Thomas Kirk was born in 1828, the son of Coventry nurseryman George Kirk and his wife, Sarah, a suffragette and florist.
Kirk was indefatigable in his search for botanical specimens, writing and publishing papers on his discoveries. He visited Great and Little Barrier Islands, the east coast of Northland then southwards as far as Rotorua and Taupo. He also served as secretary and treasurer of the Acclimatisation Society, taught botany at the Auckland College and Grammar School and was elected fellow of the London Linnean Society. All in all, totally steeped in his early childhood interest.
His next move was to Wellington where he lectured in the natural sciences at Wellington College at the same time being affiliated to the University of Auckland. He was an excellent teacher, popular with both students and staff. So much so that when a royal commission decreed the separation of university and secondary education, the college raised funds to retain him for another year. He also joined the Wellington Philosophical Society, becoming president for one year. In 1881 he lectured in natural science at Lincoln School of Agriculture in Canterbury but it was a dispiriting time for Kirk because he couldn’t fine suitable housing and suffered poor health. In spite of these problems, he continued to collect botanical specimens in Arthur’s Pass, Banks Peninsula, Lake Wakatipu and Stewart Island.
In 1884 the government engaged him to report on the country’s indigenous forests and a year later he was appointed chief conservator. He eventually was appointed Chief Conservator of Forests. During his time in this role, he established the forest and agriculture branch of the Crown Lands Department and drew up regulations in order to reduce the wasteful use of forests and by 1888 he had organised the allocation of 800,000 acres as forest reserves. All this good work came to an end with the onslaught of the economic recession and a change of government.
Kirk was made redundant but this didn’t come into effect for three months, giving him time to complete his most notable publication, ‘Forest Flora of New Zealand’. The illustrations for the publication were done by the survey department’s draughtsmen but carried out under Kirk’s supervision.
For the rest of his life he retained his botanical interests, visiting Stewart Island, the Campbell and Antipodes Islands, then exploring headwaters of the Turakina and Rangitikei rivers. According to records, Kirk was a kind-hearted and magnanimous man with firm Christian convictions. He was a foundation member of the Wellington Baptist Church, serving as secretary and deacon for many years, and he was elected president of the Bapist Union of New Zealand. Though quiet and reserved, he had a winning persona that endeared him to his family and friends, and for 30 years he corresponded with former students and fellow botanists. He contributed more than 130 papers to several journals and his most important published works apart from ‘Forest Flora of New Zealand’ were his report on the durability of New Zealand timbers and students Flora of New Zealand, which was published posthumously.
Thomas Kirk was impoverished when he died at Plimmerton on 8 March, 1898 and he was buried in an unmarked grave in Karori Cemetary, Wellington. He was survived by his wife Sarah and five of his nine children. Sarah was a well-known suffragette and temperance campaigner. It’s hard to fathom why he was so poor, after all, for more than three decades he had been the leader of botanical inquiry in his adopted country.
The incumbent president of the Otago Institute stated that "a message of sympathy has been sent to Mrs Kirk with the following resolution: that the council records its deep sense of the loss sustained by the colony in the death of the late Thomas Kirk, F.L.S. whose scientific labours have contributed so largely to the advancement of the study of botany in New Zealand." Despite appeals, Sarah was denied any compassion by the government. (DEIRDRE ROELANTS)