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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 3, September 1977

Book Review

Book Review

"F. G. Gibbs—His Influence on the Social History of Nelson, 1890–1950" by Shonadh Mann M.A.

If in his "Deserted Village" Goldsmith reflected in astonishment at the diverse accomplishments of his schoolmaster of Auburn, Shonadh Mann will demonstrate to her readers her justified admiration of the broad spectrum of interests of Frederick Giles Gibbs which he pursued with unbounded enthusiasm and vigour.

Many members of the older generation of Nelsonians will recall Gibbs as the Headmaster of Boys' Central School, a position which he held continuously for a period of 31 years from 1892 until his retirement from teaching in 1923. In that position he had a profound influence upon thousands of pupils who passed through his school, but Gibbs' day did not begin and end with the ringing of the school bell. He took countless parties of boys tramping up the Dun Mountain Line on Saturdays; he introduced many pupils to page 38the wonders of astronomy on cloudless nights from the Atkinson Observatory, and he taught the majority of his pupils to swim in the Maitai River before they left Standard 6 long before swimming instruction was an integral part of the primary school curriculum.

But it is Gibbs' wide ranging cultural and scientific interests which shine through the 200 pages of Miss Mann's thesis. To give expression to these interests he possessed the organising ability to initiate projects which materialised into such institutions as the Bishop Suter Art Gallery, the School of Music, the rebuilding of the Nelson Institute Library and Museum following the fire of 1906, and the establishment of the Cawthron Institute. Gibbs' service to Nelson in influencing Thomas Cawthron in the nature of his benefactions to Nelson is adequately dealt with in a separate chapter of the book.

In his business activities Gibbs took a special interest in the development of the mineral resources of the district commencing with his purchase of shares in the Enner Glynn mine in 1895, followed by his involvement with the development of iron ore deposits at Onekaka and Parapara. His enthusiasm and practical assistance as Chairman of Directors of the Nelson Paint Company and his involvement with the ill-fated Onekaka Iron and Steel Company are fully covered by Miss Mann. The Nelson Chamber of Commerce and the Nelson Progress League both received Gibbs' active support. It was he who coined the phrase "Fill the Gap" advocating the completion of the Midland railway scheme, and it was he who gave widespread publicity to the province in the booklets "Sunny Nelson", "Nelson Illustrated" and "The City of Nelson".

Drawing upon the diaries and diary resumes which Gibbs conscientiously kept from 1883 till 1952 as well as a wealth of correspondence, extracts from minute books of various organisations and newspaper references. Miss Mann portrays Gibbs' whole life from his birth in London in 1866. his arrival in New Zealand as a ship-wrecked boy of ten in 1877 and his progress through Nelson College to Canterbury University where he graduated M.A. with first class honours in English and Latin. Separate chapters are devoted to his work in education, his contribution to the botanical knowledge of Nelson's flora, his business activities, his friendship with Thomas Cawthron and his influence in ensuring that Cawthron's benefactions were directed into channels where they would have a lasting impact on the enrichment of the cultural, scientific and recreational facilities of the city and district.

The cultural interests of Gibbs are dealt with in chapters on his involvement with the Nelson Institute and Philosophical Society, his organising capacity with the Bishop Suter Art Society and with the Art Gallery, and his administrative ability with the Harmonic Society and the foundation of the School of Music.

The biography concludes with the following well deserved tribute:—

"He was a man who to a greater degree than any other devoted his life to Nelson and his passing was a tremend-page 39ousloss to the city. His dominating purpose in life was to pursue knowledge and to give service to his fellows. No man left a greater mark on Nelson; and as so many said at his passing, the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren might well be applied to him—'Si monumentum requiris circumspice'."

It is difficult to understand why no local body has recognised the service which Gibbs rendered to Nelson for no street, bridge, park or other facility has been named in his memory during the twenty-five years since his death. In the Maitai Valley particularly it was through Gibbs' appeals to the public that money was collected for building bridges over the river and for the purchase by the City Council in March 1916 of the Maitai Recreation Grounds and bathing holes, yet, as far as can be ascertained there is no landmark in the area which bears his name. This is an omission which could well merit the attention of the Council in the future.