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David Charles Leslie Gibbs, A.M. (Banker, Grazier, Conservationist)

By Michael Collins Persse

David Gibbs, a distinguished and much loved citizen of both Australia and the United Kingdom who was equally at home in the two countries, has died of a heart attack while fishing for brown trout in the Wairau River, south of Blenheim in New Zealand. He was 82.

He belonged to a family that for more than five centuries has held land in the south of England, and for the last two has also been prominent in other parts of the world – gentry intermarried with nobility but not averse from trade; a very English stock prolific of squires, clergy, merchants, and bankers. One line of his ancestry went back, through 13 generations, to the last surviving Plantagenet with a claim to the throne, Margaret Countess of Salisbury, beheaded at the age of 67 in 1541 in Henry VIII’s purge of possible rivals, beatified as a martyr by Pope Leo XIII, and the mother of Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury (after narrowly missing election as Pope).

David himself entertained thoughts of Anglican orders, but instead followed family tradition in another direction, that of finance. There remained about him, however, an aura of transparent goodness – of which he was too humble himself to be conscious, and too self-deprecatingly humorous. He not so much preached the gospel as lived it.

He was the eldest child of Sir Geoffrey Cokayne Gibbs (1901-1975), who from 1951-67 was chairman of the ANZ Bank, and Helen Leslie, Lady Gibbs (1905-1979), who from 1950-60 was a chief commissioner in the Girl Guide Association. His paternal grandfather was the first Lord Hunsdon, banker, scholar, and statesman, whose sons included the fourth Lord Aldenham and Sir Humphrey Gibbs, the penultimate governor of Southern Rhodesia. A great-uncle, Vicary Gibbs, edited the genealogical masterwork of another relative, Cockayne’s Complete Peerage.
He was born at Shipley House in South Yarra while his father represented Gibbs Bright & Co in Australia – a trading and shipping company second only among the Gibbs family interests to Antony Gibbs & Sons, which traded internationally from 1808 (until taken over in 1979 by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank), mainly in guano (a prime fertiliser), nitrate, and iodine. But after babyhood he was not to see Australia again for 22 years.

A love of nature was stimulated during boyhood by intense study of the underwater life – newts, sticklebacks, chubb, and toads – in a lake at the family house, Holwell Manor in Hertfordshire; and by living off the land in Wales with his brothers and sister during the war. Ichthyology he later claimed – along with ornithology, opera, old-master paintings and drawings, farming, and landcare – as a leading interest, and he became an expert fisherman.

At Eton from 1941-45, he excelled on the river, reached the sixth form, and chose to study the New Testament in Greek, securing entry to Oxford where from 1945-48, after some weeks as a recruit in the Grenadier Guards, he was at Christ Church, whose boat club he captained to headship of the river. In philosophy, politics, and economics he achieved (amid distractions) a fourth, a class “normally reserved”, in the words of his friend Sir Robert Southey, “for visiting foreign royalty and distracted geniuses”. His first-class intellect only gradually emerged.

He entered Antony Gibbs & Sons in 1949 (becoming a director in 1958) and was with Gibbs Bright in Australia from 1949-55, in England from 1955-68, and then – as chairman – again in Australia. In 1965, at Coleraine, he married Fleur, only child of Dalzell Mein, of the nearby pastoral station Toolang, which on her father’s death in 1983 she inherited. At Larnoo, near Yea, and Toolang many improvements were made, reflecting the combined perfectionism of the couple. Between 1966 and 1970 four children were born: Emma, Hugo, Justin, and Arabella.

In the second half of his life, David lived in Australia, frequently travelling overseas with Fleur. His business career included service as a main-board director of the ANZ Bank (1979-91), chairman (1981-88) of Marsh Maclennan (the Australian operations of a large American insurance broker), chairman of the commercial property development company Folkestone Ltd (1981-99), director of John Swire Australia (1984-97), director of the merchant bank Parbury Henty (1984-94), chairman of ANZ Executors Trustees (1990-95) and of ANZ Funds Management (1991-95), and chairman of Asia Investment Management (1998-2000).

In addition, he chaired the Victorian State Opera Foundation (1984-97) and was treasurer of the Museum of Victoria (1978-84), a member of the Felton Bequest Committee of the National Gallery of Victoria (1984-99) and of the Victorian Council of Australia Bicentennial Authority (1985-88), president (1988-92) of the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia (WWF), and (from 2001) a trustee of the Little Desert Flora and Fauna. In 1993 he hosted the world conference of WWF, and in the same year was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

David Gibbs had a multitude of friends, being not only a man of integrity and charm but also kindly, generous, witty, and sensitive to others’ feelings and needs, whatever their age or background. Totally unsnobbish, he personified the ideal expressed by Chaucer in his “verray, parfit, gentil knight”. He is survived by Fleur; their four children Hugo Gibbs, Emma Farah with her husband Marc and son Maximilian, Justin Gibbs with his wife Lucy and sons Xan and Otto, and Arabella Tremlett with her husband Charles and children Allegra, Isla, and Freddie; and also by his brothers Stephen, Julian, Sir Roger, and Christopher Gibbs, and sister Elizabeth Fleming.

(Michael Collins Persse is a friend of the Gibbs family, who have assisted him in preparing this obituary.)



David Charles Leslie Gibbs Obituary




Owner/SourceMelbourne Age
Date14 Dec 2009
Linked toDavid Charles Leslie Gibbs

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