John Gibbs the pamphleteer of Maze Hill Cottage

Genealogy very often results amassing information such as dates and places of birth, marriage and death. It is rare that one is able to add flesh to the bones, so to speak. Sometimes, though, newspapers or books can add to this. In this case, a great deal.

The 2 August 1853 issue of the Sussex Advertiser stated that Mr and Mrs Gibbs had removed from 11 Maze Hill to Maze Hill Cottage (also on Maze Hill, and later demolished for a garage and chauffeur accommodation by Maurice Burton). They had moved there from 3 Holloway Place (as noted in the 31 May 1853 issue), apparently the Islington street of that name. The couple had privately baptised their second child, Anna, at All Saints, Hastings on the 25 May, saying that they were of the parish.

Google Books tells us that John Gibbs of Maze Hill Cottage was a subscriber to “Patronymica Britannica: a dictionary of the family names of the United Kingdom”, by Mark Antony Lower, published in 1860. Lower founded the Sussex Archaeological Society.

There was far more to Mr Gibbs’ interests than genealogy. I came across a very long letter by him in the 30 August 1854 issue of Nonconformist, where he attacks vaccination, signing off (besides giving Maze Hill Cottage as his address, as he normally, and helpfully, did) as author of “Our medical liberties.”

This pamphlet was published in 1854 as “Our medical liberties: or, the personal rights of the subjects, as infringed by recent and proposed legislation.” It is often cited as the first published work that attacked vaccination. It was followed by more pamphlets in 1856, “Compulsory vaccination, briefly considered in its Scientific, Religious, and Political Aspects” and (as appendices to the same) “More words on vaccination”. Google Books has the text of “Our medical liberties” and “More words on vaccination”. The famous German polymath Alexander von Humboldt replied in 1859 with “A letter… to John Gibbs”, just before his death, which apparently supported Gibbs’ views.

An example of his vigorous and florid style is in a letter to the Homeopathic record in 1856:

What folly ! Is it any wonder that the ignorant still believe in fortune-telling and witchcraft, while the educated trust to specifics and prophylactics ? – those modern substitutes for the elixir vitae, or the more ancient dip in the Styx.

All this was a reaction to the Vaccination Act of 1853, which required smallpox vaccination for infants under the age of three months, with fines and prison terms for objecting parents. Gibbs put forward several arguments against requiring compulsory vaccination.

He said that it was an affront to parental rights; that it would spread diseases; that it would benefit doctors; it treated the population as too stupid to make their own health decisions; it was not universally accepted by doctors; and it failed in some cases. He had obviously carried out a great deal of research as he cited numerous cases to back his arguments.

Gibbs believed that there were a fixed number of diseases, and that if smallpox was eliminated then other diseases such as measles would flourish in its place. He also argued that, though it was often fatal, smallpox ought to be encouraged because it “relieves the system of humours that ought to be carried out of it, and is a healthy process.” He wrote copiously to newspapers, where editorials and other letters either supported or opposed his views.

He appears to have had a royal supporter. The Court Journal, 6 February 1858, states that “Prince Adalbert graciously honoured Mr and Mrs Gibbs with a visit at their residence, St Leonards-on-Sea, prior to his departure for France. His Royal Highness was attended to the station by Mr Gibbs”. According to a mention a hundred years later in the Observer this was a visit of a few days. Prince Adalbert of Prussia (1811-73), nephew to the King of Prussia, was at the time commander in chief of the Prussian Navy. Brett, with his memoirs, says that Gibbs hired a local German band for the occasion. Some or all of the royal party stayed at the Royal Victoria Hotel during the visit.

So who was John Gibbs ? In the 1861 census, the household at Maze Hill Cottage was as follows:

John Gibbs, married, 49, landed proprietor, born Ireland

Anne Gibbs, wife, 48, born Derbyshire Eckington

Louisa C.W. Gibbs, dau, 10, scholar, born Yorkshire Wadsley

Anne M.S. Gibbs, dau, 8, scholar, born Sussex Hastings

Jane Chatterton, gov, U[nmarried], 28, governess, born Sussex Rye

Victor Fontaine, serv, married, 41, butler, born Belgium (British subject)

Susan Fontaine, serv wife, 35, nursemaid, born Middlesex

Johannah Wilson, serv, married, 42, housemaid, born Cornwall

Frances Windsor, serv, widow, 44, cook, born Sussex Worthing

With this help I traced them to Bradfield, Yorkshire, in the 1851 census, where Gibbs and his wife were living, as nephew (and landed proprietor) and niece to Elizabeth Skelton, a 69-year-old widow, a landed proprietor and annuitant. Their three-month-old daughter was also living with them. With the Skelton hint I was able to trace their marriage, as reported in the Dublin Evening Mail, 12 February 1849:

January 20, at the British Embassy, Florence, John Gibbs, Esq., of Enniscorthy, to Anne, eldest daughter of the late Mark Skelton, Esq., of Ewes-hall, Yorkshire.

The Belgian butler in the 1861 census sounds intriguing, and he was lucky in being able to live in the house with his wife. Any married servants (who were normally butlers) usually had their wives, as well as any children, living elsewhere; note that Johannah Wilson’s husband was elsewhere. Fontaine was a butler living in Charing Cross when he married in 1853 at St Martin in the Fields. In the 1871 census he was in Brixton, a dealer in china and glass; he died with the same occupation there in 1878.

In the 1871 census Gibbs was a widower living with his children in Jersey. His occupation was “landowner, late Captain, author”. He died on the 21 December 1876 at Jersey, leaving an English estate of £200. His probate index entry states that he was formerly of St Leonards on Sea, meaning that he wrote his will while living there, and that his executrix was a widowed sister, Maria Lane.

A detailed account of an inquest, in the Jersey Independent, 30 December 1876, calling him Captain Gibbs of the Cinque Port Volunteers, says that he was living with his sister Mrs Lane, and that he was found badly burnt in his apartment. The jury returned a verdict that he had had a return of his apoplexy, and had then fallen into the fireplace. Despite his temporary fame as a pamphleteer, this appears to be the only newspaper mention of his death.

As for Maria the sister, the 1861 census places her in Jersey with her much older husband, Major General Charles R.W. Lane of the East India service, their infant son, and her widowed mother Louisa Gibbs. Their 1848 marriage in Camberwell identified the father: another John Gibbs, Captain in the Irish militia. Bernard Burke’s 1860 publication of “A selection of arms…” under the heading “Gibbs, of the Yews, Sheffield, co. York”, although also stated to be of Maze Hill Cottage, gives a very detailed genealogy for John the pamphleteer, saying that he was a lieutenant in the Cinque Ports Volunteer Artillery, the only surviving son of the late John Gibbs, Esq., of Ballynora, co. Cork.

It was possibly the father, rather than the son, who is the John Gibbs who was the author of “Letters from Graefenberg, in the years 1843, 1844, 1845, and 1846”, as approvingly reviewed in the Manchester Examiner, 12 June 1847. The author is described as a “medical gentleman of ability and repute”, at present living in Camberwell, who stayed in those years at Vincent Preissnitz’s water cure establishment at Graefenberg in what is now the Czech Republic.

However, the letters were to the Enniscorthy Hydropathic Society, and Enniscorthy in the county of Wexford is where our John Gibbs was born. The hydrotherapy cure consisted basically of wrapping patients in wet cloth for long periods, combined with much drinking of water, and brisk uphill walking.

The Dublin Medical Press, 6 October 1847, in a highly skeptical review, citing lengthy extracts, stated that Gibbs was not a medical man, but had learnt some medicine while on his lengthy stay. He had visited because of a problem with his “digestive organs”, and had been completely won over to its perceived virtues in curing illnesses. I like to think that this was indeed our John Gibbs, later of Maze Hill Cottage.

Discover more from The Burtons’ St Leonards Society

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading