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William Gibbs of Tyntesfield - Guano King

Born 1790, died 1875

Researched and written by Julia Sharp

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William Gibbs is best known because of his property, Tyntesfield, which was bought from his descendants by the National Trust in 2002 after an appeal to the public for funds. He is also noted that his great wealth came from the import of large quantities of South American bird droppings for use as fertiliser, or as the Victorian ditty says

‘William Gibbs made his dibs
Selling the turds of foreign birds’

He was the grandson of Exeter Surgeon Dr. George Abraham Gibbs (1718-1794) who rose to be Chief Surgeon at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital before retiring in 1781.

William’s father was George’s fourth son, Antony Gibbs (1756-1815) who had a life that was full of what could be called ‘ups and downs’. He married Dorothea (known as Dolly) in 1784 and they had five children who survived to adulthood. After leaving Exeter Grammar School, Antony was apprenticed to a merchant Nicholas Brooke, whose firm traded with Spain exporting locally made woollen cloth.

In 1778 he returned to Exeter from Spain being joined by his older brother Abraham the following year before they set up business together. The brothers had expansive ideas for their business, including insuring clients’ goods and acting as bankers, something that Antony Gibbs and Sons developed in the next century. However, with war on the European mainland imminent, it made the venture precarious at that time. In 1781, with financial help from their father, they set up Gibbs Brothers Cloth Makers operating out of a warehouse in Exwick. As part of the established woollen trade they had become members of the Company of Weavers Fullers and Shearmen with Antony becoming Master of the Gild in 1783. This honour was tinged with sadness as Abraham had suddenly died in 1782.

Abraham had been engaged to Dolly and she turned to Antony for support which led to their marriage in 1784. After starting married life in his parents old house in Exeter, Antony began looking for a larger home for his growing family. He was still operating in Spain, and obtaining loans from family and friends to pay the household and other expenses.

Antony's Bankruptcy

Finally, in 1785 he found Exwick Barton with about 100 acres and a house, Exwick Manor, near the unused Exwick Mill belonging to James Buller. This was acquired as a fulling mill with, once again, financial help of his father, and a loan from Edmund Granger of £10000, and a ten year partnership entered into. There was not enough money to buy the business and the Barton, but Antony’s elder brother, Vicary Gibbs, bought the Barton and agreed to lease it to Antony.

Being ever the optimist, next year Antony commenced building a new woollen mill, Exwick Woollen Mill. Samuel Banfill, who had been employed to run the mill, was promoted and the firm became Gibbs, Granger and Banfill. Due to Antony’s lack of business acumen, and the wars on the continent, he overtraded and in 1789 both Antony and his father were made bankrupt.

William's early life

He then decided to set up business in Madrid to try to pay off his debts, and it was there in 1790 that William was born. The family returned to Exeter in 1792, living at Lower Cleave; then a House on St. David's Hill and from 1803 Cowley Cottage where they stayed until they left Devonshire.

William had been sent to Blundell’s Grammar School in Tiverton in 1800 but was withdrawn in 1802 to accompany his Father and elder Brother on a business trip to Spain. Further trips followed until in 1806 William was sent to Bristol to work in the office of his Uncle George Gibbs of Redland.

With the help of his brother now Sir Vicary Gibbs, Antony procured a licence in 1806 for a Spanish Merchant vessel to take most of his stock in Spain to South America, and the Hermosa Mexicana arrived in Lima in 1807. Again with the help of his brother who put his name forward, in 1808 Antony was named as one of four Commissioners appointed by Order in Council dealing with Portuguese Property in London. As the trade with Spain had ceased, it was decided to move the whole family to London, where they settled first on Dulwich Common.

The fortune that William Gibbs helped to make was through Antony Gibbs and Son which was founded in 1808 by Antony and his eldest son George Henry, usually called Henry, as a Merchant Bank William joined the partnership in 1813 when the name was changed to Antony Gibbs and Sons. He was to spend the next few years working in Spain and suffering the usual pangs of a young man, pining for a Spanish maiden, who, unfortunately was of the Roman Catholic faith.

The brothers became sole owners of the business in 1815 when their Father died. They vowed to repay all the outstanding debts of their Father and Grandfather on their respective bankruptcies and by 1840 had achieved this objective. Unfortunately Henry died in 1842 leaving William to carry on the business.

As was usual with Victorian families, they ‘did business’ with each other and various members of the extended family who either became partners or were associated in numerous ways. In 1843 Henry Hucks Gibbs (later Lord Aldenham) nephew of William joined the business in which he became more and more involved and when William retired, he left Henry in charge. Finally he left the firm to him on his death which ensured continuity.

The Guano Trade

An office was opened in Lima Peru in 1822, and in 1841 the then Agent announced he was about to sign contracts with the Peruvian and Bolivian governments to purchase consignments of guano or sea-bird droppings. William Gibbs called it ‘an act of insanity’ because of the huge loans it would need. How wrong can you be!

Although guano was well known as a most effective fertiliser locally, it was not known as such here. Rich in nitrogen and phosphate it soon became accepted, with 211,000 tons imported in 1856. Within a few years however, cheaper products such as nitrate of soda and super phosphate fertilisers were available. About 1880, the company had moved its South American base to Chile and started to manufacture nitrate of soda and its by-product iodine. Both of which were in high demand for use in the burgeoning munitions trade.

In 1839 William had finally married, Matilda (known as Blanche) - she was 21 and he 49. Needing a country home nearer the family, in 1843 he bought Tyntesfield which in the early 1860s he proceeded to rebuild and enlarge, a project that was not completed until 1865. The family grew with five children in twelve years.

Philanthropic William

Whilst remaining head, or Prior as he called himself, of the Company, William increased his philanthropic work especially in religious matters. He was involved in more than twelve church projects including building Keble College Oxford Chapel, and giving assistance to the restoration of both Bristol and Exeter Cathedrals.

He was also known to harbour pleasant recollections of his childhood, mostly spent in Exwick and Exeter. Maybe this was reawakened when he received a request from Rev. Joseph Toye, Vicar of St. David's Exeter, for assistance in erecting a chapel at Mount Dinham. The plans were enlarged and we now have St. Michael and All Angels Mount Dinham which resembles a cathedral rather than a chapel and was completed in 1868. In the same year William built St. Antony Cowley in memory of his parents.

A few years later in 1872, he extended Exwick Chapel which had been built after the family left the area; buying land and the patronage of the living from James Buller and making it a Parish apart from St. Thomas the Apostle as St. Andrew Exwick. He also erected a new Vicarage before endowing the living and giving it to his nephew, Rev. William Cobham Gibbs. He was followed by another nephew Rev. John Lomax Gibbs.

William Gibbs died in 1875 but the Company he helped to start continued to prosper and, with family connections, was involved in the Great Western Railway, insuring SS Great Eastern and buying SS Great Britain for the Australia ‘run’, as well as being the first company to require ships they hired to have a Plimsoll line painted on and adhered to. Their banking connections meant they were involved in assisting the Bank of England overcome the Baring Brothers ‘difficulties’ of the 1890s before continuing to grow during the 20th century finally being taken over by HSBC in 1981 to become the oldest company in the group now called HSBC Insurance Brokers. That is, however, another story.

Sources: Diaries of Tyntesfield, Fragile Fortunes byLiz Neill and Elephants in Paper Bags and Steam in Crates, various items on the internet

William Gibbs' MemorialWilliam Gibbs' Memorial in St Michael's Exeter.

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