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Sir  (Thomas) Franklin Sibly (1883–1948), by William Dring, 1947Sir (Thomas) Franklin Sibly (1883–1948), by William Dring, 1947
Sibly, Sir (Thomas) Franklin (1883–1948), geologist and university administrator, was born in Bristol on 25 October 1883, the only son (there was also a daughter) of Thomas Dix Sibly, a solicitor, and his wife, Virginia, daughter of the Revd Franklin Tonkin, vicar of Madron, Penzance. He was educated at Wycliffe College, Gloucestershire, which had been founded by his uncle, and at St Dunstan's, Burnham-on-Sea. His career as a student was precocious; in 1903 he obtained first-class honours in experimental physics as an external candidate at London University, studying at University College, Bristol, while still under twenty years old. He was guided into postgraduate research in geology, a subject that had captured his interest. Having been awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship, he studied the constitution and structure of carboniferous limestone in the Mendip hills and the Forest of Dean. His series of articles, mainly written between 1905 and 1920, was soon regarded as among the classics of carboniferous stratigraphy. He was to serve as chairman of the Geological Survey Board from 1930 to 1943.

Having achieved the degree of DSc in 1908, at the early age of twenty-five, Sibly was appointed lecturer in geology at King's College, London. There he worked under Professor Harry Govier Seeley and he came to know the leading figures in the geological world. Many were subsequently personal friends, thanks to his engaging manner, keen and receptive mind, and willingness to undertake any task to further the science. In 1913 he became professor of geology at University College, Cardiff. He was an inspired teacher, his lectures and talks being clear and stimulating. With too few outstanding students between 1914 and 1918, he took on the part-time war job of a temporary officer in the geological survey, inspecting the iron ore deposits of the Forest of Dean. In 1918, before moving to a chair at Armstrong College, Newcastle upon Tyne, he married Maud Evelyn, second daughter of Charles L. Barfoot of Newport; she had been one of his pupils at Cardiff. They were to have one son.

To widespread surprise and some dismay, in 1920 Sibly became principal of the newly founded University College, Swansea: a change of tack by one who, despite being still under forty years old, was already in the first rank of geologists in England. However, he had already developed an interest in, and liking for, university administration, enjoying a reputation for tackling problems with insight and for a largeness of vision beyond his years. Thanks to his enthusiasm and drive, departments were set up from scratch and made into viable teaching and research centres. In 1925–6 his experience as vice-chancellor of the University of Wales widened his horizons further. He left Wales in 1926 to become principal officer—later principal—of the University of London.

Sibly's period in London was undoubtedly the most frustrating of his life. The University of London Act of 1926, with its centralizing powers (especially in finance), had to be implemented through statutes that were finally promulgated in 1929, after much resistance in some quarters. He also had to reach agreement with the London county council over the extensive site in Bloomsbury, earmarked as the university's eventual headquarters. His days were therefore spent in a sequence of negotiations at the highest level, and he felt deeply his inevitable remoteness from the teaching staff and students, groups with which he had always sought and enjoyed close relations. When in 1929 he was invited to the University of Reading as vice-chancellor, he accepted gladly. This was a far smaller institution which had received its charter as recently as 1926 and was struggling with inadequate funds; yet its residential system, developed by his predecessor William Macbride Childs, greatly appealed to Sibly.

Sibly husbanded the young university's meagre resources so that they could be laid out to best effect. Although the number of teaching staff did not increase and tutorial students were no more than 600, the number studying for higher degrees more than doubled. By 1939 Reading was one of the main centres in the country for the study of agriculture in its practical aspects. Sibly achieved progress by strength of character rather than by exerting his authority; a kindly man, he could severely reprimand wayward members of staff, but his forceful and ever ruthless manner as a committee chairman immediately relaxed into cheerful informality once he doffed his gown at the conclusion of meetings. He took much trouble to get to know his junior colleagues.

Sibly's readiness to be put upon for the public good was thereafter shamelessly exploited. From 1929 to 1934 he was chairman of the executive committee of the Universities Bureau of the British Empire. In 1938, the year he was knighted, he became chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP). When war came in the following year that post became one of considerable responsibility as the chief intermediary between the universities and government. He was swamped with committees, personal discussions, and correspondence on every aspect of the universities' contributions to the war effort, only occasionally letting his weary but polite impatience show when he was bothered with trivia. Even so, through his aptitude for looking ahead, he set on a steady course plans for the post-war development of the university sector.

In 1943 Sibly was made KBE. That November his always frail health broke down and he had to give up his chairmanship of the CVCP. Although he remained as vice-chancellor of the University of Reading until 1946, he never fully recovered: he ‘was one of Reading's war casualties’ (Holt, 116). He died at his home, 21 Brooklyn Drive, Reading, on 13 April 1948. His funeral took place on 16 April at St Mary's, Reading. Of medium height and balding early, he had in his younger years played golf and tennis, but later became a very keen gardener. Even to the end his first academic love, geology, remained a recreation and a solace.

T. A. B. Corley


DNB · J. C. Holt, The University of Reading: the first fifty years (1977) · A. E. T. [A. E. Trueman], Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 104 (1948), lxiii–lxv · WWW · U. Reading, archives · The Times (16 April 1948) · The Times (22 April 1948) · The Times (24 April 1948) · The Times (30 April 1948) · Reading Standard (16 April 1948) · Reading Standard (23 April 1948) · Nature, 161 (1948), 672


U. Reading L.


W. Stoneman, photograph, 1931, NPG · W. Dring, oils, 1947, U. Reading [see illus.] · W. Dring, oils, U. Wales, Swansea

Wealth at death  

£3906 12s. 9d.: probate, 18 Sept 1948, CGPLA Eng. & Wales