Thomas Kirk, who became well-known in New Zealand as a botanist, and his wife Sarah Jane had four children before emigrating to NZ from England in 1863, and another five in NZ between 1864 and 1870, two of whom (twins) died as infants, and another daughter died aged 5 years old.
The surviving children grew up in a strongly moral, fiercely temperance Baptist household which was, however, genial and full of fun. Given to good works, the Kirks supported the socially progressive ideas of their time.
The youngest daughter, Cybele Edith, and her slightly older sister Lilly May fully embraced robust and militant Christianity, and with their mother and older sister Amy taught English to Chinese immigrants and reading skills to factory girls. The girls were well-educated – Lilly for example spoke French and German fluently, although she never left the colony, and read widely. Both Lilly and Cybele joined the NZ Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from its inception in 1885 and supported total abstinence. Lilly is recorded as stating that the 'slight pleasure that indulgence brings to the respectable modest drinker is as a feather's weight against the load of woe that drink lays upon numbers of our fellow creatures'. Her involvement in the temperance movement went hand in hand with advocacy of women's suffrage.
As a member of the legal and parliamentary department of the WCTU Lilly was frequently in the gallery of the House of Representatives, and her 'intimate acquaintance with parliamentary usage' was invaluable to the union. She gave briefs on all bills which affected women, children or trade in alcohol, maintaining that women must take an intelligent interest in politics before advocating vigorous action.
She had a firm belief in the ability of women to effect change, and held that in the home, the nursery and the social circle the influence of women was supreme. During the WCTU campaign for women's suffrage, Lily Kirk addressed audiences throughout Wellington province. Lilly, who had married Arthur Richmond ATKINSON in 1900, by whom she had a son (who died aged 3 days old in 1900) and a daughter, died in 1921
Cybele, who never married, was protected and outshone by her brilliant family, and it took the death of her mother (1916) and sister Lily (1921) to help her find her individual strength, devoting her adult life to social work with the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children. She was also active in the National Council of Women of New Zealand and the WCTU. In 1935 she was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal for her outstanding community service.
Their older brothers Thomas William, and Harry Borrer, had distinguished careers, both working in the field of botany. The latter became the first Professor of Biology at Victoria University of Wellington, where one of the major buildings on the campus at Kelburn is named after him.
The family plot was purchased by Sarah Kirk when her husband Thomas died in 1898, even though it is said the family finances were precarious. Two years later, Lilly’s infant son Tom was buried, aged only 3 days. Sarah followed her husband and grandson into the plot in 1916, and sadly, Lilly, when aged 55, joined them in 1921. Her husband Arthur was buried with them in 1935, then Amy in 1945, Cybele in 1957, and finally two daughters of their brother Harry were interred in 1957 and 1973.
With thanks to and acknowledgement of The NZ Dictionary of Biography, which includes full biographies of Thomas Kirk, two of his sons – Thomas William and Harry Borrer - and of Lilly (ATKINSON) and Cybele.