11 Castle Drive, Epsom, Auckland

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List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 2623 Date Entered 26th June 2009


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 1 DP 164440 (CT NA99A/579), North Auckland Land District and the buildings and structures known as Clifton thereon, and their fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Auckland Council (Auckland City Council)


Auckland Council

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 164440 (CT NA99A/579), North Auckland Land District


Located in Epsom, Clifton is a nineteenth-century gentlemanly residence that incorporates what is believed to be the earliest surviving concrete building in the North Island and the earliest surviving example of concrete Gothic Revival architecture in New Zealand. It is also significant for its subsequent associations with Mother Mary Joseph Aubert (1835-1926), the first person in New Zealand to be recommended for canonisation by the Catholic Church.

The timber and concrete house is situated on the lower slopes of Mt Eden (Maungawhau), the summit of which was occupied until the late 1600s by Ngati Awa. Part of a Crown Grant in 1865, the land subsequently occupied by Clifton was onsold the following year to John Ogilvie (1839?-1871) Secretary to the Auckland Board of Commissioners. By 1868 Ogilvie had constructed an ornate Carpenter Gothic timber house, incorporating sitting, drawing and dining rooms on the ground floor and five bedrooms on its upper storey. It was situated in a semi-rural landscape in Epsom that had become popular for wealthy gentlemanly estates on the outskirts of colonial Auckland.

In 1868 the property was leased by Josiah Firth (1826-1897) who purchased it in 1871, naming it Clifton after his Yorkshire birth place. An eminent member of a group of entrepreneurial colonial merchants, Firth had established flour milling businesses after his arrival in New Zealand in circa 1855 and later became one of the largest landholders in nineteenth century Auckland. Firth appears to have immediately set about constructing extensive concrete additions, completed in 1873. The work included an ornate two-storey concrete extension and a 15-metre tall castellated tower, believed to have been the tallest concrete structure erected in New Zealand at that time. It was also an early concrete example of Gothic Revival style, sympathetic to the 1860s residence.

Internally the additions contained service rooms and bedrooms, with a museum on the uppermost level of the tower. Ornamentation included elements from medieval castle design and cast-concrete Maori heads. Firth, who maintained a keen interest in modern innovations, was also closely involved with construction of two other acknowledged early concrete structures, notably Auckland's Congregational Church (1874-6) and an 18-metre tall tower constructed at his farm at Matamata in 1882. The latter was part of an extensive estate in the Waikato noted for its use of modern farming technology.

By 1877 Firth's 6.5-hectare estate at Clifton comprised a mixed-use farm, extensive gardens and a number of outbuildings. In 1882, he hosted a large garden reception on the lawns at Clifton for the second Maori king, King Tawhiao (?-1897), who had recently formally ended hostilities with the Crown after the New Zealand Wars. Following the economic depression of the late 1880s in which he was bankrupted losing all assets apart from Clifton, Firth embarked upon new ventures such as marketing reinforced concrete construction techniques.

In 1911 the house was sold to Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, a founder of the Wellington-based Catholic order the Sisters of Compassion. Aubert opened the house as St Vincent's Home of Compassion, caring for orphans and ex-nuptial, or illegitimate babies. Partly established to maintain the independence of the Sisters from the influence of the Catholic hierarchy in New Zealand, the home operated until 1916, when Bishop William Cleary (1859-1929) caused it to close. The property had been Aubert's base immediately prior to her departure for Rome in 1913, where she ultimately obtained a papal decree for the Sisters enabling them to operate independently of the New Zealand Catholic authorities, the only New Zealand order to do so. Aubert was a much respected figure, whose funeral in 1926 was said to have been the most heavily attended of any female in New Zealand. In 1924, she sold Clifton to Te Kuiti famer Herbert Garlick who converted the house into several flats. The 1860s portion of the building was extensively modernised in a California Bungalow style. Transferred to Herbert Clifford Garlick in 1974 on a reduced site, the property remains in private ownership and is currently used as flats (2009).

Clifton has aesthetic significance for the striking appearance of its concrete elements, and architectural value as an early surviving example of concrete residential construction. It has archaeological and technological significance for its links with early concrete construction in New Zealand. Clifton is historically important for its connections with several significant individuals and organisations including Josiah Firth, King Tawhiao, Mother Aubert and the Sisters of Compassion. It also has historical and social value for its links with the development of gentlemanly estates, the provision of charitable aid in the early twentieth century and attitudes to ex-nuptial, or illegitimate children. Clifton has spiritual significance for its close association with Mother Aubert and its incorporation of a small chapel during the early twentieth century.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The place is historically significant for demonstrating the wealth of Auckland's elite business community in the mid to late nineteenth century, especially after the third New Zealand - or Waikato - War. It has particular value for reflecting the suburban estate lifestyle adopted by many affluent families from the 1860s onwards. As one of a network of wealthy estate residences in the vicinity, the place demonstrates Epsom's early growth as a prosperous suburb of Auckland.

The place is also historically significant for reflecting the provision of charitable religious aid during the early years of the twentieth century and growing concern for children's welfare during the same period. As St Vincent's Home of Compassion from 1911- to 1916, the place was one of a small number of institutions run by the Sisters of Compassion, an organisation that was particularly noted for its concern for Maori and the urban poor. The place is historically significant for its close connections with Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, a pioneering missionary, who purchased the property and oversaw welfare activities at the home. The place is one of very few surviving institutions connected with Aubert's work in New Zealand and was where she stayed immediately prior to her departure to Rome to obtain a Decree of Praise.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

The place has aesthetic significance for the striking and unusual visual appearance of its Gothic Revival tower and other concrete additions, which project the image of a medieval European residence. It also has value for its detailed ornamentation, which includes star windows, Cornish crosses, elaborate finials and gargoyles. Ornamentation extends to parts of the timber portion of the house, notably its preserved front doorway, and includes internal elements in its concrete portion such as a former kitchen fireplace and panelled timber linings.

Archaeological Significance or Value:

The place has archaeological significance for containing significant information about early concrete construction in New Zealand. Its standing components and deposits are likely to be able to provide evidence about early concrete mixes, formwork, staging processes and other aspects of concrete construction.

Architectural Significance or Value:

The place has architectural significance as the earliest Gothic Revival concrete structure believed to survive in New Zealand. Concrete was able to imitate the masonry appearance of medieval Gothic structures. Completed in 1873, the place is also considered to be an early surviving example of concrete residential construction in New Zealand and of a gentlemanly residence with a prominent tower. The latter became a popular feature of wealthy residences during the 1870s and 1880s.

Technological Significance or Value:

The place has strong technological significance for incorporating what is believed to be the tallest concrete structure in New Zealand when built and the earliest surviving concrete building in the North Island. Concrete became an important construction material in New Zealand, particularly during the twentieth century.

Social Significance or Value:

The place has social significance for its use in the residential care of homeless babies and young children in the early years of the twentieth century, and for reflecting attitudes to ex-nuptial, or illegitimate birth. As St Vincent's Home, it was one of an increasing number of places that dealt with child welfare, but one of few that tackled issues such as infanticide by taking in foundling children. Its approach can be interpreted as presaging broader moves to destigmatise illegitimate birth in the later twentieth century.

The place also reflects attitudes to social status among the colonial business elite in the mid to late nineteenth century through its location, appearance and layout. It can be considered particularly significant for reflecting mid to late nineteenth-century colonial attitudes towards Maori as shown in its siting beside Maungawhau, its decorative use of Maori figures, its incorporation of a private museum displaying Maori artefacts, and as the site of a social gathering held for King Tawhiao in 1882.

Spiritual Significance or Value:

The place can be considered to have considerable spiritual significance for the strength of its associations with Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, the first person in New Zealand to have been recommended for canonisation by the Catholic Church. Parts of the building are considered to have been used for worship during Mother Aubert's tenure.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

The place reflects important aspects of New Zealand history, including the prosperity of the business community in the mid to late nineteenth century and the development of suburban gentlemanly estates around major city centres. It particularly reflects attitudes towards innovation and technology through its early use of concrete as a building material and its turreted residential design. The place also reflects late nineteenth-century approaches towards the display of social status. Aspects of its style, ornamentation and use demonstrate attitudes towards history, Maori and the acquisition of artefacts in the mid to late nineteenth century.

The place also reflects the importance of charitable aid institutions in early twentieth century New Zealand and growing concerns over the welfare of young children. It has particularly strong connections with Catholic charitable activities and concern for the young irrespective of religious denomination. It reflects social attitudes towards ex-nuptial or illegitimate birth in the early 1900s.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

The place has special significance for the strength of its associations with Josiah Firth, a prominent colonial businessman and innovator who pioneered concrete construction in the Auckland region and developed his estate at Matamata as a showpiece of modern nineteenth-century rural technology. He also co-owned the largest flour mill in Auckland province and the first business in New Zealand to use eight hour shifts for its workers. Through Firth's occupancy, the place has links with flour milling and food production, colonial attitudes towards Maori, and events linked with the establishment of peace between Maori and Pakeha in the early 1880s.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history:

The place has outstanding potential to provide evidence about the development of early concrete construction in New Zealand, including concrete ornamentation. Its potential is reinforced as the earliest of three significant surviving works in concrete associated with Josiah Firth, a noted pioneer of concrete construction in the North Island whose legacy survives in the twenty-first-century concrete construction business as Firth Industries. The site, including remnants of its 1860s timber structure, is likely to contain supplementary evidence about the property's use as a substantial and affluent nineteenth-century household.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:

Clifton has outstanding technical value for incorporating what is believed to be the tallest concrete building in New Zealand when built. It also has special significance for incorporating the oldest surviving concrete building believed to exist in the North Island and the oldest example of concrete Gothic Revival architecture believed to survive in New Zealand. The place is also significant for the general quality of its Gothic Revival design, including its cast-concrete ornamental heads and other detailing.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

The place forms a notable part of a significant and comparatively well-preserved historical and cultural landscape in Epsom, a nineteenth-century colonial suburb favoured by the influential and wealthy among Auckland's citizenry for their residential estates. Epsom contains a number of surviving historic nineteenth-century estate buildings including Highwic, Marivare, Rockwood and the residence that became Rocklands Hall, which were established in the 1860s.

Summary of Significance or Values:

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, c, g, k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

Clifton is special or outstanding because it incorporates what is believed to be the tallest concrete structure in the colony when built, the oldest surviving concrete building in the North Island and the oldest surviving example of concrete Gothic Revival architecture in New Zealand. It has strong associations with Josiah Firth, an innovative and important colonial businessman and a pioneer of concrete construction in the North Island. It has unusually significant potential to provide evidence about the development of early concrete construction in New Zealand, incorporating the earliest of three significant surviving works in concrete associated with Firth. It has strong associations with Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, a pioneering missionary and the first person in New Zealand to have been recommended for canonisation by the Catholic Church.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Early history of site:

Clifton is situated on the lower eastern slopes of Mt Eden (Maungawhau). Maungawhau has a long history of human occupation, possibly extending back as far as the 1200s AD. It is said to have been occupied by the Turehu people, who are considered the earliest inhabitants of the North Island, and by iwi from the voyaging canoes from Hawaiki. The renowned military engineer, Titahi of Ngati Awa, built a large pa at Maungawhau, believed to have been occupied for several centuries up to the late 1600s. Extensive cultivations and other related activity areas were located on volcanic soils on the mountain's lower slopes. Rock cleared from the lava fields was used to build structures and garden features associated with cultivations. Other remains almost certainly existed in the vicinity. Maungawhau was subsequently part of the broader area in the Auckland isthmus taken over by Ngati Whatua in the early eighteenth century. No Maori occupation of the mountain is currently known immediately preceding the foundation of New Zealand as a formal British colony in 1840.

John Ogilvie and the construction of Clifton (circa 1866-68):

Maungawhau marked the southern boundary of the first area of land transferred by Ngati Whatua to the Crown in 1840 for the creation of Auckland as a new colonial capital. Its summit was subsequently employed as the base survey point from which land in the North Island was subdivided in the mid to late nineteenth century. Land near the foot of Mt Eden, in Epsom, was subdivided into farms in 1842 as part of Auckland's early rural hinterland. In May 1865 land agent William Aitken (1826-1901) acquired Crown Grants for a large property, which incorporated several allotments subsequently occupied by Clifton.

Between 1866 and 1868, 4.25 hectares (10.25 acres) of Aitken's property and adjoining land was purchased by John Ogilvie (1839?-1872) for the creation of a gentlemanly residence. Originally from Glasgow, Ogilvie had arrived in New Zealand in about 1863. He was clerk and secretary to the Auckland City Board of Commissioners for five years until 1868, when he entered private business with a Mr Campbell. He became the inaugural secretary of the Auckland Harbour Board in 1871, but died the following year at the age of 33.

Ogilvie built a handsome Carpenter Gothic house on the property, providing an appearance of prosperity. This was in spite of the times being economically difficult in Auckland after the end of the third New Zealand - or Waikato - War (1863-4), particularly after the colonial administration transferred to Wellington as the new capital in 1865. Construction of the two-storey timber residence may have been started as early as 1866 as it was erected on land initially purchased at this time. It was evidently completed by 1868.

The house was of asymmetrical appearance with a projecting bay and a large front (east) verandah and balcony, which extended around its northern side. Clad with kauri weatherboards, the ostentatiously Gothic structure incorporated substantial ornamentation including steep gables with fretwork bargeboards, decorative finials and castellated brick chimneys. A bow-window on the bay of its eastern façade also incorporated castellation. The building contained numerous windows with square-headed hood moulds and large-paned sashes. Internally, the residence had a sitting room, drawing room and dining room at ground floor level, and five bedrooms on its upper floor. It also appears to have had a small basement. Service rooms, including a kitchen, were evidently accommodated at ground floor level at the rear.

The house was part of larger residential complex, which included a free-standing flagstaff, a small ornamental structure of uncertain purpose but possibly a swing, and hedged or planted grounds. A double-storey timber stables, built in a similar style to the residence, together with plainer outbuildings lay inside a solid-fenced backyard at the rear of the house. The complex was visually prominent when constructed, framed beneath the grassed terraces of Maungawhau, with views from its elevated position looking out towards Auckland and the Waitemata Harbour in the distance.

Ogilvie's house was one of a number of substantial private homes constructed in the semi-rural setting of the outer suburbs of Auckland in the1860s. The phenomenon of the big suburban estate house was a means by which those colonists who had prospered could demonstrate their wealth and affluence. It also indicated an expansion of the city's population. Mt Eden and Epsom were particularly popular areas in which to develop such establishments.

Ogilvie's use of Carpenter Gothic for his new house reflected the increasing influence of Gothic Revival architecture in New Zealand. Gothic Revival had become accepted in England by 1845 as suitable for churches and the rustic cottages of the wealthy, with Carpenter Gothic being used as a particularly ornate variant suitable mainly for domestic timber structures. In New Zealand, Gothic influences were adopted in some domestic buildings in the 1840s and 1850s, with Carpenter Gothic elements appearing particularly in Nelson. By the 1860s there were a number of Carpenter Gothic style houses in the colony, including Highwic (circa 1863) and Te Makiri (1866) within the wider Auckland area. Most were built as residences for the well-to-do, although Gothic Revival more generally was also used by institutions linked with the colonial establishment such as the Anglican Church and the legal system.

Josiah Firth and concrete additions to Clifton (1871-3):

The extent to which Ogilvie occupied the house is unclear. However, having perhaps overstretched himself with its construction and other ventures, he disposed of the property when unable to meet mortgage repayments. In April 1871, the house and its associated land was purchased by Josiah Firth (1826-1897), who had evidently leased and occupied the property from 1868. Firth named the house Clifton after his birthplace in Yorkshire.

Firth was an eminent member of a group of entrepreneurial colonial merchants and one of the largest landholders in nineteenth-century Auckland. Later known as Josiah Clifton Firth, he had managed an ironworks in England before moving to Auckland via Melbourne in circa 1855, opening a brickyard in Cook Street. In 1856, the year of his marriage to Ann Williams (1837-1905), Firth in partnership with two others built the Wharf Steam Flour Mills at the foot of Queen Street, the largest in Auckland province. By 1861-2, he had taken up a political position, serving in the House of Representatives as a member for Auckland West. He strongly supported the waging of the second and third New Zealand - or Taranaki and Waikato - Wars in the early and mid 1860s, arguing for full British military intervention.

Firth benefited from the opening up of the Waikato to colonial entrepreneurs after the end of the Wars, acquiring 22,257 hectares (55,000 acres) in the Matamata Plains inexpensively. A noted innovator and pioneer of new technology, he borrowed heavily to drain and fertilise the Matamata land, purchase the latest American agricultural machinery and clear the Waihou River for navigation. His farming estate subsequently became a showpiece for modern rural technology. Firth's interests were broad, extending to science and religion as well as early conservationism. He was a prominent member of the Congregationalist church and published several books.

Immediately after purchasing the estate, Firth appears to have started constructing major additions at the rear of the residence using cutting edge technology. It involved building a two-storey rear addition and a 15 metre (50 ft) tower using concrete, a material that had rarely been used for large-scale buildings in New Zealand. The project was a significant undertaking, evidently commenced in 1871 and completed by 1873. The designer and architect of the additions was Firth himself. Firth may have been influenced by recent concrete additions erected by another prominent Auckland businessman, John Logan Campbell, completed in early 1871 and said at the time (albeit erroneously) to have been the first in the colony.

The additions at Clifton were attached to the west side of the residence and necessitated demolition of the original kitchen. In keeping with the original style of the house, the new elements were designed using a pronounced Gothic Revival design. The main two-storey extension incorporated concrete walls and a steeply pitched slate roof, which contained central gables to the north and south. These gables were pierced by star-shaped windows and topped by Cornish crosses. The main western gable of the extension was stepped and crowned by an elaborate finial comprising four concrete-cast Maori heads set back-to-back. The crenellated concrete tower was located on the southwestern corner of the addition and similarly decorated with mouldings and heads, some modelled on real animal skulls. It was surmounted by a miniature turret with a flagstaff from which the Red Ensign flew on family birthdays. Like the earlier timber section, windows incorporated square-headed hood moulds.

Internally, the two-storey addition contained a new kitchen on its northwest side at ground floor level, with a porch opening off the west side and a store and pantry on the south side. The upper storey consisted of a work room, a bathroom and three additional bedrooms. Two of these rooms were used as the cook's bedroom and a sewing room for a woman employed during the day. The tower accommodated a laundry on the ground floor, the second and third storeys were used as bedrooms and the fourth housed a museum. The museum housed a collection of coins, Maori weapons and native birds. Access to the flat roof of the tower allowed extensive views towards the Maori pa on Maungawhau as well as over the grounds surrounding the house and across the landscape beyond.

Firth's addition represented an early use of concrete for large-scale residential construction nationally and was one of the first buildings of this material to be erected in Auckland. As early as 1843, relatively minor quantities of cement were imported into the colony, probably for small engineering or military purposes. New Zealand settlers used the new material to build structures from the 1850s onwards. By early 1852 a cottage of so-called concrete was in the final stages of completion in Lyttelton, while a decade later John Gow's impressive two storey farmhouse was erected at Invermay, near Mosgiel. Although concrete was increasingly used for small rural structures throughout the 1860s, it appears not to have been more widely used for prestigious residential projects and other large works until the following decade. By that time concrete was increasingly seen as a cheap, strong, durable and fireproof building material, providing a viable alternative to brick in particular.

In the year that Firth's addition was started, some other notable building projects in concrete had just been completed or were in train. In 1870-71 additions were made to Logan Bank, the residence of leading Auckland citizen John Logan Campbell, that were commonly regarded as the first concrete structure in Auckland. In 1871, work began on Strathconan homestead (1871-7) near Fairlie; and a start was made on the west wing of Sunnyside Mental Hospital (1871-4) in Christchurch, the first use of concrete for a large construction project involving a public building. Shortly after Clifton was completed, Auckland's new Congregational Church (1874-6), was erected in concrete on Firth's specific recommendation, representing an extremely early use of the material for a place of worship. Construction of its concrete walls was supervised by Firth himself, who was a leading member of its congregation.

The concrete additions at Clifton appear to have represented a very early example of Gothic Revival design using concrete. Previous structures, such as John Gow's house at Invermay, and Logan Bank in Auckland, were of Georgian or Italianate design. The contemporary construction of Sunnyside Mental Hospital was a similarly early use of Gothic Revival in concrete. Imitating the qualities of medieval masonry construction it later it became more commonplace, for example at the Church of St John the Baptist, Rangiora (begun 1875), Woodside (1876) and St Dominic's Priory (1877), both in Dunedin.

The creation of a 15 metre tower at Clifton was both a very visible demonstration of Gothic design and a significant technological achievement as most other concrete buildings in New Zealand were only one or two storeys tall. It is believed to have been the tallest concrete structure erected in the colony when it was built. Towers had previously been incorporated into ecclesiastical and government structures, but were only just becoming fashionable for larger residences. In Gothic form, they particularly cast back to medieval notions of aristocratic or religious authority as they had been employed for both castles and churches throughout the Middle Ages. Innovative in its application as well as materials, the tower at Clifton is currently considered likely to have been an early residential example in New Zealand carried out in any construction material.

Use of Clifton and its broader estate:

By 1877, Clifton was part of a enlarged estate of 6.5 hectares (16 acres) that covered the entire block between Mt Eden, Clive Road (yet to be formed), Mountain Road (then known as Firth Road) and Glenfell Road (then known as Patterson Road). The holding comprised a mixed-use farm, extensive gardens and a number of outbuildings.

The residence was reached from Firth Road via a tree lined driveway. At the front of the house there were extensive lawns and flower beds, separated from fields beyond by a sunken stone wall, or ha-ha. To the rear, an enclosed backyard incorporated workshops, a storehouse, animal pens, and a greenhouse for raising seedlings. A large cistern was also situated on top of the coal-house, and a kitchen safe hung from two willows. Further west, a separate stableyard contained accommodation for four horses, beyond which was a milking shed, a loose-box, pig sties and a duck pond. Ancillary enclosures included orchards and a kitchen garden with fruit trees and vegetables. Separate fields contained a carriage house and an L-shaped cottage for the gardener.

Clifton's staff comprised a cook, one or two housemaids, a washerwoman, a gardener, a boy for odd-jobs and a sewing woman. The Firth's had an open-home policy for visitors and often had dinner with Josiah's acquaintances, but seldom held large functions. In 1882, however, the Firths held a reception for Tawhiao (?-1897), the second Maori King and prophet, who had come to Auckland on a peace mission after formally laying down his arms 17 years after the end of the Waikato War, in 1881. The function was attended by 250 guests and was held on lawns in front of the house. Speakers included Josiah Firth, Tawhiao, Wahanui of Ngatimaniapoto, Paora Tuharere of Ngati Whatua, the Archdeacon Robert Maunsell and John Logan Campbell. The event reflects both Firth's mana and the benefit he potentially derived from peaceful coexistence between Maori and Pakeha in the Waikato during the 1880s. Later in 1882, he built a similar concrete tower addition to that at Clifton on his country house at Matamata.

Also in 1882, Firth wrote New Zealand's earliest published play, using the nom-de-plume 'Arthur Fonthill'. In spite of growing financial difficulties he opened his third flour mill, the Eight Hours Roller Flour Mill, in Auckland in 1888. This was the first business in New Zealand to use eight hour shifts for its workers and one of the earliest businesses in Auckland to convert engine power into electric lighting. It was also built of concrete, using recently-developed hydraulic lime from Wilson's cement works in Warkworth.

During the late 1880s, Firth faced increasingly difficult financial circumstances as land and commodity values fell. Ultimately a number of his businesses were unsuccessful including the Waiorongomai and Te Aroha goldmines and his Matamata farming estate. In 1889, Firth was declared bankrupt and lost all his assets apart from Clifton. Following his discharge from bankruptcy in 1890, Firth continued to embark on new ventures such as marketing reinforced concrete construction techniques and promoting pumice as an insulating material for refrigeration. He died at Clifton in December 1897. His legacy included the foundation of Firth Industries by his son Edward and grandsons Edward and Guy Firth in 1925, a business that remains New Zealand's largest producer of concrete products.

After Firth's death, his widow Ann and other family members continued to live in the house, although they struggled financially. The estate was surveyed in 1898, and in 1902 the north and east portions adjoining Clive and Mountain Road were sold. During the sale in 1902, the house and grounds were offered to Auckland Grammar School but the school declined to purchase. Prior to this time, two of the downstairs rooms may have been converted into a large ballroom or an enlarged sitting room. Upon Ann's death in 1905, the administration of the estate passed to her son, Arthur Clifton Firth, and daughter, Evelyn Clifton Firth. In 1907, Clifton was transferred to another daughter, Emily Clifton Markham, by which time the property had been reduced to approximately 1.2 hectares (3 acres) with a narrow road frontage to Mountain Road.

Occupation by Mother Mary Joseph Aubert and the Sisters of Compassion:

In July 1911 Mother Mary Joseph Aubert (1835-1926) purchased Firth House, as Clifton had become known. Aubert subsequently opened the St Vincent's Home of Compassion for foundlings in the house, an institution dedicated to caring for orphans and illegitimate babies.

Mother Mary Joseph, or Suzanne, Aubert was a French-born nurse, who had arrived in New Zealand in 1860 as a Catholic missionary recruited by Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier (1802-1871). She had played an important role in the revival of the Marist mission in the Wellington diocese before moving to Jerusalem near Wanganui in 1883. In 1892 she became the first superior of a new diocesan congregation, known as the Sisters of Compassion, dedicated initially to caring for Maori before turning its attention to the urban poor. Returning to Wellington in 1899, Aubert established St Joseph's Home for Incurables, and in 1907 Our Lady's Home of Compassion for young children in Island Bay. She also opened one of the first creches in New Zealand, specifically for poor single working mothers.

In an effort to extend her activities to Auckland, Aubert initially rented premises in Hobson Street in 1910 before purchasing Clifton partly using her own funds. Expansion into the Auckland diocese occurred at the invitation of Bishop George Lenihan (1858?-1910) and was a strategic move on Aubert's part to maintain the independence of her order. Established with the help of four sisters, St Vincent's Home took up to 40 orphans and illegitimate babies, all but three of whom were under school age. Aubert managed both the Auckland and Wellington operations from her base in Wellington. Clifton may have appealed as a suitable building due to the religious associations of its Gothic Revival architecture, which was used for numerous late nineteenth-century Catholic buildings including St Patrick's Cathedral in Auckland. It was also located close to a property on Mountain Road that had been purchased by the Sisters of Mercy in 1900 for use as the Mater Miseriecordiae Hospital.

Partly reflecting enhanced concerns for children's well-being, the number of orphanages and children's homes increased markedly in early twentieth-century New Zealand. They were run by churches rather than the state or charitable aid boards, who had by this time rejected institutional care as inferior to fostering. Many of these institutions had a policy of not taking children under the age of three, and so failed to address the still-frequent problem of infanticide. Aubert's care for the young closely paralleled that of the foundling institutions in France but was controversial to some. In particular, her desire to conceal the identity of illegitimate babies to protect their mothers brought her into conflict with the Infant Life Protection Acts of 1893 and 1896. Her willingness to help individuals of all denominations also brought opposition from the Catholic hierarchy in New Zealand, including Lenihan's successor in Auckland, Bishop William Cleary (1859-1929).

As a way to circumvent intervention from the local Catholic authorities, Aubert travelled to Rome to seek papal recognition for her order in 1913. For several months prior to this she lived mainly at Clifton. In 1916, Bishop Cleary closed down St Vincent's Home during Aubert's prolonged absence, although she subsequently arranged for a secular guardian to live in the house. In the following year, a Decree of Praise was granted by Pope Benedict XV to the Sisters of Compassion, the only Catholic order born and growing to maturity in New Zealand. Clifton was rented out, but remained in Aubert's ownership until 1924. There is no formal record in council archives of any modifications or alterations to the house during her period of ownership, although a room in Firth's concrete addition was evidently used as a chapel.

Aubert died in 1926, with her funeral said to have been the largest ever held for a woman in New Zealand. She was nationally respected as a pioneering missionary whose work responded to a variety of local needs, in particular helping the most vulnerable members of society. In 1997 the New Zealand Catholic Church Bishops' Conference agreed to support The Introduction of the Cause of Mother Aubert, the first step in the process toward canonisation. In 2004 a Mass celebrated for the inauguration of the Cause marked the closure of the Archdiocesan Inquiry prior to the sending of documentation to the Congregation of Saints in Rome for validation as part of the ongoing process seeking Aubert's beatification. Aubert is the first person that the Catholic Church in New Zealand has recommended for beatification or canonisation.

Subsequent Use and Modifications:

In 1924 Clifton was purchased by Te Kuiti farmer Herbert Garlick (1872-1965) and his wife Marion who converted the residence into six flats. The original timber portion of the house was modernised, which involved remodelling its frontages, extending two of its facades to infill an earlier verandah and altering the roof pitch to provide it with a California Bungalow appearance. Although the earlier internal layout was largely retained, elements such as fireplace surrounds were also evidently replaced. As part of the conversion, a bathroom was added to the west side of the tower on the ground floor and another bathroom was built on the north verandah on the first floor. The concrete portion of the building was otherwise little altered.

In 1929, the year a balcony was erected, the property was subdivided into seven sections and Castle Drive was formed. The Garlicks retained two lots (one largely comprising the house, backyard, lawn and garden, the other containing part of an associated orchard). A four-car concrete block garage was constructed behind the house in 1930.

By 1955, the Garlicks had sold the orchard and further subdivided the remainder, with the portion south of the house site being transferred to son, Herbert Clifford Garlick (1908-1984), a civil engineer. In 1974, the property occupied by Clifton also transferred to him. A new carport was built near the existing garage in 1976. The bathroom on the southwest corner of the house was extended in 1977.

Clifton was sold to a group of medical practitioners in 1980. In 1984, the house, by then known as The Castle, was fireproofed and had been divided into seven flats. Two former railway carriages were brought on to the site for use as garden sheds at an unknown date prior to 2003. The property remains in private ownership and is currently in use as flats.

Physical Description

Construction Professionals:


Unknown (1866-8)

Josiah Firth (1871-3 additions)


Clifton is situated in Epsom, an inner suburb of Auckland. Located to the southeast of Auckland's main city centre, Epsom is a largely residential area containing a number of recognised historic houses. Clifton lies at the western end of Castle Drive, a quiet cul de sac on the lower slopes of Maungawhau or Mt Eden. The mountain forms a distinctive backdrop to the property, particularly as viewed from Castle Drive. Clifton is immediately surrounded by more recent dwellings, although historic structures such as those at Auckland Grammar School (Record nos. 4471, 4472, Category I historic places, and Record no. 4532, Category II historic place) are located nearby on Mountain Road. A number of other significant nineteenth-century gentlemanly estate houses survive in the Epsom area, including Highwic (Record no.18, Category I historic place), Marivare (unregistered), Rocklands Hall (Record no.7276, Category I historic place) and Rockwood (unregistered).

The property consists of an irregular-shaped plot, approximately 3000 square metres in size. The main house is situated in the eastern part of the plot and is accessed via a short drive from the road. The driveway leads round the southern side of the house to garaging facilities at the rear (west). To the north of the house is a small garden with grassed lawns. Outdoor sheds include two re-used railway carriages. The asphalted area at the rear of the house encompasses ground previously known to have been used as a stableyard, where several nineteenth-century outbuildings were located. This and other parts of the property potentially include in-ground archaeological deposits linked with the construction and use of the residence.


The residence comprises two main parts: a timber element to the front (east) and a concrete portion to the rear (west). The two-storey timber element is of California Bungalow style with weatherboard and timber shingle wall cladding, large windows, and a low-pitched tiled roof which encompasses earlier filled-in verandahs. The concrete portion is Gothic Revival in appearance, incorporating a two-storey addition with steep slate roof and a four-storey crenellated tower at its southwestern end. The slate roof is topped with glazed ceramic ridge tiles. The addition is connected to a concrete coal-house to its west by a freestanding concrete wall with a doorway bearing the inscribed date '1873'.

The eastern façade of the building incorporates an asymmetrical double-gable frontage of bungalow style. Its northern gabled portion is of 1920s appearance with large windows, horizontal weatherboards and timber shingling in its gable and in a horizontal band between ground and first floor levels. The latter marks the position of an infilled 1860s balcony rail. The southern portion of the façade also has a shingled gable and incorporates a rectangular bay window on the site of an earlier bay. The façade retains its 1860s central doorway with a large door and an elaborate fanlight of Gothic Revival type.

The northern façade has similar cladding to the eastern frontage, including a band of timber shingles between its ground and first floor levels, partly marking the 1860s balcony rail. The 1860s lower verandah has been filled in as in the eastern frontage. At its western end the timber structure encases the well-preserved 1870s concrete addition, which retains its nineteenth-century external appearance above first-floor level. This incorporates a central gable with a star-shaped window and Cornish Cross, and tall crenellated kitchen chimneys at its eastern end. From the western end of the façade, a short length of concrete wall pierced by a doorway connects with the tall rectangular coal-house, which incorporates a water cistern above. An opening on its south side contains a religious statue, presumed to be linked to Mother Mary Joseph Aubert. The coal-house has a small timber addition with open framing on its eastern wall.

The western façade of the residence incorporates a timber element up to two storeys high along its northern part, of similar design to elsewhere. Above this level the stepped west gable of the two-storey concrete addition is visible, crowned by an elaborate concrete finial with Maori heads facing in four directions. The southern part of the frontage is dominated by the four-storey rectangular concrete tower, topped with projecting crenellated battlements. A small turret protruding from the northeastern corner of the tower is surmounted by a flagpole, providing additional height. As with other concrete elements, the tower is covered with an ashlar-scored plaster or render. It also incorporates square-headed window mouldings and double-hung sash windows at all floor levels. Each storey is emphasised by a horizontal drip course, and ornamentation includes inset trefoils and quatrefoils at second floor level, a pair of Gothic-headed niches sheltered by a single square hood moulding at third floor level, and elaborate corbels supporting the projecting battlements at fourth floor level. Each battlemented corner incorporates twinned cast-concrete heads, variously in the form of Maori, lions and goats.

The southern façade of the main building contains the tower at its western end, decorated with similar embellishments as the western frontage, except for a mock arrow-slit and a possible heraldic device at second floor level. The two-storey concrete addition with its central gable is visible to its full extent. As with the tower, this includes horizontal drip courses and square-headed mouldings above double-hung sash windows. The gable includes a star-shaped window and is topped by a Cornish Cross. The timber eastern part of the frontage is similar in style to the eastern façade.


The interior incorporates rooms at several levels, including a small basement in the timber section at the front (east), rooms at ground and first floor level in both timber and concrete sections, rooms at second floor level in the attic and tower of the concrete portion only, and a small number of rooms at further levels in the tower. The rooms of the timber portion generally feature 1920s or later detailing while those of the concrete portion retain well-preserved nineteenth-century details. The floors of the timber section are of timber while concrete has been used for the ground floor surface of the concrete addition.

The building layout features a wide central passage at ground floor level, which extends from the front (east) façade into the concrete portion of the building. Rooms at first floor level are also generally accessed from a central stairwell and hallway. The second floor is reached by separate small staircases, respectively serving the northern attic, and the southern attic and tower of the concrete portion. A further small staircase in the tower serves the remaining rooms upstairs.

The main door to the building lies in the centre of its eastern façade at ground floor level. As well as the doorway, the central hallway retains another early feature in the form of a moulded archway marking the distinction between the formal public and private parts of the original hall. Within the timber portion of the building, the ground floor hall provides access to two main rooms to the south and one large room to the north. The two southern rooms contain a back-to-back fireplace, evidently with 1920s style fittings. The northern room shows signs of having previously been divided into two rooms with evidence of a fireplace along a removed wall. Removal may be linked with the creation of a ballroom or an enlarged sitting room prior to 1902. The room is separated from an infilled verandah with tongue and groove lining to the north, by what may be a former external wall. The room also has an elaborate fanlight over its doorway from the hall.

A small stone-lined cellar, evidently measuring 3 m square x 2 m high, is accessed from the hall. A large staircase against the eastern wall of the hall provides the main access to upstairs rooms. Rooms in the concrete portion at ground floor level include a former side hall from the south façade (now blocked off from the hall for use as a bathroom) and a large former kitchen with an imposing fireplace at its eastern end. Of Gothic style, the concrete or masonry fireplace incorporates a large central arch and flanking triangular-headed alcoves, all set forward of its associated wall to mantelpiece level. Outside the addition, the coal-house incorporates a concrete room with a basalt bench on the west side and a basalt ledge on the south side of its interior.

Rooms at first floor level within the timber portion mostly have early twentieth century detailing. A large upstairs room on the north side of the hall has had former external walling removed to create a single open space with an infilled verandah. Rooms within the concrete portion retain lancet arch doorways and some timber wall and ceiling linings, although some rooms are plastered. Attic rooms on the second floor have horizontal board linings and board and batten ceilings: one of these rooms on the northern side of the building is believed to have been used as a chapel in the early 1900s. The timber staircase within the tower retains unpainted rectangular-panel timber lining. Rooms within the upper part of the tower, including the former museum on the third floor, have plain plastered walls. The tower roof and viewing platform is flat and has been recently provided with an epoxy coating.


i) Early surviving concrete structures;

The earliest evidence of concrete still visible in New Zealand may be the remains of a circa 1857 retaining wall at Fyffe House, Kaikoura (Record no. 236, Category I historic place). The oldest extant concrete building of known date is a two storey house (1862) erected at Invermay, Mosgiel for John Gow (Record no. 2350, Category I historic place). Musterers' quarters (not registered), on Lake Coleridge station, mid-Canterbury are said to have been built a year earlier. Concrete stables constructed by Alexander Campbell near Outram (not registered) also date from the 1860s a decade which saw concrete used in floors, yards, gutters and channels in various rural buildings. The earliest surviving substantial concrete farm buildings are those designed in 1870 for James Shand's Abbotsford property near Outram (Record no. 7579, Category I historic place), which include stabling, men's quarters and an implement shed. Important large-scale structures that were broadly contemporary with Clifton, such as Logan Bank, Auckland (1870-71) and the west wing of the Sunnyside Mental Asylum, Christchurch (1871-4), have been demolished.

Most other known surviving concrete buildings in New Zealand date to the mid 1870s or later. They include other structures associated with Josiah Firth in the North Island, such as St James Presbyterian Church, Auckland (Record no. 642, Category I historic place) constructed for the Congregationalists in 1874-6, and the 1882 tower at Matamata (Record no. 754, Category I historic place). Apart from the Congregationalist Church, other early existing North Island structures include Goldies Brae in Wadestown (Record no. 216, Category I historic place), erected in 1876, and a concrete shaft for the Valve House of the Lower Karori Dam in Wellington (Record no. 7750, Category I historic place), which was also evidently designed in 1875 and constructed prior to 1878.

No surviving concrete buildings pre-dating Clifton are currently known in the North Island.

Clifton also incorporates one of the earliest existing examples of domestic construction in concrete nationally. The Gow house (1862) is the earliest residential example currently known. Rural workers' quarters constructed of concrete in the 1860s and 1870 were used as for housing seasonal labourers, and as staff accommodation were not formally domestic in nature. Donald McLean's homestead Strathconan near Fairlie (Record No. 1970, Category II historic place), also commenced in 1871 was not completed until 1877. A two-unit concrete cottage at Kaikoura surviving as part of the Elms Farm Complex (Record No. 7693, Category II historic place) dates from 1875, the year the gatehouse Corwar Lodge (not registered) was built near Barrhill in mid-Canterbury. Also constructed in 1875 was Lakeside House, Leeston (Record no. 5471, Category II historic place) a building finished with Carpenter Gothic trimmings; and concrete additions to the homestead at Blue Cliffs Station (Record no. 7691, Category II historic place), both in Canterbury. Several other residences survive from 1876 and later.

ii) Concrete Gothic Revival buildings;

Comparatively few surviving examples are known of concrete buildings erected in New Zealand using a Gothic Revival style. Of these, Clifton appears to be the earliest. The large Gothic mental hospital at Sunnyside, Christchurch (1871-4) has been demolished. The Church of St John the Baptist, Rangiora (Record no.1823, Category II historic place) begun in 1875, incorporates Gothic elements within its concrete lower walls. Woodside in Dunedin (Record no. 2184, Category I historic place) described in 1876 as Tudor Renaissance in style, has strong Gothic elements. Gothic design strongly influenced the appearance of Cargill's Castle or The Cliffs, Dunedin (Record no. 3174, Category II historic place), which was finished in 1876. The concrete portion of St Dominic's Priory, Dunedin (Record no. 372, Category I historic place) completed in 1877 is Gothic Revival style. The ruins of a large Gothic-mannered homestead, Glenmark constructed at Waipara (1877-1881/1882) and damaged by fire in 1891, also survive (Record no. 1775, Category II historic place). Another notable example of Gothic concrete design is Firth's Tower at Matamata, constructed in 1882.

iii) Places associated with Mother Mary Joseph Aubert;

Of the comparatively few institutions run by Mother Mary Joseph Aubert and the Sisters of Compassion in New Zealand, Clifton is a notable surviving example. Jerusalem still survives, reflecting the early years of the Order. St Joseph's Home for Incurables, Buckle Street (1900) and Our Lady's Home of Compassion, Island Bay (1907) in Wellington have been demolished. Apart from the Home of Compassion Creche (Former) constructed in Buckle Street in 1914 (Record no. 3599, Category II historic place), Clifton is believed to be the only surviving institution connected with Aubert and her work in New Zealand, and was where she stayed immediately prior to her departure to Rome to obtain a Decree of Praise.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1866 - 1868

1871 - 1873
Kitchen demolished

1871 - 1873
Two-storey concrete extension erected at rear (west) with four-storey concrete tower, detached coal-house with cistern, and connecting concrete wall.

1924 -
Alterations to timber (east) portion of building including new external cladding, windows and roof.

1924 -
Bathroom to west side of building on ground floor and bathroom on north verandah on first floor.

1930 -
Garage erected

1976 -
Carport added

1977 -
Extension of bathroom on west side of building on ground floor.

Construction Details

East part of residence: timber with tile roof

West part of residence: concrete with slate roof, incorporating ceramic ridge tiles

Coal-house and cistern: concrete

Completion Date

20th March 2009

Report Written By

M. Jones, L. Macintosh, J. McKenzie

Information Sources

Munro, 1997

Jessie Munro, The Story of Suzanne Aubert, Auckland, 1997

New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald, 12 July 1932, p. 6; 28 September 1933, p. 6.

6 June, 1872, p.2 (7)

Stacpoole, 1976

John Stacpoole, Colonial Architecture in New Zealand, Wellington, 1976

Stone, 1973

R. C. J. Stone, Makers of Fortune: A Colonial Business Community and its Fall, Auckland, 1973

Tennant, 1989

Margaret Tennant, Paupers and Providers: Charitable Aid in New Zealand, Wellington, 1989

Thornton, 1996

Geoffrey Thornton, Cast in Concrete: Concrete Construction in New Zealand 1850-1939, Auckland, 1996

Gordon, 1963

Mona Gordon, The Golden Age of Josiah Clifton Firth, Christchurch, 1963

Gordon, 1973

Mona Gordon, Portrait in Mosaic of Ann Clifton Firth, Christchurch, 1973

Sisters of Compassion, 1992

Sisters of Compassion, Audacity of Faith, Centennial of the Sisters of Compassion 1892-1992, Wellington, 1992

Tennant, 2007

Margaret Tennant, The Fabric of Social Welfare: Voluntary Organisations, Government and Welfare in New Zealand, 1840-2005, Wellington, 2007

Other Information

A fully referenced Registration Report is available from the Northern region office of NZHPT.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.