William Gibbs and the creation of Tyntesfield

William Gibbs by Sir William Boxall, 1859

The story of William Gibbs, his faith and how the money he made trading guano led to the creation of Tyntesfield and its collection.

A Neo-Gothic home

The extravagant house of Tyntesfield that we see today was built for William Gibbs (1790–1875), a merchant who made his fortune in trade with Spain and South America. 

Formerly known as Tyntes Place, the estate – renamed Tyntesfield –  was bought by William Gibbs in 1843. From 1863 the existing Georgian house was remodeled according to Gothic Revival principles and as a symbol of his Anglo-Catholic faith. 

" I feel quite confident in saying that there is now no other Victorian country house which so richly represents its age as Tyntesfield."
- Mark Girouard in 'The Victorian Country House'

Trading links with Spain and South America

William Gibbs was born in Madrid to Dorothea Barnetta Hucks (known as Dolly) and Antony Gibbs (1756-1815), an expatriate wool, wine and fruit agent. Antony Gibbs’s business fluctuated and was particularly hindered by the Anglo-Spanish wars of the early 19th century. When he secured both British and Spanish licenses to trade with South America, the company started to grow. 

A View of Seville from the Guadalquivir River with the Geraldo Tower by Manuel Barrón y Carrillo (Seville 1814 - Seville 1884)
A View of Seville from the Guadalquivir River with the Geraldo Tower by Manuel Barrón y Carrillo (Seville 1814 -Seville 1884)
A View of Seville from the Guadalquivir River with the Geraldo Tower by Manuel Barrón y Carrillo (Seville 1814 - Seville 1884)

William was brought up and educated in Spain and England, speaking both Spanish and English. He was sent to school in Devon, but family financial troubles required him to leave at the age of 12 to join his father’s firm. In 1806 he worked for three years as a clerk in his uncle’s Bristol-based West-Indian trading and investing company, then known as Gibbs, Richards and Gibbs. In 1813 he became a partner with his father and brother George in their trading and banking partnership based in London, renamed Antony Gibbs & Sons. He immediately moved to Cadiz, Spain where he ran the operation until 1822. 

Guano profits

Antony Gibbs died in 1815 and the firm continued under elder son George. In 1820 they opened a trading post in Lima, set against the backdrop of Peruvian independence, with further South American outposts following. As a Spanish-speaking but British company, A. Gibbs & Sons were favoured by newly independent governments seeking to build revenues separate from Spain.

In 1842 the Peruvian government granted A. Gibbs & Sons license to export guano (nitrate-rich seabird droppings) to Britain. Derived from the Quechua word ‘wanu’ for ‘malodorous commodity’, guano was prized as a highly efficient fertiliser. Vast deposits existed on the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru, and as industrial agriculture boomed in Europe, so too did the demand for guano. In 1847 A. Gibbs & Sons secured a monopoly for the British guano trade, which at the height of their operation earned £100,000 a year – over £8,000,000 in today’s money. 

Bristol Docks by James Baker Pyne (Bristol 1800 – London 1870), c.1830
Bristol Docks by James Baker Pyne (Bristol 1800 – London 1870), c.1830
Bristol Docks by James Baker Pyne (Bristol 1800 – London 1870), c.1830

Guano extraction was dangerous and living conditions were poor. Most extraction was performed by indentured Chinese laborers who worked in slavery-like conditions, and who were economically bound to earn back their transport, board and lodging costs before making a profit. Before slavery was outlawed in Peru in 1854, guano was also extracted by some enslaved people, as well as convicts, conscripts and army deserters. 

A. Gibbs & Sons guano business operated from 1842 to 1861. During this time, workers’ conditions – including pay and medical care – improved under Gibbs’s control, coupled with pressure from external observers. 

In 1842 George Gibbs died and control of Antony Gibbs & Sons passed to sole partner William Gibbs. The profitability of the guano trade inspired a popular music hall ditty ‘William Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.’ In 1858 William retired and control of the family firm passed to his nephew Henry Hucks Gibbs. Those profits were used from 1863 to transform Tyntesfield into a lavish country retreat for William and his wife (Matlida) Blanche (1817–87) and their seven children. 

Architecture and faith

The Gibbs were devout High-Church Anglicans and supported the reinstatement of pre-Reformation, Roman Catholic practices into the Church of England. They were members of the Oxford Movement, whose philosophies were published by prominent ‘Tractarians’ like John Henry, later Cardinal, Newman and John Keble. 

Oxford Movement followers advocated the Gothic as the ultimate architectural expression of Christian ideals. Its major proponent was the architect Augustus Pugin, who greatly influenced Tyntesfield’s designer John Norton (1823–1904). 

View of the East Front of Tyntesfield
East Front of Tyntesfield
View of the East Front of Tyntesfield

Regarded as Norton’s greatest commission, Tyntesfield is characterised by soaring pinnacles, crenelated towers, oriel windows and arches, all exquisitely carved from local Bath stone. Its sumptuous interiors were designed by another friend of Pugin’s, J.G. Crace (1809–89), and feature neo-Gothic stained glass, mosaics by Salviati, gilt and stenciled wall panels, and ornate ironwork by Hart, Son, Peard & Co. 

In line with revivalist principles, motifs inspired by local wildlife and the surrounding countryside were incorporated into decorative carvings throughout the house. Also to be found throughout the house is William’s personal motto ‘en dios mi amparo y esperanza’ (‘In God [I find] my refuge and hope’).

The carved frieze inscription in the Library at Tyntesfield, North Somerset
The carved frieze inscription in the Library at Tyntesfield, North Somerset
The carved frieze inscription in the Library at Tyntesfield, North Somerset

The Chapel

Following the completion of the house, in 1873 William commissioned a new chapel by Arthur Blomfield (1829–99), modelled on the flamboyant Gothic architecture of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It was nearly complete in 1875 just before William’s death. The chapel was licensed for family services, used daily for prayers, but was never consecrated. 

A bounty of treasures

Today Tyntesfield contains over 60,000 objects, accumulated by William Gibbs, his family and heirs, from celebrated paintings and ornate furnishings to the more domestic objects, including ice skates and picnic sets. Reminders of William’s Spanish childhood and business in South America can be seen throughout the house, including paintings by Murillo (1617–82) and Zambrano (1598–1639), 19th-century silver-gilt incense burners from Peru, an ancient Peruvian silver bowl, and architectural models of the Alhambra, Grenada. 

Close up detail of a filagree gilt peacock in the drawing room at Tyntesfield, Somerset.
Close up detail of a filagree gilt peacock in the drawing room at Tyntesfield, Somerset.
Close up detail of a filagree gilt peacock in the drawing room at Tyntesfield, Somerset.

Learn more about Tyntesfield’s remarkable collections on the National Trust Collections website.