Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 25 November 2020

Gibbs, Williamfree

  • Matthew Kilburn

William Gibbs (1790–1875)

by unknown photographer, 1862–3

© reserved

Gibbs, William (1790–1875), businessman and religious philanthropist, was born on 22 May 1790 at 6 Calle de Cantarranas, Madrid, Spain, the second son of Antony Gibbs (1756–1815), merchant, and his wife, Dorothea Barnetta, née Hucks (1760–1820). The judge and politician Sir Vicary Gibbs was his uncle. His father had begun in the wool export trade in Exeter in 1788, but had rapidly fallen into debt and moved to Spain to establish an agency for wool merchants in Britain and elsewhere. William Gibbs's childhood was divided between Britain and Spain; he attended first a school run by Charles Lloyd in Exeter, and then from 1800 Blundell's School in Tiverton, Devon, before joining his father's business in Cadiz in 1802. Both William Gibbs and his elder brother were withdrawn from school early, and never attended university; this was a consequence of their father's precarious finances, and sacrifice was a perpetual theme of Gibbs's career. He moved to Bristol in 1806 as an assistant clerk to Gibbs, Bright and 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 Gibbs (1785–1842), in a new London trading company, Antony Gibbs & Son, becoming a partner in 1813, when the business became Antony Gibbs & Sons.

From Spanish to South American trade

Gibbs returned to Spain in 1813 to manage the Cadiz branch of the firm, which had become compromised by William Branscombe, the Gibbs' partner there, an honourable but easygoing man who had become complaisant with the toleration of smuggling shown by the Cadiz customs officers. Gibbs rejected a suggestion from his brother that the Cadiz office should close, and instead successfully restored the firm's reputation for probity. Through the Cadiz house Gibbs imported British and imperial manufactures and foodstuffs into Spain, where stocks of both had been severely depleted by the Peninsular War and the Francocentric continental system of trade imposed by Napoleon; initial overwhelming success was checked once competitors were able to establish themselves and the Spanish government introduced tariffs designed to deflect British imports. In 1818 he set up a sister business, Gibbs, Casson & Co., in Gibraltar, before returning to London in 1822.

From London Gibbs and his brother extended the business to the Pacific coast of South America, opening a trading post in Lima in 1822 and two more posts in Santiago and Valparaíso in 1826. The Gibbs brothers closed their Cadiz house in 1827 and concentrated on taking advantage of the independence of the former Spanish colonies in South America. From 1832 the business was constantly in profit, with 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.

Gibbs's confidence in his prosperity was perhaps best expressed in his marriage, on 1 August 1839, at St Mary the Virgin, Flaxley, Gloucestershire, to (Matilda) Blanche Crawley-Boevey [(Matilda) Blanche Gibbs (1817–1887), philanthropist]. She was born in Eastgate Street, Gloucester, on 17 December 1817, the third and youngest daughter of Sir Thomas Crawley-Boevey, third baronet (1769–1847), and Mary Albinia (d. 1835), eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Hyde Page. Her father was the first cousin of Henry Gibbs's wife, Caroline, and her brother Charles Crawley. The visit of William and Blanche Gibbs to Rome in 1840 reflected and confirmed their shared commitment to the restoration of Catholic practices in the Church of England as preached by the Oxford Movement. They 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). At his marriage Gibbs moved from his brother's house in Bedford Square to 13 Hyde Park Street. On his brother's death in 1842 Gibbs became the sole partner in Antony Gibbs & Sons.


Gibbs's wealth increased dramatically after 1842, when the firm's representatives in South America signed contracts with the government of Peru for Antony Gibbs & Sons 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. Gibbs described the adoption of the guano contracts as an 'act of insanity' (Mathew, 39) in the face of oversupply and the falling price of both the product and wheat. He expected difficulty in making a profit from the venture, and began an aggressive marketing campaign. This 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 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. In addition to his South American business Gibbs opened an office in Melbourne in 1853 and subsequently began the Blackbull Shipping Line, transporting passengers and cargo to and from Australia.

The purchase of Tyntesfield

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 had 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 house had been built less than thirty years before, and had been remodelled by Robert Newton of Nailsea shortly before Gibbs purchased it. By the 1850s Gibbs had renamed it Tyntesfield.

In 1854 Gibbs commissioned John Gregory Crace to redecorate both 16 Hyde Park Gardens and Tyntesfield. This began a process by which Tyntesfield was gradually reinvented as one of the foremost examples of Victorian Gothic design. In the principal rooms Crace installed wood panels and gold inlays, with oil-varnished woodwork and mouldings and Gothic fireplaces among the many other additions throughout the house. Gibbs himself began collecting paintings, both works by nineteenth-century British painters and old masters, many of the latter on devotional subjects.

Christian philanthropy and the rebuilding of Tyntesfield

Gibbs retired from Antony Gibbs & Sons in 1858, leaving his nephew Henry Hucks Gibbs in charge of the firm. Gibbs at first retained £1,200,000 of capital in the firm, reduced on his nephew's insistence to £1,000,000, though this still burdened the company with potentially crippling interest payments to William Gibbs as Henry Hucks Gibbs turned the business towards merchant banking after the loss of the guano contract in 1861, to some criticism from a cautious William. William Gibbs 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 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.

The most enduring architectural monument to Gibbs's Anglo-Catholic outlook and his wealth was the rebuilding of Tyntesfield between 1863 and 1865, with John Norton as architect and William Cubitt & Co. as builders. Crace contributed to the new interiors. The house doubled in size, with two new wings, an extra floor, towers, and other architectural features dramatically reshaping the roof in an irregularly stepped shape. Some exterior walls remained plain while others were decorated with a mixture of Gothic and naturalistic carvings. Gibbs had initially resisted the external ornamentation on the grounds 'that English taste among the superior orders is averse to rich and sumptuous effects' (Miller, 87), but was won round by Norton, whose designs intended to offer the illusion that the house was the work of several different historical periods, emphasizing the restoration of architectural continuity as Gibbs's religious faith emphasized the Church of England's rediscovery of its Catholic traditions. Charlotte M. Yonge, novelist and a cousin of Blanche Gibbs, described it as 'like a church in spirit' (Tyntesfield, 7); each evening closed with prayers, after which the patriarch Gibbs in his chair bade each family member and guest goodnight in turn. The estate was extended by the purchase of two adjoining properties, enhancing Gibbs's claim to the paternalist oversight of Wraxall village, and probably cheering Henry Hucks Gibbs, who had encouraged his uncle to withdraw capital from the business to invest in land. A chapel, designed by Arthur Blomfield, was added between 1872 and 1877, though opposition from the patron of the nearby church in Wraxall prevented it from fulfilling Gibbs's wish that it should function as an estate church, and neither regular services nor burials were held there. None the less it was hailed by Yonge as the necessary culmination of the Tyntesfield project, giving 'a character to the household almost resembling that of Little Gidding' (Hall, 25 April 2002, 117), the Huntingdonshire home of Nicholas Ferrar and his family in the reign of Charles I much idealized by nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics.

The widowhood of Blanche Gibbs and the fate of Tyntesfield

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, although she turned it away from church building and towards more socially active projects. She built and endowed St Michael's Home for Consumptives, Axfield (1876–8), and bought the site for a convalescent home in Woking, both managed by the Anglican sisterhood of St Peter, Kilburn. She also added to Wraxall a village club, a convalescent home, and a temperance inn, the Battle Axes. She endowed Keble College with a scholarship fund in 1881; her sons also contributed to the fabric of the college. Tyntesfield remained a centre for the entertainment of a wide network of family members and friends, largely with the same religious sympathies. Blanche Gibbs died at Tyntesfield on 22 September 1887, of uterine cancer, and was buried on 29 September 1887 at All Saints, Wraxall.

Tyntesfield remained with Gibbs's descendants until the death of his great-grandson George Richard Lawley Gibbs, second Baron Wraxall, in 2001. Knowing that the estate 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. Assessment of the house and its collections, despite depletions, revealed that not only was it by then unique as a large Victorian Gothic house which had escaped major alterations or demolition during the twentieth century, but that many domestic artefacts from the daily lives of William and Blanche Gibbs and their servants still remained in the house. It could be argued that Tyntesfield was without rival not only architecturally, but as a record of life in a large Victorian household. 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, and its rapid opening to the public to help fund as well as draw attention to the process of conservation.

William Gibbs's period at the helm of Antony Gibbs & Sons transformed the finances of the business and the Gibbs family. Gibbs had pursued a line of business thrust upon him by his associates in South America because abandoning it would have exposed the company and family to a greater risk; the rewards allowed him to go beyond the family's goal of clearing his father's debts and honour and enabled him to pursue the life of a model Christian gentleman and head of household. This was not a life of inward-looking piety, but a practical attempt to contribute towards the regeneration of Christian England. The differences in emphasis between the philanthropy of William and Blanche Gibbs perhaps reflects different gender roles, William renewing the material structure of the church while Blanche supported the nursing of the sick and the moral reinforcement of the communities in her care. While their paternalism and religiosity might have seemed remote from the concerns of the early twenty-first century, in preserving Tyntesfield the National Trust chose to protect and exhibit an architectural expression of the Gibbs' familial and religious ideals.


  • J. Miller, Fertile fortune: the story of Tyntesfield, new edn (2006)
  • J. A. Gibbs, The history of Antony and Dorothea Gibbs and of their contemporary relatives, including the history of the origin and early years of the house of Antony Gibbs and sons (1922)
  • H. H. Gibbs, Pedigree of the family of Gibbs of Pytte in the parish of Clyst St George, rev. R. Gibbs, 4th edn (1981)
  • W. M. Mathew, The house of Gibbs and the Peruvian guano monopoly (1981)
  • M. J. Daunton, ‘Inheritance and succession in the City of London in the nineteenth century’, Business History, 30 (1988), 269–86
  • [F. W. Greenacre], Tyntesfield (2003)



  • G. Richmond, drawing, 1845; formerly in possession of H. M. Gibbs, Barrow Court, Somerset, 1928
  • Sir W. Ross, group portrait, miniature, 1849 (with Dorothea and Antony Gibbs), Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset; repro. in Tyntesfield (2003), 6
  • W. C. Ross, group portrait, miniature, 1849 (Blanche Gibbs, with Alice, George, and William), Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset; repro. in Tyntesfield (2003), 6
  • E-F M-J Deveria, portrait, 1850, Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • E-F M-J Deveria, portrait, 1850 (Blanche Gibbs), Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • G. Hughes, miniature on ivory, 1850, Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset; repro. in R. Walker and A. Laing, Portrait miniatures in National Trust houses, 2 (2005), 70, no.20
  • W. C. Ross, drawing, 1852 (Blanche Gibbs); formerly in possession of H. M. Gibbs, Barrow Court, Somerset, 1928
  • W. Boxall, portrait, 1859, Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • W. Boxall, unfinished, 1859 (Blanche Gibbs), Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • W. Boxall, portrait, 1860; formerly in possession of Lord Aldenham, 1928
  • L. Macdonald, marble bust, 1862 (Blanche Gibbs), Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • photograph, 1862–3, repro. in Tyntesfield (2003) [see illus.]
  • S. Cousins, mezzotint, pubd. 1864 (after Sir William Boxall), BM
  • W. Boxall, portrait, 1868, Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset; repro. in Tyntesfield (2003), 5
  • A. Tomasich y Haro, miniature, 1872, Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • Havell, crayon, 1887 (Blanche Gibbs), Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • H. H. Armstead, marble statue, The Church of St Michael and All Angels, Exeter
  • W. Boxall, unfinished (Blanche Gibbs); formerly in possession of H. M. Gibbs, Barrow Court, Somerset, 1928
  • C. W. S., drawing (Blanche Gibbs); in possession of Martin A. Gibbs, Sheldon Manor, Chippenham, 1981
  • E. Clifford, watercolour (Blanche Gibbs); formerly in possession of H. M. Gibbs, Barrow Court, Somerset, 1928
  • L. Macdonald, marble bust, Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • H. Monro, bas-relief (Blanche Gibbs), Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • W. B. Richmond, oils (after William Boxall), Keble College, Oxford
  • W. B. Richmond, oils; formerly in possession of H. M. Gibbs, Barrow Court, Somerset, 1928
  • A. Tomasich y Haro, miniature; formerly in possession of Lord Aldenham, 1928
  • A. Tomasich y Haro, miniature; formerly in possession of H. M. Gibbs, Barrow Court, Somerset, 1928
  • A. Tomasich y Haro, miniature (Blanche Gibbs); formerly in possession of H. M. Gibbs, Barrow Court, Somerset, 1928
  • A. Tomasich y Haro, miniature (Blanche Gibbs), Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset
  • miniature (after A. Tomasich y Haro), Tyntesfield, Wraxall, Somerset

Wealth at Death

under £800,000: probate, 14 Sept 1875, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£483,683 7s. 4d.—Matilda Blanche Gibbs: probate, 25 Oct 1887, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

private collection
G. E. Cokayne, , 6 vols. (1900–09)
Guildhall Library, London
T. H. Aston, ed., , 7: , ed. M. G. Brock & M. C. Curthoys (2000), pt 2
British Museum, London
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Hertford