“There were giants in the earth in those days,” Genesis 6, verse 4.
There certainly were: and Jim Gibb was, and is, one of them. Those who knew him later in his life – apparently well settled in the comparatively respectable calling of a schoolmaster, and walking the streets of Sherborne, whose history he knew so well and of which he wrote so often – would not have guessed that he began his life as if in a book by Robert Louis Stevenson.
To begin with, as a small boy, he was called Hamilton. He was born in Montreal, but his parents eventually moved to the island of Nevis in the West Indies; his father died when Hamilton was five, and his mother married a Baronet, whereupon he was shipped off to Warwickshire, where a blind uncle agreed to adopt him. He was renamed Jim by the crew of the cargo boat on which he travelled – and the name stuck.
His uncle was a parson of whom he became very fond, and Jim thought of following him into the church. His life became steadier; he was educated at King’s School, Canterbury and went up to King’s College, Cambridge in 1939 – when war intervened. After a year he joined up and began his adventures again. At first he was in the Worcesters; he then moved to the Royal Artillery as a forward observation officer throughout the European campaign, then he went to India as a Paratrooper.
After the war he returned for two years to Cambridge to read History and English, and soon after became a master at Sherborne, filling what was intended to be a temporary post only. This temporariness continued, however, until he retired from the school in 1980. His only break from Sherborne was a year’s exchange with Loomis School in Connecticut.
He was very widely read, especially in Medieval History and he devoted himself to the teaching of History in the school. But he also devoted himself to the town, its history and its institutions. He was involved with the Museum from its start in 1965 and became its president; he was a brother in the almshouse and he devoted himself to the history and archaeology of the abbey and its role in the town and the school, including several digs which unearthed details of the school’s past. He wrote a good deal on these subjects, including The Book of Sherborne in the year after he retired from teaching. He was president of the historical society; he drew and painted to illustrate local history and he was a skilful model maker, notably of the Old Castle and of Shakespeare’s Globe. All this earned him a Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries.
In 1966 he became housemaster of Abbeylands, where he ran a civilised and happy regime, avoiding housemasters’ meetings where possible.
He married in 1952, and his and Sally’s family life was always a great happiness in his life. His wife and his children have always been a notable part of their surroundings. Sally and his eldest daughter are doctors; another daughter and a son are teachers and one son is a BBC correspondent in South America; their five grandchildren also do not shrink from becoming a notable part of whatever is surrounding them.
A notable life, thoroughly, effectively and happily lived; those of us who shared in it are much in his debt.
Huw Ridgeway writes on behalf of the History Department:
Jim was a great scholar whose work in Local History was of lasting importance. First of all, although Jim himself paradoxically published much on the Abbey, his Book of Sherborne helped to set new standards in de-mythologising Sherborne’s history. He shifted the focus away from traditional Abbey, Castle and School towards a more rounded and professional picture of the town embracing society, economy and the too often forgotten ordinary citizens. Secondly, his seminal papers with their wealth of archaeological and architectural detail remain permanent building bricks for any future studies on the Abbey and the Abbey area in the centre of town. And finally, Jim left a great legacy in his vivid reconstructions, based on rigorous examination of the evidence, of the Abbey and School (and Castle’s) past appearances. To hear Jim give a lecture about how Sherbornians – who would believe it – nearly burned down the great Abbey in an anticlerical riot was to be transported back effortlessly five hundred years at the hands of a true Master. We of the ‘younger generation’ are constantly in his debt, and we teach in his shadow.