Merchant, merchant banker, religious philanthropist, Hispanist aficionado and supporter of the Conservative party was the eldest son of the fourteen children of George Henry Gibbs(1785–1842) and his wife, Caroline (1794–1850), sixth daughter of Charles Crawley, rector of Stowe-nine-Churches, Northamptonshire. The family business was started by his grandfather Antony Gibbs (1756–1815) and greatly expanded by his father and his uncle William Gibbs (1790-1875).
Henry Hucks Gibbs was educated at Redland near Bristol and at Rugby School, before entering Exeter College, Oxford, where he graduated with third-class honours in Classics. His initial intention was to read for the bar, but perhaps unsurprisingly considering his academic record, he joined the family firm. When his father died in 1842, he inherited a vast estate that included lands inherited from his mother’s family at Clifton Hampden in Oxfordshire. So perhaps it could be said that he had the option of retreating into the life of a landed gentleman, but in 1843 he joined the family business of Antony Gibbs & Sons, now run by his uncle William. It seems that it took some time for him to settle to a career in the City, with his mind repeatedly turned to interests on scholarship and high-churchmanship. In 1846 his uncle William expressed concern that he was neglecting business, but eventually not only he settled down, but also became the leading voice in the business, particularly since 1858 when his uncle retired from active involvement
Until 1842 Antony Gibbs & Sons had been a relatively prosperous concern but it was transformed by making loans to the government of the newly-independent Peru on the security of a concession to sell guano. The government retained ownership of the deposits, but William Gibbs obtained the monopoly of the commercialization throughout most of Europe. The firm was transformed, and the net profits mounted from £17,156 in 1848 to £125,562 in 1858. Subsequently, the guano monopoly was threatened by wars and the rise of economic protectionism and Henry Huck Gibbs turned to more speculative lending and investment, encouraged by the large sums left in the firm by his uncle. His policy was initially not successful, and results fell from an average annual net profit of £ 137,244 in 1860–64 to an average net loss of £ 15,276 in 1865–9. However, the firm did make a successful transition into a merchant bank, dealing in foreign exchange, acceptances and commercial credit, with occasional flotations of government loans.
In South America the firm successfully replaced Peruvian guano with nitrates, initially in Peru and subsequently in Chile when territory was transferred as a result of the War of the Pacific of 1879–1883. Unlike guano, where the government retained ownership, the firm was responsible for both the production and the marketing of nitrates, and negotiated combinations to control the industry. In 1881 the declining merchant house of Antony’s elder brother George (1753–1818) —Gibbs, Bright & Co. of Liverpool and Bristol—was acquired, along with Bright Brothers in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Dunedin. Gibbs, Bright & Co. traded to the West Indies which was not profitable, and the Bristol house was closed in 1887.
In 1853 Gibbs became a director of the Bank of England and remained on the court until 1901, serving as governor from 1875 to 1877. He was a member of the royal commission on the stock exchange between 1877 and 1878, and of a royal commission on the depression of trade and industry in 1885–6. He became notorious in the City as an advocate of bimetallism, providing leadership as president of the Bimetallic League. The expansion of the production of silver caused a depreciation against gold-based currencies, leading to problems in silver-based economies such as Mexico, Peru, Chile, and India. Gibbs’s involvement in trade with silver-based countries made him aware of the problems caused by disruption of currency, and he argued that merchants were more aware of the difficulties than bankers who simply played with the exchanges.
He was also active in the transformation of the City from Liberalism to Conservatism, attracting men such as George Goschen to the party and opposing the old liberal guard of the corporation. He was involved with other members of the family in establishing the St James Gazette in 1880, a loss-making paper which they owned until 1888. Although he was invited to stand for parliament for Bristol in 1862, he declined this and other offers and only succumbed in April 1891 when he won a by-election in the City. He stood down at the general election of July 1892. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Aldenham on 31 January 1896,
He was a landowner whose passion for country pursuits survived the mishap of shooting off his right hand in 1864. He also acted as Justice of the Peace (JP) in both Middlesex and Hertfordshire, and served as the high sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1884. He was appointed a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery by W. H. Smith in 1890, and was president of Guy’s Hospital from 1880 to 1896. He was a noted bibliophile with a celebrated library. He edited texts for the Early English Text Society and the Roxburghe Club, wrote a study of the Spanish card game of ombre (a copy can be seen in NT Tyntesfield’s Library today) and was an active member of the Philological Society from 1859, for which he sub-edited the letters C and K for the New English Dictionary. His main interest, however, was religion and following on the footsteps of his uncle William Gibbs, he was a strong supporter of the Tractarian (Oxford) Movement.
Gibbs married in 1845 Louisa Anne Adams (1818-1897). They had six sons and a daughter. The eldest son, Alban George Henry, succeeded his father as MP for the City between 1892 and 1906, with a hiatus in 1904 when he resigned as a result of the sale of Chilean ships to the British government. Vicary Gibbs, the third son, was MP for St Albans between 1892 and 1904, and produced a new edition of the Complete Peerage which had been compiled by his mother’s brother George Edward Cokayne (who married Gibbs’s sister in 1856). The fifth son, Kenneth, was vicar of Aldenham and archdeacon of St Albans; the sixth and youngest son, Henry Lloyd, died the day after his father.
The business heir was the fourth son, Herbert Cokayne Gibbs, first Lord Hunsdon (1854–1935), who became a partner in 1882. Henry Hucks Gibbs died at his home, Aldenham House, Hertfordshire, on 13 September 1907 and was buried in Aldenham churchyard.
Sources: 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; Martin Daunton, ‘Gibbs, Henry Hucks, first Baron Aldenham (1819–1907)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [http://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2167/view/article/33386, accessed 21 Feb 2016]
Posted by: Graciela Iglesias-Rogers
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