Joseph Firth

‘Duty in preference to ease and pleasure’

Joseph Firth was principal of Wellington College from 1892 to 1920. ‘The Boss’ was a physically imposing man, standing at 6 feet 5 inches. He stressed the importance of physical fitness and was keenly interested in boxing, military drill, athletics, cricket and rugby. According to An encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966, he ‘believed in the virtues of manliness, toil, and duty in preference to ease and pleasure, and transmitted to his pupils abhorrence of slovenliness, sneaking, and all things mean and unworthy’. Many of these values were seen as necessary to equip young men for the challenges of fighting in a war. Looking at photographs from this period, it would be easy to describe him as old school – the stereotypical stern and aloof schoolmaster of his era and defender of the Empire, but things were not so black and white.

Wellington College in the opening decades of the 20th century was still a small school by today's standards. Firth knew his students and his staff, and he visited every classroom at least once each day. As he and his wife Janet had no children of their own, his pupils, especially the boarders, were like a surrogate family.

Firth personally wrote to the vast majority of the ex-pupils who enlisted. He had a postcard made that showed an etching of the East School and would keep old boys up to date with school events. He read extracts from letters he received from those serving overseas at school assemblies. Firth was determined that all Wellington College boys, past and present, should do their bit to support the war effort. Under his leadership, the school raised £2,945 for patriotic funds, which is equivalent to more than $300,000 in today’s money. In addition fund-raising began in 1916 for the building of a school memorial hall, with the Firths again playing a significant role.

With a mixture of pride and remorse, Firth wrote letters of condolence to the families of each of the 222 old boys who were killed. When the armistice was declared in November 1918, he was observed standing on the steps overlooking the bottom field with tears running down his face.

In 1920 Firth decided to retire. He was beginning to show the effects of Parkinson’s disease, and by the time the memorial hall was opened in March 1928, he was too frail to speak. His wife read a message on his behalf. Some suggest that he was too emotional to speak as the memories of all those boys came flooding back.

Firth was also chairman of the Wellington Citizens' War Memorial Committee, formed to raise money for a suitable public memorial. There was considerable debate as to whether this should be a utilitarian memorial or a symbolic monument. Firth insisted that it be a ‘pure memorial’.

There was further discussion over where the memorial should be located. Firth pushed for its final location near Parliament buildings and the railway station. In this way the citizens of Wellington would see it every day as they commuted to work, and the politicians on the hill would be constantly reminded of the losses incurred in the war. Unfortunately Firth did not live to see the unveiling of the Cenotaph. He died on 13 April 1931, less than two weeks before its dedication on Anzac Day, 25 April.

Teachers

A number of College staff members served overseas. The board of governors gave these men leave for the duration of the war and also topped up their military pay to the level of their teaching salary. They were also given a grant of £50 per year, and if they were commissioned before going overseas, they received a further £20 for equipment.

When P.A. Ongley enlisted, the board initially refused to offer him these conditions as he had joined the staff after the outbreak of war. Firth went to the board and insisted that he receive the same benefits as other masters. The decision was reversed. Ongley was killed in action at Bapaume, France, in August 1918. Six other members of staff were wounded, while two masters, Mawson and Williams, were awarded the Military Cross.

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