Merchant, founder of the company Antony Gibbs & Sons, famous for operating throughout the global Hispanic world for more than a century. Although born in a house within the cathedral close in Exeter, he was baptized on 3 March 1756 at Mint Presbyterian Meeting-House in the same ancient city on the River Exe in southwest England, being the sixth in the family of five sons and six daughters of George Abraham Gibbs (c.1724–1794), surgeon at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, and his wife, Anne Vicary.
Gibbs went to Exeter grammar school, but soon was apprenticed for five years to a Mr Brook of Exeter, a merchant in the Spanish trade, who it is reputed to have taught him the rudiments of Castilian language. His first trading venture was in 1788 as a woollen exporter, principally to Spain and Italy; he was also briefly involved with a woollen-cloth factory near Exeter. In 1784 he married Dorothea Barnetta (1760–1820), the youngest daughter of William Hucks, a Yorkshire wine merchant; they had seven children, two of whom died in infancy. In 1787–9, he suffered serious financial difficulties, losing not only his own money but some of his family’s and friends as well. He tried to resolve the situation by looking for business in the continent, first to France which he discovered subsumed by revolutionary fever, and eventually to Spain where he did find the opportunities he was seeking.
The first step in Gibbs’s financial recovery involved setting up an agency business in Madrid to serve English manufacturers. Some of these clients were his creditors who aware that his debts in Britain were so enormous that none of his assets could be big enough to match them in the short term decided to turn his debts into loans to his company at high interest rates. As a result, during the rest of his life he and his sons drew a salary from the business while the rest of the profits tended to be used to pay what the family identified in Spanish as ‘deudas sagradas’ (sacred debts) and therefore identified in the ledgers under the code ‘DS’. In August 1789 he took ship with his wife and children to Corunna, thence overland to Madrid. His wife found the hot summers unbearable and in 1792 decided to return. Early in 1793 Gibbs suffered a terrible accident when the carriage he was travelling in from Madrid to Seville went out of control—he fell from it, and was run over by one of the wheels. Nonetheless, he eventually recovered enough to join a partnership in Malaga to sell Spanish produce in England. When Spain declared war in 1796, Gibbs faced another financial crisis; but he was eventually able to use Lisbon as an illicit (and profitable) means of entry to the Spanish market for English woollens. When peace came in 1801, he was able to set up a business in Cadiz. However, the outbreak of war in 1805 placed him again on the brink of disaster. A key not only to the survival of his company but also to the subsequent expansion of his global business was being able to obtain separate licences from the British and Spanish governments to trade with South America, particularly with the viceroyalty of Peru, with a vessel known as the ´Hermosa Mexicana´ (The Beautiful Mexican). It was not until the war with Spain ended in 1808 that Gibbs’s difficulties really began to abate. The reopening of the Cadiz house, and the opening of a London house in partnership with his eldest son, (George) Henry Gibbs (1785–1842), under the style Antony Gibbs & Son, marked the beginning of a period of real prosperity. Debts began to be paid in earnest (although not completely until 1842) and a profitable trade to and from the south of Spain and the rest of the Hispanic world became truly possible. The siege of Cadiz by the French between 1810 and 1812 led to the temporary closure of the Cadiz house; but when the siege was abandoned trade and profits rapidly regained their former levels. In 1813 his second son, William Gibbs (1790-1875) – later founder of Tyntesfield, near Bristol – was taken into partnership, and the London house became Antony Gibbs & Sons (in plural). By 1814 Gibbs was suffering from ill health, including severe loss of memory. He suffered a stroke on 5 December 1815 and died five days later at his house, 2 Powis Place, Great Ormond Street, London. In his will he left everything (i.e. his share in the company and personal possessions) to his wife, so that her income and assets depended on the firm’s prosperity. This proved to be a safe bet because Antony Gibbs & Sons was run successfully, first by their eldest son George Henry until his untimely death in 1842 and later by William who would turn it into a global trading powerhouse.
Sources: London Metropolitan Archives, Records of Antony Gibbs & Sons, CLC/B/012; Gibbs, John Arthur, The History of Antony and Dorothea Gibbs and of Their Contemporary Relatives, Including the History of the Origin & Early Years of the House of Antony Gibbs and Sons (London: Saint Catherine Press, 1922); Neill, Elizabeth. Fragile Fortunes: The Origins of a Great British Merchant Family. Wellington: Ryelands 2008; Ian Doolittle, ‘Gibbs, Antony (1756–1815)’, rev. Anita McConnell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [http://ezproxyprd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2167/view/article/37452, accessed 21 Feb 2016].
Author: Graciela Iglesias-Rogers
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