Botanist, naturalist, and teacher.
A new biography of Kirk, Thomas appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Thomas Kirk was the son of Baptist parents, George, a nurseryman, and his wife Sarah, a nurserywoman and florist. He was born at Coventry, Warwickshire, England, on 18 January 1828. Kirk early showed a talent for botany; he took his father's counsel to get a comprehensive grounding in it and began work in a nursery. Later employed in a large Coventry sawmill, Newarks, he gained a thorough knowledge of the timber business. Kirk studied mosses as well as the flowering plants of the county, and corresponded with several well-known botanists of that day including Borrer, Babington, Bloxham, and Perry.
On Christmas Day 1850 Kirk married Sarah Jane, daughter of Joseph Mattocks, a warehouseman. In 1862, due to his ill health and the poor economic conditions in Coventry, Kirk, with Sarah and children, George, Thomas William, Amy, and Harry Borrer, emigrated to New Zealand on the Gertrude. They arrived in Auckland on 19 February 1863, where Thomas set up in business as a timber merchant, travelling between that city and Big Omaha in the north. Full advantage was taken of opportunities for botanising, and his contributions of native plants to museum herbaria date from shortly after his arrival. Botanical collections in many parts of the world were enriched by his gifts. As timber merchant, as a surveyor in Auckland in 1864, and, later, as a freeholder in the Kaipara under the Auckland provincial 40-acre scheme, Kirk learned at first hand the difficulties experienced by settlers in a new land. On the nomination of Hutton, he became curator and secretary of the Auckland Institute and Museum on 1 June 1868 and was elected to the council at the following annual general meeting. From 1869 Kirk also held the positions of Deputy Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, and of Meteorological Observer, Auckland. He spent over 10 years in the Auckland Province, his main botanical explorations in that time being of Great Barrier, Little Barrier, and Arid Island in 1867; the north-eastern coast of North Auckland, 1869; Thames goldfield, 1869; Waikato district, 1870; Rotorua and Taupo districts, 1872. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1871. When, at the end of 1873, he resigned from the Auckland Institute, the council considered it a serious loss not only to the institute but also to the Auckland Province.
As lecturer in natural sciences at Wellington College, a position taken up in 1874 on the resignation of Hutton, Kirk found his true vocation. His lectures were models of instruction, and his ability to impart knowledge, together with his air of authority, won the respect and interest of his pupils. Professor Kirk became a well-known and esteemed figure in the Wellington community. The college was affiliated with the university until 1880, and when this affiliation ceased Kirk's appointment was terminated.
Closely identified with the Wellington Baptist Church from its formation in 1879, he held for several years the offices of deacon and secretary to the church, and was president of the Baptist Union in 1892 when the first decade of its New Zealand history was concluded. State aid for religion did not meet with his approval, and he vigorously opposed the acceptance by the church of a section set apart in the city for the Baptist denomination, even though the young church found the purchase of a site a heavy financial burden.
In 1881, as lecturer in biology and geology, Kirk replaced Hutton and Haast at Lincoln Agricultural College. He remained at the college until 1882 and returned for short periods both in 1883 and 1884. For Kirk, this was a time of frustration, ill health, and strain. His students none the less gave proof to their examiners of being well grounded in the practical branches of agricultural work.
Appointed Chief Conservator of State Forests in 1885, Kirk organised the first State Forests branch of the Department of Lands and Survey. Though not a forester, he was a strong advocate of scientific forest conservation and in his short term of office laid sound foundations. He recommended the formation of a school of forestry and pomology. His forest regulations greatly reduced the wasteful use of indigenous forests, and 800,000 acres were dedicated as forest reserves in his term of office. In 1888 depressed economic conditions led to the closing of the section and Kirk's services were dispensed with – a matter of great regret as he had hoped to ensure the future of the native forests and the wise utilisation of both major and minor forest products. During his term as Chief Conservator, Kirk commenced work on his Forest Flora, published by the Government in 1889. To this work, a descriptive account of the economic trees and shrubs comprised in the New Zealand flora, Kirk brought capabilities of a high order. On his compulsory retirement Kirk continued his botanical explorations, his major excursions being to Stewart Island, Auckland and Campbell Islands, and the Snares and Antipodes Islands. The vegetation of the latter had not previously been recorded.
In 1894 Kirk was commissioned by the New Zealand Government to prepare a Flora of the colony, but it had not been completed when illness ended his life on 8 March 1898.
Reserved and dignified, fond of old-world courtesies, gentlemanly in his bearing towards all, Kirk combined an austere love of veracity and righteousness with a wholesome hatred of the mean and base. All efforts to benefit mankind won his approval, and all human goodness his admiration. He was an amiable man whose gift of humour endeared him to family and friends. Young people liked and trusted him, seeking his guidance freely. First and foremost student and teacher, Kirk was convinced that only a succession of earnest workers could ensure the success of research into the flora and fauna of any district, “those of the present taking up the work where it fell from the hands of their predecessors, and in their turn passing it on to those who reap the benefit of their labours”. His own family (five children survived him) was a remarkable example of the young following the tenets and teaching of the older generation.
For over 30 years Kirk corresponded with settlers and students in all parts of the colony, and botanists in many parts of the world, for years writing over 1,000 letters annually. For those 30 years, without stint or material recompense, he gave of his time and scientific knowledge to benefit the colony, and he died a poor man. His widow, left unprovided for, appealed to the Government for a compassionate allowance, but was denied it.
Sir Joseph Hooker wrote on Kirk's death: “This is a great loss to Botany, for indeed except the late Baron von Mueller there was no other cultivator of Botany in the Southern Hemisphere who could compare with him and I have been looking for years for the Flora of New Zealand by him as to a work of very great scientific importance”.
Kirk contributed papers to Nature, the Journal of Botany, London, the Linnean Society, and the Gardeners' Chronicle, and almost every volume of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, from Vol. 1 in 1868 to the date of his death, has numerous contributions from his pen. In 1875 his report on the durability of New Zealand timbers was published; his most important completed work, the Forest Flora of New Zealand, appeared in 1889; and in 1899 the portion of his unfinished Flora of New Zealand in a sufficiently complete state to be published was issued as the Students' Flora of New Zealand and Outlying Islands.
by Alan Drummond McKinnon, B.FOR.SC. Assistant Director (Forest Management) New Zealand Forest Service, Wellington and Lanna Coughlan, New Zealand Forest Service, Wellington.
- Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, Vol. 31. (Obit note.)