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Story: Gibbons, Hopeful

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Gibbons, Hopeful


Brewer, businessman, philanthropist, local politician

This biography, written by Diana Beaglehole, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Hopeful Gibbons, the founder of one of New Zealand's largest family businesses, was born at Launceston, Tasmania, on 4 October 1856, the sixth of twelve children of Robert George Gibbons, a shipbuilder, and his wife, Sarah Ann Scott. Christened Hopeful, after the character in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's progress, he later preferred to be called Hope. Arriving in New Zealand in 1862, he lived with his family in Dunedin and later in Nelson.

At 13 he took exception to something a teacher said and refused to return to school. After working in a clothier's shop and on the wharf as a handy boy, he crewed on a coastal freighter. At 16 he went to help in his brother Robert's brewery at Onehunga. When the brewery failed he worked in a sawmill at Tairua, and eventually joined his father in a shipping business at Gisborne. Acquiring his engineer's certificate in 1876, Gibbons took charge of most of the lightering at the port. A flood destroyed his equipment in 1878 and he moved to Napier where his brother Robert had established another brewery. In 1879 he bought his own brewery, a small rundown business at Pātea, and before long was distributing Hopeful Gibbons Pātea Brown Stout and Pātea Pale Ale to hotels in the district.

On 14 September 1881 Hope Gibbons married Jessie Barnes at Onehunga; they were to have four sons and a daughter. After his marriage Gibbons leased a few acres near the brewery and ran a successful farmlet; he also bought the hotel at Whenuakura for £100. A keen sportsman, he played representative rugby in 1882 for Taranaki–West Coast against a touring New South Wales team.

In 1895 Gibbons purchased the Whanganui Brewery for £3,000 and the family moved to Whanganui. Gibbons took in a partner, whom he bought out when the business was worth £7,000. In 1904 he visited England and on his return the family decided they would stick together in all their commercial undertakings. Over the following 20 years they bought into several existing businesses, taking over one and acquiring a controlling interest in another. They also purchased property in Wellington and large areas of rural land. Gibbons and one or other of his four sons became directors of the companies in which family members had a substantial shareholding, and the five men jointly managed the family's business concerns.

In 1905 the Gibbons family acquired 50 per cent of the shares of J. B. Clarkson Limited, a cycle-importing firm in Palmerston North. A Wellington branch opened in 1910 and the Gibbons family took over the business in 1921, renaming it Hope Gibbons Limited. By then the firm was supplying motor accessories, bicycles and motorcycles throughout New Zealand. The original part of Wellington's Hope Gibbons building was completed in 1916 and the second wing some 10 years later.

By 1917 the family had also acquired a controlling interest in Wellington's Colonial Motor Company, holder of the Ford franchise for New Zealand. Managed and directed by Gibbons and his sons, the company steadily expanded. In 1920 it constructed the first purpose-built car assembly plant in New Zealand behind its Courtenay Place premises. The Fordson tractor was vigorously marketed not only for use on the farm but also as an industrial machine. It could, the company claimed, be used 'for any pull, push, lift or carry'. In 1924 New Zealand Roads Limited was set up to promote the sale of tractors specially adapted for road-making work. The firm constructed several major roads including the concrete Great South Road in Auckland. Although the Gibbons family had shares in many other businesses, including the brewery and the Southern Cross Biscuit Company at Whanganui, a flaxmilling business near Shannon and an engineering concern in Palmerston North, most of their wealth came from Hope Gibbons Limited and the Colonial Motor Company. Over the years they divested themselves of their other holdings.

Gibbons's four sons eventually moved to Wellington, but he stayed in Whanganui where he was active in public life. He served on committees for Queen Victoria's jubilee celebrations in 1897 and for building the South African War memorial in 1906. With other local businessmen he worked with bucket and spade to turn Cook's Gardens into a sports ground. During the First World War he was chairman of fund-raising committees and a Whanganui trustee for the National Efficiency Board, and was later behind the construction of the memorial tower on Durie Hill. He was made an MBE for his war work.

As in their business undertakings, the Gibbons family worked together in various voluntary activities. They raised funds to revive the Whanganui Horticultural Society after the turn of the century. Jessie Gibbons was president of the local branch of the Plunket Society and Hope was financial adviser. In 1921 the couple bought a former soldiers' convalescent home and donated it to the citizens of Whanganui for use as a St Helens maternity hospital; it was later renamed the Jessie Hope Gibbons Maternity Hospital. In the late 1930s they gave the site for the Whanganui Children's Health Camp and the family furnished one of the wards.

Hope Gibbons was elected to the Whanganui–Rangitīkei Hydro Electric Power Board in 1923 and was mayor of Whanganui from 1924 to 1927. During his term Whanganui became a city, the fifth largest in New Zealand, and many parks and reserves were established. From 1932 to 1939 Gibbons was president of the Whanganui Public Museum. He also assisted the Whanganui centre of the St John Ambulance Association and in 1937 was made a commander of the Order of St John.

Hope and Jessie Gibbons frequently travelled overseas and were known for their hospitality at Hikurangi, their home on Bastia Hill. Jessie Gibbons died in 1936. Hopeful Gibbons lived until he was 90, dying at Whanganui on 25 June 1947. Although he had much in common with other successful businessmen, few of his contemporaries worked so closely with their families and even fewer built two firms that prospered over four generations. Hope Gibbons Limited was in 1994 owned by three of Gibbons's great-grandchildren while some 140 descendants have a majority shareholding in the Colonial Motor Company and five are on the board of directors.

How to cite this page:

Diana Beaglehole. 'Gibbons, Hopeful', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3g5/gibbons-hopeful (accessed 26 June 2024)