Josiah Clifton Firth (27 October 1826 – 11 December 1897) was the enigmatic patriarch of a curiously conflicted New Zealand family. He is recorded as a farmer, businessman and politician who had close connections with John Logan Campbell, Thomas Morrin, Frederick Whitaker and the Auckland financial oligarchy. He set up a brickworks, pioneered the use of reinforced concrete construction, and leased and subsequently purchased large areas of land from Ngati Haua in the Matamata district. At the same time he supported the Maori King movement, was on good terms with Wiremu Tamihana ("the Kingmaker") and in 1870 attempted to broker peace between Te Kooti and the the colonial government.
There will always be suspicions that Firth's sympathy for Maori was self-interested, but there is no record of Maori of that era themselves making that allegation. Firth was a member of the Congregationalist Church which was dissociated from the political and religious establishment of the day and a more charitable view is that Firth's attitude towards the Maori cause was at least one of benevolent neutrality.
The Firth concrete company remains a major player in the New Zealand building materials industry while Firth's grandson, Clifton Firth was a notable Auckland graphic artist and communist through the years of the mid-twentieth century. The career of Clifton Firth, and the history of the Firth family as a whole, reflects the contradictions in the character of Josiah Firth: businessman, politician and oligarch but at the same time innovator and believer in the principle of social justice.
Such contradictions are not infrequently found in the characters of
those who played a leading role in the European settlement of New Zealand.
Edward Gibbon Wakefield, condemned by Karl Marx as an agent of capitalist
imperialism, and shunned by the British establishment for his moral transgressions
and suspected republicanism is a case in point. George Grey,
who ordered the invasion of the Waikato yet went to great effort to preserve
Maori culture and tradition, was another. In the end, each will judge
these men according to their own lights. There is little doubt
that Firth was personally ambitious, but by all accounts he was also a
man of integrity, who genuinely respected the Maori right to exercise sovereign
authority over and to defend their own lands.