsman, was appointed manager of the Matamata Estate and many surrounding estates from Morrinsville to Maraetai, totalling over 150,000 acres.

The Matamata Estate produced wool, fat lambs and beef for the local and international markets until 1904 when it was divided into 117 smaller farms, John McCaw purchasing the Tower portion of the land until he left in 1917.

The Museum also has several beautiful heritage buildings including the 1902 homestead of the Matamata Estate which replaced the original one that burned down, the old Gordon School building, the old Matamata Methodist church, a post office, settlers’ cottage, (which, like the homestead is furnished and decorated in typical Colonial New Zealand style), the old Karangahake jail and other farm buildings.

In addition to celebrating New Zealand’s agricultural history, the museum tells the story of the building of New Zealand’s longest tunnel, the Kaimai Tunnel, which provides access from the Waikato to the Bay of Plenty. Drilling was started in 1969 and opened in 1978. The exhibit is housed inside an old railway wagon from Wellington.

Explore the Firth Tower Museum’s collection