William Gibbs, benefactor of St Michael’s

William Gibbs (1790-1875) made a fortune in business, in particular by importing guano from islands on the Pacific coast of South America. The Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century had shown how farming could feed a growing population, but modern artificial fertilizers were still in the future. Gibbs took a risk when in 1842 he began the long-distance importing of bird manure, but it was a risk which benefited many farmers and those who ate their produce.

Gibbs’s father had been in the cloth business; among a number of other interests was a cloth mill at Exwick. After success in business William Gibbs bought the estate at Tyntesfield near Bristol, and from 1863 onwards began to rebuild the house, which he provided with a fine Gothic chapel (rather in the style of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris). The house is now owned by the National Trust.

In the chapel at Tyntesfield, and in other churches founded by the Gibbs family, worship was offered in the Anglo-Catholic tradition initiated by the Oxford Movement, the school of thought which emphasizes the continuity of modern Church of England faith and practice with that of the earliest Christians.

The Gibbs family was philanthropic and devout, and founded churches in many parts of the country. William Gibbs personally paid for the grand polychrome brick chapel at Keble College in Oxford, a college founded both to commemorate the priest-poet who in 1833 had started the Oxford Movement and also to help provide university education to those unable to bear the cost of attending one of the University’s older colleges.

William Gibbs died in 1875 and is buried at Wraxall, the parish church of Tyntesfield, but a life-size effigy here at St Michael’s, carved by H H Armstead RA, was part of a scheme of decoration devised by his family and set up by his widow, Matilda Blanche, in 1882 to commemorate a man who was genuinely loved by those who knew him.