Businessman, religious and aesthetic philanthropist, was born on 22 May 1790 at 6 Calle de Cantarranas, a few minutes walk from the Parque del Retiro and the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain. He was the second son of Antony Gibbs (1756–1815), merchant, and his wife, Dorothea Barnett (also known as Barnetta, 1760–1820). His father had began operating as a wool export trader in Exeter in 1788, but fell rapidly into debt and moved to Spain to establish an agency for wool merchants in Britain and elsewhere. William Gibbs’s childhood was divided between Spain and Britain. He was brought up speaking Spanish as it would be his mother tongue, but his formal education took place in England. First, at a school run by the Unitarian minister Charles Lloyd in Exeter and from 1800 at Blundell’s School in Tiverton, Devon, before being joining his father’s business in Cadiz, being only 12 years old in 1802. Both William and his elder brother George Henry Gibbs (1785–1842) were withdrawn from school early; this was a consequence of their father’s precarious finances. He moved to Bristol in 1806 as an assistant clerk to Gibbs, Bright & Gibbs, in which his uncle and cousin, both George Gibbs, were partners. Two years later he joined his father and his elder brother George Henry, in a new London trading company, Antony Gibbs & Son, becoming a partner in 1813, when the business became Antony Gibbs & Sons (in plural).
William returned that year to Spain to manage the Cadiz branch of the firm, then under the care of a partner, William Branscombe, and rejected a suggestion from his elder brother that the office should close due to losses suffered during the Peninsular War (1808-1814). Instead, he successfully restored the firm’s financial reputation. Through Cadiz and Malaga, the Gibbs imported British and imperial manufactures and foodstuffs into Spain, where stocks of both had been severely depleted by the war as well as by Napoleon´s Continental System. In 1818, William helped to set up a sister business, Gibbs, Casson & Co., in Gibraltar and supported his brother’s efforts to extend the links their father had already established in South America, particularly in the Pacific coast. Antony Gibbs & Co. traded regularly there since 1813 a wide variety of commodities (iron, Cinchona bark, cacao, coffee, etc) as well as bullion shipped via Panama, Jamaica and Buenos Aires. Subsidiary houses of Antony Gibbs & Sons were opened in Lima (1822) and Arequipa (1823) in Peru; in Guayaquil (1823, present-day Ecuador) and in Valparaiso (1826) in newly independent Chile. William had been back in Spain in 1817, 1819 and 1820-21 mainly for business and would pay further personal visits in 1831 and 1853. The Gibbs brothers closed the Cadiz house in 1827 and concentrated on taking advantage of the independence of the former Spanish dominions in South America. From 1832 the business was constantly in profit, with George Henry and William Gibbs and their other partner, Henry’s brother in-law Charles Crawley, dividing 20,000 a year for the next decade. In London the Gibbs brothers became investors in the Great Western Railway, as did their cousin George Gibbs in Bristol. In 1833, the inaugural meetings of the London and Bristol committees of the railway were held in Gibbs offices.
Family accounts have said that in 1821 he became engaged to be married to Doña Francisca (Frasquita) de la Peña, of Chiclana, near Cadiz. Manuscripts at the London Metropolitan Archives confirm that the romantic attachment was indeed very real and profound, but within a year was over and he was back in London. Religion had stood in the way – both her family and his were averse to a mixed marriage. For that very reason, it is doubtful that they were ever formally engaged: in Catholic Spain, bethrodals always involved a small religious ceremony. Of what there is no doubt at all is that he only married 18 years later (1839), being by then 49. His bride was a distant relative who was 27 years his junior, Matilda Blanche Crawley-Boevey (1817–1887).
The couple had seven children: Dorothea (1840–1914), Antony (1841–1907), Alice Blanche (1843–1871), William (1846–1869), George Abraham (1848–1870), Henry Martin (1850–1928), and Albinia (1853–1874). A year after their wedding, William and Blanche Gibbs visited Rome and the experience seems to have confirmed their shared commitment to the restoration of Catholic practices within the Church of England as preached by the Tractarian (Oxford) Movement.
William Gibbs wealth increased dramatically after 1842. In that year, his brother George Henry inherited a fortune from his wife that allowed him to pay what still remained from his father’s debts. Within a few months, however, he died and William became head of Antony Gibbs & Sons. At the same time, firm’s representatives in South America signed contracts with the government of Peru for the company to be the sole importers of guano to Britain. Bird manure had been used as a fertilizer in Peru for centuries, as the arid conditions of the Peruvian coast and nearby islands prevented fermentation of the organic matter, leaving it both dry and rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. It was also lightweight and could be carried easily by farmers onto high ground previously little cultivated. Peru sought a market in Britain for the guano, but while the Gibbs agents in South America had made substantial loans to Peru against sales, the firm’s previous attempt to import guano into Britain had ended with the bulk of their stock being dumped unwanted in the Thames. William was responsible for an effective marketing campaign centred on two pamphlets of testimonials published in 1843 and 1844, emphasizing guano’s potency as a fertilizer, one including an endorsement from the chemist and popularizer of science Andrew Ure. Initial results were highly successful in most parts of the British Isles, and many farmers found themselves dependent on the commodity. Prices rose as the initial shipments of 126,900 tons were exhausted. Following the departure of William Myers in 1849, who had also had a share in the guano monopoly, Gibbs had sole possession of the trade, and during the 1850s could make as much as 100,000 a year from a monopoly that covered most of the world outside the United States, France and Asia. Further contracts for nitrate extraction were signed in the 1850s, and Gibbs diversified into copper, silver, tin, wool, and bark, as well as artificial fertilizers. These proved necessary when the guano market declined as superphosphates, which were more appropriate for Britain’s root vegetable crop, came onto the market.
Gibbs’s principal residence was always his town house in London. He moved from Hyde Park Street to Gloucester Place in 1849, and to the more substantial 16 Hyde Park Gardens in 1851. However, in 1843 he bought Tyntes Place, near Wraxall in Somerset, a few miles to the west of Bristol. The rural location was not far from the Bristol Channel but also within a few hours of London by train. The estate is present-day National Trust-Tyntesfield.
Gibbs retired from Antony Gibbs & Sons in 1858, leaving his nephew Henry Hucks Gibbs in charge of the firm. He thenceforward concentrated largely on philanthropy, though he remained formally the head or ‘prior’ of the firm until his death. His piety was most strongly expressed in the refurbishment of Tyntesfield between 1863 and 1865 and his sponsorship of the construction of a series of churches intended for Oxford Movement clergy, including in 1847 St Michael and All Angels at Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire, where his brother Joseph Gibbs was rector, and in 1856 St Mary the Virgin, Flaxley, replacing the church where he was married; at both the architect was George Gilbert Scott. His concern for the poor of his parish in Paddington led him in 1861 to construct a new church, St Michael’s, of which Rohde Hawkins was the architect. He also paid for the repair or building of churches in his ancestral county of Devon—where in 1859 he bought Pytte, the house at Clyst St George owned by the family from 1560 to 1789—and for almshouses in Exeter and Exwick, as well as contributing to the restoration of Bristol Cathedral (begun 1867) and Exeter Cathedral (begun 1870). He acquired several advowsons, including Otterbourne, Hampshire, associated with John Keble’s living of Hursley; and at the suggestion of their mutual friend Sir John Coleridge provided upwards of 30,000 for the construction of the chapel at Keble College, Oxford.
William Gibbs died at Tyntesfield on 3 April 1875 and was buried at All Saints, Wraxall, on 9 April, his coffin being carried to the church by relays of thirty estate workers rather than in a carriage. His widow, Blanche, inherited Tyntesfield and continued her husband’s Christian philanthropy until her death, also at Tyntesfield on 22 September 1887. That estate remained with Gibbs’s descendants until the death of his great grandson George Richard Lawley Gibbs, second Baron Wraxall, in 2001. Knowing that Tyntesfield could not support itself, Wraxall left the estate to all nineteen of his father’s descendants, intending that they should share the benefits of a sale. A campaign run by Save Britain’s Heritage raised over 3 million from the public to add to a grant of 17.4 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund which, with further grants and private donations, allowed for the successful purchase of the house by the National Trust in June 2002.
Sources (indicative): London Metropolitan Archives, Records of Antony Gibbs & Sons, CLC/B/012; 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; Matthew Kilburn, ‘Gibbs, William(1790–1875)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Oct 2009; online edn, May 2011 [http://ezproxyprd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2167/view/article/89656, accessed 21 Feb 2016].
Posted by: Graciela Iglesias-Rogers
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