Tag Archives: William Gibbs

The Chapel at Tyntesfield


The chapel at Tyntesfield is a spectacularly beautiful reimagining of a French medieval church, Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Tyntesfield is a Victorian neo-Gothic mansion built by the devout Gibbs family, commoners who rose to great wealth through banking, shipping, and bat and bird manure (more on that later).

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The chapel was the last big building project on the property, just outside Bristol, but it was in many ways the one most important to William Gibbs. It is also the first part of the house that the visitor sees on the walk from the parking lot and National Trust visitor center.  It’s a stunning first impression. Arthur Blomfield was the architect and builder.

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When the Gibbs family lived in their Victorian Gothic Revival mansion, the family, guests and servants alike attended prayers twice daily–first in the grand hall, and later in the chapel when it was finished. Beginning around 1842, William Gibbs made his fortune from a simple idea that grew and grew: he imported guano, the droppings of sea birds and bats, from Peru to North America.  Guano was highly prized as a fertilizer. William Gibbs became the richest non-aristocratic man in England. Tyntesfield had 106 total rooms, with 26 main bedrooms plus more rooms for the many servants. The square footage is about 40,000. And this was only their country home.  Most of the time they lived elsewhere, in equally grand digs.


Naturally, people were envious of Gibbs’s success. An indelicate ditty in London ran, “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.” Actually, the selling of fertilizer led inexorably to profiting from the slave trade, a fact which the Gibbs family preferred not to dwell on.  Their shipping business, over time, became a part of the Triangular Trade that caused so much human misery. Ships constantly transported material goods and slaves between Europe, the Americas, and Africa.

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

The Gibbs family donated large amounts of their fortune to various charitable causes, and generously supported churches all over England. Naturally, they wanted their own church.  The chapel was built between 1872 and 1879, to a design by Arthur Bloomfield.

Sainte-Chapelle, interior, image from The Guardian article cited below

Sainte-Chapelle, interior, image from The Guardian article cited below

The inspiration was Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, pictured above. Sainte-Chapelle was built by the devout Louis IV in the 1240s. (He later became St. Louis, giving his name to the American city later still).


The stained glass at Tyntesfield is beautiful, if not as spectacular as the newly-restored glass at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.


The stonework is lovely and evocative.

Portrait of William Gibbs by Eugene Deveria, circa 1850, Public Domain

Portrait of William Gibbs by Eugene Deveria, circa 1850, Public Domain

WIlliam Gibbs intended to follow the example of aristocratic families and create a family burial vault underneath the chapel for future generations. The vault exists, but it is empty. The Bishop of Bath and Wells, under pressure from local churches, refused to consecrate the chapel. The stated reason was that allowing a consecrated chapel on the grounds of Tyntesfield would detract from local churches. I can’t help thinking that “the powers that be” were also reluctant to upset the social applecart by allowing a family of common birth to put on airs. (Eventually, George Abraham Gibbs was “created” 1st Baron Wraxall in 1928, but family fortunes were already declining by that time).

The chapel at Tyntesfield is the last stop for visitors touring the beautiful mansion. It’s a lovely, light-filled, quiet place to contemplate history. William Gibbs was buried elsewhere, but a cross and inscription from the book of Proverbs memorialize his life: “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it is found in the way of righteousness.” William Gibbs did his best to be both a businessman and a righteous man.  Early in his career, he and his brother Henry worked hard to completely repay the debts that earlier family members had run up.  The family business had gone bankrupt, and there was no obligation to pay. But they did anyway, every penny. It also appears that William Gibbs did his best to remove his shipping business from the slave trade once the terrible abuses were known.

I previously wrote about Tyntesfield and the Gibbs family at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/10/22/high-victorian…at-tyntesfield/



An article about the restoration of St. Chapelle in Paris is at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/20/sainte-chapelle-paris-stained-glass-window-restoration-completed

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

High Victorian Splendor at Tyntesfield


TyntFlowersOn my last trip to England, I made my second visit to Tyntesfield, the glorious Victorian country home rescued by the National Trust of Great Britain in 2002.  My first visit was just a couple of years after it opened to the public.  It is now one of my very favorite National Trust properties in all of Great Britain.

Succeeding generations of the Gibbs family lived in it since it was built.  As the family declined in numbers and in fortune, they simply closed up areas and lived in smaller and smaller parts of the mansion. The result is a time capsule. Tyntesfield and its entire contents were on the market by Sotheby’s when the National Trust managed to purchase it lock, stock and barrel. All the contents had already been tagged for separate auction.

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National Trust Curators have carefully catalogued, cleaned and replaced thousands of items into their original places in the gorgeous home.  They’ve left a few rooms as they found them with groups of housewares and furniture tagged and ready for the auction block.

By the time the 2nd Lord Wraxall, known as Richard, died in 2001, he was the only person living in the house.  The house had been hit by bombs several times during the Bristol Blitz of World War II, and had never been properly repaired. Birds and bats took up residence in whole wings of the house. Tyntesfield was the last High Victorian house available for purchase in all of England.

The market value was about 20 million pounds, or  about $31 million. In addition, double or triple the purchase amount was needed for repairs. Various gazillionaires were interested. (The press reported that Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Andrew Lloyd Webber were looking).  But the National Trust of Britain, one of the two main preservation societies, managed to raise the purchase money within a period of 50 days.  (Controversy arose when a semi-secret deal with the National Lottery provided some of the money for this project that many considered “elitist”). The Trust took possession in July of 2002. This was the first new acquisition by the National Trust in many years, and the largest in its history.  Today, over 800 paid and volunteer staff work on the estate, 3 times the number at any other National Trust property.

Dining Room

Dining Room

Tyntesfield is a breathtakingly beautiful place to spend a day.

Entry Hall

Entry Hall

It is also a unique window into the glory days of the British Empire, when a businessman with no aristocratic background could amass a huge fortune and build a home to rival many royal palaces. I’ll be writing about how the Gibbs family managed to amass such a fortune.  The large family gathered with their servants for prayers twice a day, had their own private chapel, and funded churches and charities all over England.  However, their business and shipping interests were very likely tied up with the slave trade, a fact which must have caused this generous and devout family some feelings of remorse even as they spent their money.


Tyntesfield: Mr. Gibbs Made His Dibs

Entry Hall

William Gibbs’s son Antony did not take over the family business as expected.  The story went that William would not allow it, after he observed that the boy could not add four columns of figures simultaneously (I wonder how many of us would pass that test?)  I doubt Antony was disappointed.  He managed the Tyntesfield estates and charities, became an accomplished carver of ivory, and puttered with inventions such as a bicycle which supposedly stored energy going downhill and used it when going uphill. It didn’t work, though.

Instead, William’s nephew Henry Hucks Gibbs took over the company.  Henry was elevated to the peerage, becoming Baron Aldenham in 1896.  (What exactly is the peerage, anyway?  A subject for another post).  Henry also became Governor of the Bank of England, earning him the popular jingle which forever followed the Gibbs family: “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.” Not very elegant, but it certainly told the story. And he must have laughed all the way to the bank.

The little ditty no doubt followed George Abraham Gibbs, a war hero who moved in higher social circles than his humbler ancestors.

George became 1st Lord Wraxall and Treasurer of the Royal Household–an example of the new commercial and industrial wealth overtaking older titled families.

The 2nd Lord Wraxall, known as Richard, inherited the title at the age of 3.  His mother, Ursula, Lady Wraxall, presided at Tyntesfield until she died in 1979.  She received an OBE for her services to the war effort. During World War II, the house became a medical distribution center, with the books in the library replaced by bandages. It was also a convalescent home for American soldiers, who stage reunions there to this day.

When he came of age, the 2nd Lord Wraxall (Richard) served with the Coldstream Guards, then took over management of the estate. He maintained the house and grounds as they were, not following the lead of so many great homes in getting rid of Victorian furniture and features as they became unfashionable. He never married, and ended up living alone in the house with most of the rooms closed. When he died unexpectedly in 2001, the place was a treasure trove of Victorian items from the past 150 years.


Join me next time when I consider the very challenging acquisition of the house by the National Trust.  It’s one of the chapters in the fascinating story of the history and art of the British Isles.

Tyntesfield: The House that Guano Built

In 1842, William Gibbs’s brother Henry died during a visit to Venice.  In the same year, the South American agent for the family firm, Antony Gibbs and Sons, made a risky decision. He took out government contracts for the collection and shipping of guano from barren islands off the coast of Peru.  What is guano?  Solidified bird droppings!  William Gibbs was alarmed by the large loans necessary, but the gamble paid off.  Soon the company had a monopoly on the business, which shipped vast amounts of agricultural fertilizer all over the world.

William became a very rich man. He happily set about transforming a fairly simple Georgian house into a dream home for his growing family.  The beautiful result was Tyntesfield, completed in 1865.

William lived contentedly with his family until he died in 1875 at age 85.

Themes from nature appear everywhere in the house.

In his later years, he was affectionately known as “Prior,” because he turned his attention to spiritual matters and to good works in his community. The exquisite chapel was never consecrated, but it’s beautiful all the same. Family and servants gathered for daily prayers, and I doubt that anybody minded taking a break in this beautiful space.

Subsequent Gibbses made substantial additions of their own, and the house rang with the laughter of family and friends for many happy years.

Unlike grand houses built for show, Tyntesfield was built solely for the enjoyment of a family.  The wonderful library was filled with carefully catalogued books that were used on a daily basis by anyone interested.  Those books are still there.  As soon as the room was completed, the family began using it for amateur theatricals.

By all accounts, servants at Tyntesfield were well treated and stayed with the family for many years.

On my very first visit, shortly after the house opened, the servant quarters were just being explored.  It was possible to see, behind the scenes, how a grand home actually operated.  There were laundry rooms, boot rooms, a still room for making jams, a luggage room, rows of large containers for carrying hot water to the main bedrooms, and a kitchen with a fireproof ceiling.

House staff included a butler, two footmen, a housekeeper, a lady’s maid, a cook, six housemaids, a nurse, two nursery maids, two scullery maids, and a hall boy.  Actually, this was  a fairly modest staff for such a large house and family.  I like to think the Gibbs children, raised with the strong Gibbs work ethic, made their own beds.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

A Victorian Father

William Gibbs, a successful businessman and model of Victorian rectitude, built what we now know as Tyntesfield for his large family.  He was an example of the new wealth that started to overtake the traditional wealth of the British nobility.

He is shown in a photo from around 1862:  the cheerful white-haired gentleman, seated with his adoring youngest daughter on his knee.  His wife, 28 years younger, is on his right.  On his left, seated at the table, is the house chaplain.  At Tyntesfield, servants and family alike attended morning prayers. Aside from his grand house, William built and supported several churches in the area.

William inherited the family shipping and trading business from his father, who had made some bad calls and gone bankrupt in 1789.  Together with his brother Henry, William worked all his life to re-establish the family business.  In 1818 they set up a “sacred debts” account to pay off the creditors of their father’s business, although they had no legal obligation to do so.  In 1840, over 50 years after the bankrupty, all the debts were paid in full.

Today, we can visit the home he built, Tyntesfield, one of the most beautiful in England.  It evokes happy family life in a lost era.  Here’s to all fathers! May they love their families, meet their obligations, and leave lasting legacies.

Tyntesfield, a glorious Victorian mansion

Tyntesfield, a glorious Victorian mansion

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!