F. G. Gibbs' life never lacked adventure, drama and determination and, as Gibbs enthusiast Nigel Costley writes, Nelson would have been much poorer without him.
A recently unveiled panel on Nelson's historic Alton St has cast new light on one of the great characters of Nelson's past: Frederick Giles Gibbs. Gibbs lived from 1866-1953 and in later years became known as "Saus". The story of how he came by his nickname illustrates a man of lofty principles and extraordinary strength of character.
But who was F G Gibbs? As an avid astronomer, he ran the observatory in Alton St, until the growth of the nearby lime trees necessitated moving it to the Port Hills in 1923. "At the drop of a hat, he would take people to the observatory if they showed the slightest interest, " says Arthur Jonas, who is transcribing Gibbs' diary, held at the Nelson Provincial Museum.
But astronomy was only one of Gibbs' many interests. When you start to itemise them, you'd think you were dealing with a syndicate, not an individual. He was a veritable whirling dervish in his involvement in civic affairs and his pursuit of scientific knowledge.
An energetic tramper, Gibbs scoured the hills of Nelson collecting plant and geological specimens that contributed to numerous scholarly works. He was instrumental in establishing the Cawthron Institute and rebuilding the Nelson Institute after the fire of 1906 (in what was to become the New Zealand School of Fisheries on Hardy Street). He was also a strong believer in the existence of a gold reef in Northwest Nelson, searching himself and funding search parties to locate the elusive reef over many years.
Throughout his life he had a talent for attracting drama. Take the Gibbs family's arrival in Nelson. The recently widowed Mrs Gibbs and her nine children left London on the barque Queen Bee on April 21, 1877. It ran aground on Farewell Spit on August 6 and, while abandoning ship, the Gibbs brothers were swept out to sea in a cutter.
They were given up for lost at one stage but ended up on D'Urville Island, where they were hospitably treated by the Māori and rescued several days later. They arrived to a rapturous reception in Nelson harbour, where virtually the entire population lined the shore and the Artillery Band played Home Sweet Home.
Like his brothers, Frederick proved an excellent scholar, gaining an M.A. with first-class honours in English and Latin from Canterbury College and becoming headmaster at Nelson Central School for Boys. He held that position from 1893 to 1923 and had a reputation as a progressive teacher with a gift for imparting complex principles in a way a primary-aged child could understand.
He never married, throwing his formidable energies into the affairs of Nelson city. Several businesses, the Suter Gallery and the Nelson Institute were all greatly influenced by his ebullient personality.
But in explaining his nickname, it's his association with the Nelson School of Music that is most significant. Gibbs was a trustee of the school long before it was opened in 1901, holding that position for 56 years. Working with businessman and philanthropist J. H. Cock, he was instrumental in establishing the school. Gibbs had a hand in everything, from writing its constitution and fee schedule to procuring large sums for the school from businessman Thomas Cawthron.
World War I was a harrowing time for the School of Music. As the casualty list grew, there was an increasingly vitriolic campaign to oust its principal, German-born Julius Lemmer. For many Nelsonians, it counted little that Lemmer had been a naturalised British citizen since 1903 and was married to an Australian. All Germans were the enemy. Fortunately for Lemmer, Gibbs was in his corner, countering the abusive anti-Lemmer letters to the newspapers for 3.5 years. Fuelled by endless stories of "Hun" brutality and accounts of mines discovered in Cook Strait, the anti-German hysteria swept the country in 1918 with demands to dismiss all Germans from public office.
On April 21 of that year, the Lemmers learned that their son, Adolph, had been killed at the front. Adolph had gone overseas in 1916 with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, with his father's consent, as he was under age. This didn't stop the anti-Lemmer campaign intensifying.
Gibbs' diary reports: "Sleepless nights and spending much time over the most disgraceful anti-Lemmer attack." The issue culminated in the School of Music election of trustees in July, where the pro-Lemmer lobby won the vote by 217 to 60. Due largely to the tigerish defence of the likes of Gibbs and Cock, there were no more recorded attacks on Lemmer and he remained in his position at the school until 1944.
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With the war won, the school held a concert in April 1919 featuring The Banner of St George, which, according to Gibbs' diary, "went splendidly. Good audience. Took over £11." The agony of the war was at last over but it took a dreadful personal toll on Cock, who had lost a son and suffered a nervous breakdown in 1919 from which he never fully recovered.
The defence of Herr Lemmer relates to Frederick Gibbs' other great battle with Maitai landholder the imperious Mrs Effie Richardson. Taking a holistic approach to education, Gibbs felt his pupils at Central School should be taught to swim and, to this end, he took groups of boys up the Maitai for swimming lessons in the area now known as Denne's Hole. This was much to Mrs Richardson's chagrin - to her, this was nothing short of wilful trespass.
According to the recollection of Miss A. Dodds, one day Mrs Richardson was so riled by Gibbs' action that, in a fit of fury, she swooped down and made off with the boys' clothes. At this point Gibbs and his little band of scantily-clad heathens were supposed to slink back to town, defeated and humiliated. But Mrs Richardson hadn't budgeted on Gibbs's feisty streak. He counterattacked by ordering his boys to dance naked around her house. Needless to say, the clothes were promptly returned and the swimming lessons proceeded as usual.
In 1908, the Gibbs/Richardson relations deteriorated further when Mrs Richardson decided to subdivide her estate, which entailed fencing off each block from the road so the swimming holes could no longer be used. Gibbs was having none of this.
In December 1916, he cut Mrs Richardson's fences and knocked down her "trespassers will be prosecuted" signs. This was too much for Mrs Richardson and, accompanied by daughter Ralphine (known to subsequent generations as Queenie), attacked Gibbs by throwing stones, calling him, among other choice phrases, a dirty German Jew who should be interred on Somes Island.
Mrs Richardson was charged with assault and a very lively court case ensued, presided over by magistrate F. O. B. Loughnan. Mrs Richardson told the court she had always been told that Gibbs was a German and he was known as "German Sausage". She had written to the Education Department to have Gibbs dismissed and would write to Scotland Yard about his history. Mrs Richardson's ridiculous testimony caused much hilarity among the court attendees and extreme sarcasm from the magistrate, who said: "How shocking that children should dabble their feet in the sacred river of Mrs Richardson. How sad that this sacred river should be polluted."
Gibbs was awarded exemplary damages of £25, which he immediately gave toward the rebuilding of one of the Maitai's bridges. Hence he was called "Saus" (short for German sausage) Gibbs. Whether the name was ever used to his face remains an open question.
Note: The panel commemorating F. G. Gibbs can be found on Alton St near the corner with Nile St, between Central School and the old Gibbs family home, now 94 Nile St.
This story was first published in the Nelson Mail, Sat 15 May, 2010 p. 16. It is reproduced here with some minor additions.
Updated May 1, 2020
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Further sources - Fred Gibbs
- Bensemann, P. (2013) Lost gold: the 100 year search for the gold reef of Northwest Nelson. Nelson [N.Z.]: Craig Potton
- Gibbs, F.G. (1947) Problems in astronomy solved and unsolved. [Cawthron lecture series] Nelson, N.Z.: Cawthron Institute [held Nelson Public Library]
- Mann, S. (1954) Frederick Giles Gibbs : his influence on the social history of Nelson, 1890-1950 : being a thesis submitted for the Degree of Master of Arts in History. Wellington, N.Z. : Victoria University College*
- Mann, S. (1977) F.G. Gibbs, his influence on the social history of Nelson, 1890-1950. Stoke [N.Z.] : Nelson Historical Society
- F.G. Gibbs - a lifetime of served (1996, August 17) Nelson Mail
- Gibbs: organiser of the arts (1997, January 28) Nelson Mail
- Reaching for the stars; Atkinson a man of many talents (2006, May 2) Nelson Mail, p.16
- Rough voyage to New Zealand (1996, August 10) Nelson Mail, p.12
- Savage, J.F.H. (1977) Review of F.G. Gibbs. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, v.3(3)p.37-39
- Gibbs, F.G. [Frederick Giles], 1866-1953. Papers (1882-1956) and diary (1883-1952). Nelson Provincial Museum
- Nelson City Council Heritage Panel, junction of Nile and Alton Streets [text by Janet Bathgate]
- Collier, C. (1984) Edward George Leonard Morley - 1894 to 1973 Nelson Astronomer. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1(4), p.19
- Tunnicliff, S. (2007) Gibbs, Frederick Giles 1866 - 1953. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Retrieved from Dictionary of New Zealand Bibliography: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3g6/gibbs-frederick-giles