Joseph Firth – Macedon Nursery.

Joseph Firth was born in the Orkney Islands in Scotland on 12 August 1854 and emigrated to Australia in 1872 when he was just 17.

Joseph married Mary Ridden and arrived at Mount Macedon to begin a lifelong and distinguished career in horticulture, firstly as gardener at Glencairn and later at Government Cottage.

In 1885, Joseph took a position as curator at the Macedon State Nursery and, by 1891, rose to Superintendent upon the retirement of Victoria’s first “Overseer of Forests and Crown Land Bailiff”, and founder of the nursery in 1872, William Ferguson.

In addition to producing millions of trees, Joseph built the nursery into a widely acclaimed showcase for the Forests Commission Victoria (FCV) with an ornamental lake, walking paths, landscaped gardens and a large arboretum with many unique exotic trees.

Joseph’s first child, James, was later to become a trainee forester at Macedon Nursey, like many others before him, and in 1913 was appointed Officer in Charge of Briagolong District. James rose to Inspector of Forests in East Gippsland and at one time acting Commissioner in Melbourne.

In 1890, Joseph selected 240 acres in the nearby Wombat State forest about 12 miles from Macedon and near Trentham which he intended to use for grazing. He built a house and dam and took his family there on weekends and holidays. He also planted large numbers of experimental plots of trees, including many types of oaks including the Macedon Oak, Quercus firthii, which was named after him. A eucalyptus oil still was also built. After his death the land was sold back to the government and is now known as Firth Park.

On 30 December 1921 Joseph, aged 67, fell from his horse and died soon after.

There is little doubt that Joseph Firth left a lasting legacy towards the “greening” of Victoria, at a time when the State Government was still encouraging the clearing of forest and public land for land settlement.

There was probably not a school or public garden in Victoria which did not contain trees from Macedon over which Joseph Firth had personally watched with fostering care and interest.

However, the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires severely impacted the State Nursery when vehicles, buildings and thousands of nursery seedlings were lost. Many of the historically significant trees in the grounds of the nursery were also killed.

The Macedon nursery was eventually rebuilt with a new office and handsome interpretive centre and opened by Joan Kirner in August 1987, but a rationalisation by the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands (CFL) of all its nurseries in the 1990s eventually led to it being privatised and sold.

All that now appears to remain of the once magnificent State nursery established by Joseph Firth are a grove of Cork Oaks, a few remnant conifers and European trees, the overgrown lake with some old pathways, as well as a rather sad looking Italianate fountain which dates from 1895.

From Little seeds by Frank Moulds (1997)

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