Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Josiah C Firth, and the Mt Eden Rifle Range "rent"

Images: "Group portrait of sailors, marines, and other men in civilian clothes at the Mount Eden rifle range, with shooting targets visible in the distance (right)," 1890s-1900s, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 4-RIC210; "Half length copy portrait of Josiah Clifton Firth," 1888, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 34-130

Looking recently into the story of the Mt Eden rifle range (1872-1905), I came upon two conflicting bits of information. First, I had understood that the range was a nuisance to Josiah Clifton Firth, who had purchased John Ogilvie’s house on what is now Castle Drive in 1871 (although he’d leased it from 1868). [See red arrow on image]. Yet, right up to the early 1890s, he was one of its staunchest defenders against those of his neighbours campaigning in the newspapers and by petitions to Parliament to have it shut down. After successfully convincing the powers-that-be to leave the volunteers and their range alone in the mid 1880s, he received hearty cheers from the volunteers whenever he was spotted riding near the range.

Then, in 1892, he made a trip to Wellington, chatted with the Minister for Defence and other power brokers, and came away with a deal for the government to pay him “rent” for the next five years of £225 per annum, plus build a high wall between his house and the range because it was a “nuisance”. The nuisance bit I could understand, but the “rent” as the range wasn’t on his land at all seemed odd.

Firth’s back was put to the wall, however, when he went bankrupt in 1889. The noted mill owner, and founder of the Firth Estate in Matamata with its own tower, like the one he built in Auckland at his home, had built his empire on borrowed funds, and in the Long Depression of the late 19th century those he had borrowed from called in the debts. His business in Auckland was sold. Land everywhere was sold. The effects of the bankruptcy was felt even after his death in 1897, his widow Ann beginning the subdivision and sell-off of their vast Epsom estate and gardens through to her own death in the new century.

Then, he made that trip to Wellington, and secured a deal which no one in Auckland seemed to want to discuss in any detail, other than it was somehow “compensation,” or “rent”, linked with the rifle range and its continuation of use.Actually, according to Richard Seddon, answering a question in Parliament in 1892, it was money the Government felt they were forced to pay – or else Firth threatened to shut the rifle range down with a court injunction. At that point, the Government felt they were very much in a pressure situation between the volunteers who wanted to keep the range, and the neighbours at Epsom and Mt Eden who were sick and tired of cows being shot in the head, and bullets narrowly missing strollers walking up to the summit of Maungawhau. So, Firth received his more than £1000 “rent” from the government, paid judiciously to his wife, the government built a wall to protect his home (yes, just his), and that was that.

Eventually, it all shut down anyway when the Penrose range opened up in 1905. But I’m still amazed at this example of “pay up or else” – and that it worked.

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