Thomas Kirk (18 January 1828 – 8 March 1898), was an English-born botanist, teacher, public servant, writer and churchman who moved to New Zealand with his wife and four children in late 1862.  Served on the Board of the Botanic Garden over its early years.  With an interest in forestry and native plants he often exerted a  moderating influence on other
Board members, in parsticular critical of the enthusiasm for conifers expressed by some directors. 




The son of a  nurseryman, and  a florist, Kirk displayed a keen interest in botany. His father also encouraged the interest his son showed in the mosses and plants of the area, an interest that put young Kirk in contact with some well known botanists of the time.   One was  Harry Borrer, whose name 'Borrer',  Kirk later gave to his son. The Kirk building at Victoria University is named in his honour.     On leaving school Kirk learned about timber by beginning employment as a bookkeeper, then as a partner in a timber mill. 

In 1862, at thirty-four years of age he emigrated to Auckland where he used his previous experience to set up as a timber merchant.   This work necessitated some travelling but gave him the opportunity to examine the plants of his new country and he soon established a reputation for his knowledge of the New Zealand flora.   Soon after his arrival Kirk started on a  collection of botanical specimens which enabcled him to prepare  a set of ferns and other plants for the New Zealand Exhibition  held in Dunedin in  1865. Kirk probably met James Hector when the latter was seeking exhibits for the  Exhibition  in which John Buchanan also played a significant role.   Kirk submitted three interesting exhibits -  a woven specimen of silk,  a collection of ferns and plants, and  a book printed on paper manufactured from New Zealand flax. 
 
In the following year he worked as surveyor, and in 1868 became a meteorological observer in Auckland. In the same year he was appointed secretary of the Auckland Institute and took on the position of museum curator, an office he filled for the next five years. Kirk took part in a number of botanical expeditions, writing and publishing reports on the results.  Between 1869 and 1873 he found time to serve as secretary and treasurer of the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, teaching botany at the Auckland College and Grammar School and became an elected fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 1871.

In 1874, when Wellington College became affiliated to the University of New Zealand, Kirk, now aged 46, left Auckland to teach natural science at Wellington, a university lectureship which he seems to have enjoyed.    His association with James Hector  was renewed.   During his time in Wellington his interest in timber, forestry and conservation of indigenous forests deepened.   He lived in Tinakori Road close to the Premier, Julius Vogel. The two men had much in common and Vogel publicly acknowledged Kirk's help with the first Forestry Act passed in 1874.   In that year he became a member of the Wellington Philosophical Society, serving as president in 1878 and 1879.

Kirk was an elected Governor of the New Zealand Institute from 1875 to 1881, and again for a short period 1887/88.  In that position he attended the Botanic Garden Board meetings acting as chairman on a few occasions  Shepherd  notes that his contribution to the Garden does not appear to be as great as some of the other members of the Board.  In fact with his knowledge of the timber industry and interest in forestry, he was perhaps more objective and critical of the emphasis the Garden continued to place on the importing, raising and distribution of conifers as well as their overplanting in the Reserve.   He believed more emphasis should be placed on securing New Zealand plants and, although he expressed these views at both Institute and Botanic Board meetings, there was to be no change of direction in the Garden. It  is difficult to gauge his relationships with Hector, Ludlam, or Mason and the running of the Garden.    He  had a warm regard for John Buchanan, proffering botanical advice if needed.   On his various travels away from Wellington he often collected native plants for reestablishment in the Garden

He was appointed lecturer in natural science at Lincoln School of Agriculture, in Canterbury in 1881, and stayed until 1882, returning in 1883 and 1884. During this period he botanised in Arthur's  Pass, Banks Peninsula, Lake Wakatipu and Stewart Island.

Thomas Kirk did not produce any
of the illustrations for
The Forest Flora of New Zealand, though they
were carried out under his supervision

Agathis australis
by
John Hugh Boscawen (1851-1937)

The New Zealand government commissioned him in 1884 to compile a report on the indigenous forests of the country and appointed him as chief conservator of forests the following year. Although not trained as a forester, he was in favour of sound forest conservation. He founded the forest and agriculture branch of the Crown Lands Department, implemented regulations to curb the misuse of forests, and was instrumental in setting aside some 800 000 acres as forest reserves by 1888. Kirk was recalled in 1889 from retrenchment to work on the Forest flora of New Zealand, but died in the midst of this great work. At the time it was hoped that the work could be published under the supervision of his son, H. B. Kirk.

Back in Wellington his links with the New Zealand Institute and the Garden were resumed. In March 1887 he sent plants of Veronica canescens, Olearta macrodonta and Metrosideros to Hector, presumably for the teaching collection of native flora.  Kirk appeared to have some agreement with the Board which allowed him to use some of the Garden for his forestry work, which he paid for out of his own funds.   In June 1887 learning that forest seeds were planted in the wrong nursery bed, Kirk instructed his gardener to dig them in. Evidentally he had some oaks there too as these were being wrenched prior to being transplanted
elsewhere.

It was convenient for Government to take advantage of facilities in the Garden when necessary and if there had not been a downturn in the economy the Garden may have benefited financially from such use. Kirk's appointment was terminated in 1888 when the Forestry Department was discontinued. The economic conditions which affected the whole country, changed the Garden's management, altered the direction of the Geological Survey and reduced Hector's supremacy also affected Kirk.    His loss of position and the economic downturn affecting many scientists was of great concern to Hector. However, his enforced, early retirement gave Kirk time to  complete his book "Forest Flora of New Zealand"  He continued with further visits of exploration to the outlying islands, working on a commission for the "Students' Flora of New Zealand and Outlying Islands", a work that was published after his death in 1898

Kirk died in 1898 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Karori Cemetery in Wellington. He was survived by his wife, Sarah, and five of his nine children. Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker wrote of 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 Forest Flora of New Zealand by him as to a work of very great scientific importance”.

Kirk wrote some 130 papers on botany and plants, published in New Zealand and British journals. In 1875 his report on The Durability of New Zealand Timbers appeared, then The Forest Flora of New Zealand in 1889, followed by Students’ Flora of New Zealand, published after his death in 1898


PLANTS RECOGNISING  KIRK'S NAME

Halocarpus kirkii
Named for Kirk, who first collected it.

Podocarpus hallii
Kirk published this, the first illustration.

Podocarpus acutifolius
Kirk published the first description.

Lepidothamnus intermedius
Kirk first collected and described it.

Halocarpus bidwillii
Kirk first collected it.