Thursday, March 26, 2009

J. C. Firth's Matamata Tower

The tower is the centrepiece of the Firth Tower Museum at Matamata, and quite rightly so.
"Some day, as likely as not, there will be a story of adventurous New Zealand written around a certain relic of pioneering days at Matamata, the tall square tower built by the first white settler of the district, Mr. J. C. Firth. It stands in the old homestead grounds at Matamata, between the modern busy little town and the Waihou River. It is nowadays a true “ivy-mantled tower,” and I can well imagine that its thick and tangled garment of foliage harbours a moping owl that “doth to the moon complain.” It looks a place for moreporks. On the day I visited it the leafage that densely covered the concrete hold was humming with bees, busy about its sweet sticky flowerets. So luxuriously have the creepers grown that it is not easy from a distance to make out the square of the tower; it resembles a close grown grove of trees.

“Firth's Tower,” standing alongside the old station homestead, is of comparatively modern construction; it was intended as a kind of baronial keep, perhaps, by J. C. Firth when it was built in the early Eighties, for there was then no danger of attack by hostile Maoris. It replaced a timber tower built in the ‘Sixties, when there was real fear of the Hauhaus; this building was burned down. It could stand a little siege to-day. This loopholed concrete tower with walls eighteen inches thick would be safe against fire as well as firearms.

"The square tower is nearly fifty feet high and is sixteen feet square. There are two floors above the ground floor and on top there was a small watch-tower. The upper parts are pierced for rifle fire. These firing apertures are about fifteen inches long by four inches wide on the outside; they slant inward to larger dimensions, in order to give play to the defenders' rifles, after the usual design in the old military blockhouses. A stairway, now removed, gave access to the upper storeys.

"Firth's Tower seems to have been modelled somewhat after the plan of the old stone keeps and peels on the Scottish border, such towers as those to which the merry raiders retired after harrying their neighbours, and within which they were safe as long as food and water held out. Some day it may figure as a rallying place and refuge for the local farming community—in a romantic New Zealand cinema thriller."
"Firth's Tower at Matamata", The New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 June 1935.

A view looking up at the topmost level, accessible by ladder, which I did not go up, being a scaredy-cat history buff and genuinely concerned about the effect of gravity.

They told me (those among the brave clan) that the views up there are magic, though.

Then again, the views from the level just below weren't all that bad.

Above are the steps I carefully, and not all that elegantly, made my way down. Lucky my mental block is about slopes, not heights.

And here is the standard shot of the tower, built c.1881. Almost immediately after it was finished, by 1885 Firth was selling honey from his estate's beehives bearing the "Tower" brand. I reckon that makes the Matamata Tower one of New Zealand's most enduring advertising features. One of the biggest, as well.


  1. I am researching information on a James McDonnell and Lizzie Moreland they lived in the cottage beside this tower in about 1832?

  2. Are you sure about that date? The tower dates from fifty years later. Contact the Matamata Historical Society, they may be able to help. 12 Totara Ave, Matamata, 3400, Phone/Fax: 07 888 5373, Email: