The London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, CLC/B/012/MS1102 /003 f. 325 and f. 367 Letters Antony Gibbs 1787 to 1791 from the collection of Anthony Gibbs and Sons Limited. Reproduced by permission of HSBC Archives.
Author: Graciela Iglesias-Rogers
Family accounts have always stated that William Gibbs, founder of the National Trust Tyntesfield and a key figure in the Hispanic-Anglosphere was born on 22 May 1790 at 6 Calle de Cantarranas (present-day Calle de Lope de Vega), a residence located a few minutes walk from the Parque del Retiro and the Royal Palace in Madrid. Re-discovered material at the London Metropolitan Archives tells a slightly different, and in many ways far more interesting story.
William Gibbs was indeed born in Madrid, but probably in a modest flat within a tenement located in Calle De la Reyna Nr. 22, somewhere between eleven buildings registered on that street between Calle del Clavel and Calle de Hortaleza, in an area known as the Barrio de Justicia (neighbourhood of Justice) due to the presence of several magistrate court buildings. All the surviving correspondence for and from his father, Antony Gibbs, covering this period list Calle de la Reyna as the family’s postal address, including letters Antony himself sent a few weeks earlier to Dorothea, his pregnant wife who remained in Madrid attending to their eldest child George Henry while Antony was looking for business opportunities in Cadiz.
More importantly, a rent receipt drawn by the owner of the house in the Calle de Cantarranas also found in the archives not only seems to discard any possibility that William’s birth could have taken place there, but also provides powerful reasons as to why this is unlikely. Here is an exact transcription (keeping the author’s spelling and grammar, see also image of the original above), followed by a translation into English:
Como Dueño que soy de la casa numero 6 Manzana 232 en la Calle de Cantarrama de esta villa, reciví del Señor Don Antonio Gibbs, Comerciante Extrangero, Inquilino del Cuarto principal de dicha Casa. Mil quinientos reales de vellón correspondientes al Alquiler de él en el medio año anticipado á estilo de contrato que dará principio en primero de Junio proximo venidero de este año y cumplirá en fin de Noviembre benidero de él inclusive, al respecto de tres mil reales al año. En inteligencia de estarse blanqueando actualmente dicho cuarto, y por lo mismo no corre su Alquiler, hasta el citado dia primero, en el que se le entregarán todas sus Llaves y vidrieras corrientes, y firmará Pliego separado de ello. Y para resguardo de vuestro Señor, firmo el presente. Madrid y Maio veinte y dos de mil setecientos y noventa. Joseph de Mora.
As owner of the house number 6 block 232 in the street of Cantarrama of this village, I received from Mr Antonio Gibbs, Esq. foreign merchant, tenant in the main Quarter of that house, one thousand five hundred reales vellón [Spanish currency] relating to the rent of that Quarter for payment half-year in advance as agreed in the contract that will start on 1st June of this current year and will finish in November following that inclusive, being three thousand reales per year. In view that the alluded Quarter is at the moment being blanqueado (whitened) and therefore the rent is not applicable until the mentioned first of the month when all the Keys and the usual frames to open and close windows and doors will be delivered, and a separate document will be signed accordingly. And for your safeguard, Sir, I sign this document. Madrid, May, twenty-two of one thousand seven hundred and ninety. Joseph de Mora.
There are two words in this manuscript – penned exactly on the day considered as that of William Gibbs’s birth – that require further explanation. The first one is ‘Quarto’ which in modern Spanish translates as a room, but that in the eighteenth-century often referred literally to a quarter of a house that could represent a large single room, but along the lines of today’s lavished open-plan buildings. The other term is ‘blanqueado’ (whitened) which alluded to the practice common at the time throughout the global Hispanic world (particularly in urban areas such as Manila, Lima, Seville and Madrid) of using quicklime for cleaning walls and ceilings after suffering floods, humidity and – more likely in this case, considering the dry climate of Madrid – in order to contain the spread of epidemics and dangerous diseases in general. In the latter scenario, the measure was mandatory under pain of heavy fines and even prison following a royal decree that since 1751 stated that any suspected case of a contagious illness (which at the time included most ailments resulting in ‘intermittent and remitting fevers’) had to be reported to the authorities and if the patient died, all his or her possessions had to be burnt regardless of their value and any affected lodgings were expected to have the walls ‘pricked, plastered and whitened’. Quicklime was preferred over bleach because it was believed to offer the advantage of making the pricking and plastering unnecessary. Foreign visitors often criticized these measures because they tended to curtail their movements and viewed them as draconian whereas proprietors regarded them as an expensive nuisance. Nonetheless, they remained in place until well into the middle of the nineteenth century.
The Gibbs family did move to the new premises, probably under the terms agreed, although the first document recording clearly the Cantarranas address in the surviving correspondence dates to 14th December 1790. It is a letter of Dorothea Gibbs to her husband – back again on the road – aimed at transmitting good news about the health of the ‘little Spaniard’ (as she liked to call William) who had been taken ill with fever for a couple of days (‘I thought was his teeth’), but had fully recovered. Not only did William Gibbs survive that and other health-related issues, but he enjoyed a rather eventful and long life as well. Unlike his parents and siblings who died relatively young, and also uncharacteristically for the era, the ‘little Spaniard’ lived to reach 85 years of age.
Click Here for a link to Google-Maps to see where the two addresses mentioned above can be roughly found in Madrid today.
Sources and Suggested Reading: The London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, CLC/B/012/MS1102 /003 f. 367 Letters Antony Gibbs 1787 to 1791 from the collection of Anthony Gibbs and Sons Limited. Reproduced by permission of HSBC Archives; Royal Order of October 6, issued by King Fernando VI ordering the cremation of baggages and furniture belonging to persons who died of a contagious disease in order to prevent its spreading throughout the Kingdom. [October 6, 1751] available at The Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/2018751780/; Diario Curioso, Erudito, Económico Y Comercial – Tomo Segundo, Comprehende Los Meses De Octubre, Noviembre Y Diciembre De 1786. (Madrid: Imprenta de Manuel Gonzalez, 1786), pp. 250-51; Rivasplata, Paula Ermila. “Salud Pública impulsada por el cabildo de Lima durante la colonia/Public Health Promoted by the Cabildo of Lima in the Colonial Period.” Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de La Cultura 41, no. 1 (Jan, 2014): 239-273,341. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1660324976?accountid=13042 .
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