Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Gibbs, Frederick Giles

Page 1: Biography

Gibbs, Frederick Giles


School principal, educationalist, businessman, naturalist, community leader

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

Frederick Giles Gibbs was born at St James's Square, Notting Hill, London, England, on 31 October 1866, the second son of James Gibbs, a civil servant, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Waine. They decided to emigrate to Nelson, New Zealand, and when James died suddenly, Mary brought out her family of nine alone in 1877. Their ship, the Queen Bee, was wrecked on Farewell Spit just before arrival. Frederick spent two years at the Bishop's School and eight at Nelson College. A university Junior Scholarship enabled him to begin studies for a BA at Nelson College. He completed the degree at Canterbury College in 1889, and graduated MA with first-class honours in English and Latin in 1890.

Gibbs chose to return to Nelson where he lived the rest of his life, throwing himself with characteristic enthusiasm into almost every aspect of local activity. His devotion to his strong, intelligent mother contributed to his decision. Gibbs never married and lived near or with his mother until her death in 1920. He was motivated by Victorian ideals of community service, based in his case on ethical standards, not on religious beliefs. Teaching children appeared to him to offer the best opportunity to realise his ideals, and he spent three years as an assistant master at Nelson College. He found the staff conservative, and when the opportunity offered in 1894 he took the position of head of the Boys' Central School (later Nelson Boys' School), where he remained for 30 years.

His teaching was spectacularly successful in every way and, for the period, progressive. Inspectors praised his methods. He trained countless probationers (who took his ideas to other schools), read every educational book and periodical he could obtain, attended courses and participated in lectures for teachers, and was a member of the New Zealand Educational Institute and Nelson president for many years. Typically, he refused the national presidency. He believed in the importance of education for very young children, and equally in adult education. In 1923 he chose early retirement rather than work under an inspector whose educational principles ran counter to his own.

One of the memorable facets of his teaching was his support for extra-curricular activities. Summer afternoons were spent at swimming lessons on the Maitai River, and the boys were free to roam up The Brook stream during lunch hour, and to use gym equipment in the playground. In winter there were expeditions up to the snow, and ice-skating. Trips to Christchurch were made for the visit of the duke and duchess of Cornwall and York in 1901 and for the New Zealand International Exhibition in 1907. Wherever they went, Gibbs set the boys to find botanical specimens and taught them to identify native flora and collect geological samples.

Gibbs's interests became increasingly scientific. He supplied specimens to the botanists Thomas Kirk and T. F. Cheeseman, and collaborated with Leonard Cockayne in his work on the Nelson region. Although Gibbs himself did not publish he contributed generously to others' work. Another enthusiasm was astronomy, and his friendship with Nelson businessman Thomas Cawthron led to involvement in plans for an observatory. Although Cawthron died before this plan was implemented, in his will, drawn up under Gibbs's influence and advice, the Cawthron Institute was established and in 1923 Gibbs was appointed to its trust board. His financial expertise assisted the institute during the depression of the 1930s. In 1934 the Atkinson Observatory was formally given to the institute. Gibbs was its honorary curator from 1904 until 1939.

From his schooldays Gibbs had loved outdoor activity, especially tramping, and by his efforts the Maitai Valley was made a city reserve. He led a group of enthusiasts to secure the land round Lake Rotoiti for the public, and built huts and erected signposts along tracks in the Arthur Range. When the Nelson Tramping Club began in 1934 Gibbs was made its patron.

As a participant in the Nelson Chamber of Commerce he campaigned for an extension to the railway and produced booklets promoting Nelson as a holiday resort. He also had business interests locally, in coal and iron ore. The latter led to his interest in the Nelson Paint Company, which was operating successfully by 1926. In the Golden Bay district he experimented with grasses on waste land, and was successful in raising milk production. His business interests also included the Anchor Boot Company and the Nelson Tobacco Company. He promoted every enterprise that would profit Nelson and use its natural resources to advantage. Outside Nelson he had interests in the Wainuiomata housing development in Wellington.

Gibbs's contribution to the arts was as important for Nelson as were his scientific and industrial projects. He had been brought up in a musical family, and singing and playing were succeeded by listening to gramophone records and radio concerts. The technology was almost as interesting to him as the music. Membership of the Nelson Harmonic Society provided an opportunity to share musical interests. In 1894 on the establishment of the Nelson School of Music Gibbs became secretary of the trustees and retained the position for 56 years. He organised fund-raising to erect a building for the school and at its opening in 1901 he was busy decorating the hall and organising refreshments as well as greeting the vice-regal party. His business acumen and unremitting zeal carried the school through good times and bad. He was a staunch supporter of its German-born principal, Julius Lemmer, when Lemmer suffered persecution during the First World War.

His involvement with the Bishop Suter Art Gallery began soon after its establishment. In 1901 he became a trustee and in 1925, secretary. In retirement he devoted much time to working at the gallery, arranging exhibitions and maintaining the building. When he travelled to Europe and America in 1930 one of his greatest pleasures was time spent in art galleries. (He also visited paint factories and was impressed by technological ingenuity in the United States.) However he was not in sympathy with modern painting. When two Frances Hodgkins paintings were offered to the Suter gallery in 1949 he strongly opposed their acceptance, and at 83 felt it time to resign.

From 1883 until nine months before he died Gibbs kept a daily diary which reveals his enormous energy and extraordinary range of activity. He was a man of strong opinions who avoided publicity but did not shrink from controversy in the defence of his views. In his last years he was still carrying on a vigorous newspaper correspondence on a variety of topics. He was a fine organiser but not one who believed in delegation. Failing health finally forced him to relinquish his formal involvement with boards and committees. He died in Nelson Hospital on 16 January 1953.

How to cite this page:

Shirley Tunnicliff. 'Gibbs, Frederick Giles', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3g6/gibbs-frederick-giles (accessed 23 May 2024)