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Spotlight On...George Abraham Gibbs (1873–1931)

Tyntesfield, near Wraxall, North Somerset

This is the view from our picnic spot when we had a day out at Tyntesfield just outside Bristol recently. Tyntesfield is now a National Trust property, but was once the home of Bristol MP George Abraham Gibbs. 

George Abraham Gibbs (1873–1931) was the Conservative MP for Bristol West between 1906 and 1928. That meant he was in Parliament during the women’s suffrage campaign, and one of Bristol’s MPs at the height of suffragette militancy in the city. Gibbs, though, was opposed to women’s suffrage, and in 1910 voted against the Conciliation Bill which would have enfranchised some women.

However, unlike his more unfortunate Liberal counterparts, he did not have to endure heckling and interruptions at his meetings, arson attacks on his homes, or thrashings such as the one suffragette Theresa Garnett gave Liberal MP Winston Churchill in Bristol in 1909. This was because the target of WSPU militancy was the government and its ministers, and that government was a Liberal one.

In fact, the Bristol WSPU organiser in 1913, Dorothy Evans (1888–1944), apologised in court after she mistakenly targeted the Conservative Party. In 1909 she was a teacher at Batley Girls’ Grammar School when she and another woman, Nellie Godfrey, broke windows at the Batley Conservative Club. It seems they had been aiming at the Victoria Club where Liberal MP Walter Runciman was speaking, which was above the Conservative Club. The women’s quarrel, Dorothy Evans said, was not with the Conservatives, but the Liberal Government. However, the WSPU always made clear that if the Conservatives had been in power and had refused to give women the vote, militant attention would have switched to them. 

Not all Conservatives opposed women's suffrage. The Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association was set up in 1908.

On the whole, however, Gibbs does not seem to have paid the women’s franchise much attention. As far as I can see, he never spoke about suffrage in the House of Commons. He broke his silence in the House of Lords, where he sat from 1928–1931 as 1st Baron Wraxall. Here he promoted the 1928 Act which gave Parliamentary representation to Reading University. The University had only received its charter in 1926, and so had not been included with the older universities which had seats in Parliament under the recently-passed 1928 Representation of the People Act. This Act had included votes for university graduates in university constituencies.  The university franchise was not removed until the 1948 Representation of the People Act.

The only other franchise debate in which Gibbs seems to have been involved was in 1931 when he opposed a motion to abolish the right of “men in business” to two votes based on both their home and business addresses, provided they were in different constituencies and the business premises were worth over £10 per annum. For businesswomen, the value was set at £5 per annum. This right had been granted by the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

Gibbs argued that just because businessmen “spend their days in the city and their nights in the country…that is no reason why they should be deprived of their votes, when they are carrying a great deal of the burden of the taxes and rates”. During the debate he described Bristol as “one of the greatest cities in this country”. Plural voting was finally abolished by the 1948 Representation of the People Act.

Gibbs was educated at Eton and Oxford. He served in the South African War, and was  Conservative Whip between 1917–24 and 1924–28. His hobbies were hunting, travelling and shooting.

The Gibbs family wealth derived from importing ‘guano’ (bird droppings) from Peru for use as a fertiliser. It will come as no surprise to learn that much of the labour on which their fortune was built was carried out by slaves, convicts, and later by workers indentured under conditions that were little removed from slavery (as acknowledged by the National Trust on their website).


For more on Theresa Garnett see my Spotlight On Archive, and also my blog The Suffragette Who Beat Win C: Theresa Garnett and the International Alliance of Women” 


Picture Credit: 

The Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Review - LSE Library 


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