Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,139 pages of information and 245,599 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Alexander Gibb

From Graces Guide

Brigadier-General Sir Alexander Gibb GBE CB FRS (12 February 1872–21 January 1958) was a Scottish civil engineer.

Gibb was born in Broughty Ferry, Dundee, the son of the civil engineer, Alexander Easton Gibb, and the grandson of John Gibb, a founder member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

He was educated at the High School of Dundee, Rugby and University College, London, although he left the latter after a year to become articled to the prominent civil engineers John Wolfe-Barry and Henry Marc Brunel.

Having completed his training, he became resident engineer on the Metropolitan Railway - the Whitechapel and Bow Railway extension.

1901 Birth of son Alistair Monteith Gibb

After two years he left to join his father's company, Easton Gibb and Son, of which he later became managing director.

1916, Gibb was appointed Chief Engineer Ports Construction to the British Army in France, with the rank of Brigadier-General.

1918 he became Civil Engineer-in-Chief to the Admiralty

1918 Knighted

1919 he became Director-General of Civil Engineering with the new Ministry of Transport.

1921 left government service and became a consultant engineer, founding Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners the following year. This became the largest consulting civil engineering firm in the United Kingdom and was involved in projects all over the world.

Gibb was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1918 for his war work and was knighted later the same year as Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE). He was promoted to Knight Grand Cross (GBE) in the 1920 civilian war honours.

He also wrote 'The Story of Telford: The Rise of Civil Engineering', a biography of engineer Thomas Telford, to whom his great-grandfather John Gibb had been a deputy.

1927 Elected President of he Institution of Chemical Engineers.[1]

In 1936 he became President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and in the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1958 Obituary [2]

SIR ALEXANDER GIBB, G.B.E., C.B., F.R.S., LL.D., died at his home at Hartley Wintney on January 21, at the age of eighty-five. His family has a tradition of distinction in civil engineering, and he represented the fifth generation, in direct succession, of civil engineers. His career was unique in another respect, too: he achieved his reputation first as a contractor, then as an engineer in high positions in governmental service, and finally as a consulting engineer and as the founder of the firm of Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners.

Alexander Gibb was educated at Rugby School, and always intended to be an engineer. His inclination was to go into the electrical side, which, in 1890, when he had to make his choice, was in its very early infancy. His advisers, however, considered that he would come under better teachers if he followed his forebears on the constructional side, and accordingly, on leaving school, he went to University College, London, where the engineering laboratories had been founded by Sir Alexander Kennedy, F.R.S. Then, in 1891, he became a pupil of Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Marc Brunel in their Westminster office.

After four years' pupilage, which included one year as outdoor inspector on the Lanarkshire and Dumbartonshire Railway, he continued for another five years on Wolfe Barry's staff. During this latter period he was employed as resident engineer on railway widenings and extensions, including the widening of the Metropolitan Railway (Harrow to Finchley Road section), and the Bow and Whitechapel Railway, both heavy jobs in which the resident engineer had to do most of the work, nowadays usually done at head office. In 1900, Gibb joined his father's firm Easton Gibb and Son, who were in the course of constructing Kew Road Bridge. As managing director of Easton Gibb and Son, he was engaged later on a dock wall at Ipswich, the Gateshead and Dunston Railway widening, extensions at the Alexandra Dock, Newport, costing over £1,250,000 and finally, from 1909 to 1916, contracts running into £4,000,000 for the construction of the Naval Base at Rosyth. It was in great measure due to his initiative and powers of organisation that this great base, with its dry docks, was completed two years earlier than intended, just in time to dock the battleships and cruisers damaged in the Battle of Jutland, fought on May 31, 1916.

In 1916 Gibb accepted a new appointment under Sir Eric Geddes, with whom he was to be closely associated in various capacities for some years. He was now chief engineer, ports construction, to the British armies in France; his responsibility was to prepare for reconstruction of ports and railway junctions demolished by the retreating Germans. His next appointment, created for him by Geddes, was civil-engineer-in-chief, Admiralty. Here he was concerned with measures to counter the U-boat menace, including the famous mystery towers - an idea which, though too late to be of service before the Armistice, was applied to anti-aircraft defence in the Thames estuary and elsewhere during the second world war. Gibb was granted a C.B. for his services to the armies in France and a K.B.E. on appointment to the Admiralty. His work there was recognised by advancement to G.B.E.

It was once more Geddes, by then Minister of Transport, who appointed Gibb his director-general of civil engineering in. 1919. He bad to create a new department in a new Ministry while dealing with a variety of problems connected with communications in the British Isles. Among the projects which came under his review were the Channel tunnel and the Severn barrage, his report on the latter advocating the English Stones site, and a pumped storage reservoir.

In 1921 Sir Alexander decided to set up as a consulting engineer and a year later took for his offices Queen Anne's Lodge. Much of his early work was done in conjunction with Dr. Merz and Colonel McLellan, the consulting electrical engineers. The most notable of these joint enterprises was the 535MW Barking power station, Humber River hydro-electric scheme in Newfoundland and in 1926 to 1929 the 103MW Galloway hydro-electric project. Other early works included an investigation into the foundations of St. Paul's Cathedral and the building of the Aquarium in the London Zoological Gardens.

There were many works overseas on which Sir Alexander acted as consulting engineer. He was adviser to Canadian National Ports, to New Zealand for the Arapuni hydroelectric station, to Australia for the Sydney Dock, to Burma for the Port of Rangoon, to India for a number of projects, to the Admiralty for certain aspects of the Singapore Naval Base, to Venezuela for the extension of La Guaira Harbour, and to Colombia for sea walls at the mouth of the Magdalena River, with a new port at Barranquilla. He also arranged the purchase, manning and despatch of two destroyers built in Portugal for the Colombian Navy. At home he was engineer to the Kincardine road bridge opened in 1936 and for the widening of the old Menai Straits bridge. In the period 1933-38 he was responsible for many schemes of industrial engineering, laying out sites for factories, such as Guinness brewery at Park Royal and industrial development of trading estates in the depressed areas. It was his policy to group round him in these schemes teams of specialists such as architects, and beating and ventilating engineers and others; his firm grew. to be one of the largest in the country.

In 1938 chiefly due to overwork and over-strain he was taken ill, and when war broke out in 1939 he was not fit enough to be given an appointment comparable with those he held during, and just subsequent to, the first wor1d war. His consolation lay in the manner in which the Government made . use of his organisation and of the team of engineers which he had so carefully built up over a period of years, first for the construction of many new ordnance factories, and later for other war activities such as new steam electric power stations, and underground factories.

Sir Alexander's interest in the social and scientific life of the world of engineering was also characterised by a ubiquitous activity, and he held high offices in numerous institutions and similar bodies, such as the Royal Fine Arts Commission, of which he was the first civil engineer to be a member. Most of his published writings are presidential addresses or discourses of similar nature. There is one exception: in 1935 his "Story of Telford" was published. He held that Telford, above all others, should be considered the founder of the profession of the civil engineer, and the greatest exponent of that profession; a point of view ably explained in his book.

He was also very conscious of the contribution which civil engineers had made to the improvement of life, by the arts of road and harbour construction and the like. This he expressed forcefully in his presidential address to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1936. In this sense he was an Empire builder, and the Empire stood, in Sir Alexander's view, for the benefits which all these works brought in their train. " The basis and justification for the existence of the Engineer " he said " and his contribution to civilisation exist in the fact that the application of science to practical use is in fact Engineering. Without the Engineer I would claim, civilisation as we know it would never have been achieved . . . . he has changed the face of the world and created the British Empire. It is in no spirit of boasting that I would say that." He could see no limit in the future, to the achievements of engineers, but he affirmed that, with the bewildering speed of new developments, control was essential. He called for a brake on the "continuous disintegration" of engineering institutions and societies, and tried to implant in the mind of every engineer the idea of co-operation. One broad policy to inspire and guide all engineers and a body of engineering opinion so authoritative as to command attention in politics and administration would be, he said, the greatest and perhaps the only safeguard for the future of civilisation.

1958 Appreciation by G. A. Maunsell[3]

LOOKING back over a link with Sir Alexander Gibb that has extended over fifty years, I am rather sensible of the modern shift in our attitude to life which tends to denigrate character and personality. People nowadays are conditioned to work impersonally in a spirit of teamwork which, admirable though it may be, seems to deprive them of those human and picturesque qualities which some of the older and less inhibited generation to which Sir Alexander belonged could and did display in such Wide measure. These are qualities which in Sir Alexander's case have endeared him to many.

When I first knew him he was quite a young man but already in control of the oldest established and perhaps the leading firm of public works contractors in this country. He had on his hands simultaneously two of the biggest-ever dock construction jobs, which imposed upon him the necessity for extraordinary effort. He was of course a good practical engineer and himself a pioneer in the matter of contractors' plant and he was also a very shrewd business man. These abilities combined with a genius for making friends helped him along during the difficult years, but I think that what really counted most was his indomitable pluck, perseverance, and the great faculty he had for adaptation and resource.

At a later stage of his career this ability of his to size up a situation and come forward with just the right solution brought him well merited rewards. In 1914 for example It looked as if Rosyth Dockyard could never be got ready in time to take its proper place in the war but, through his friend Winston Churchill, he proposed an acceleration scheme whereby the Rosyth Base could be, and in fact was, made capable of provisioning and sheltering our fleet in the critical days that followed.

Again a short time after that when our armies in Picardy and Artois were hamstrung for lack of efficient transport behind the lines, it was Gibb and a small group of other civilians working under another friend Sir Eric Geddes who provided the remedy, Gibb's part in this being the provision of ports and tram ferries.

Near the end of the war when the submarine menace looked like putting England out of action it was again Gibb who fathered the daring project of blocking the English Channel to submarines by establishing a line of artificial islands across the Straits, and although the chances of war prevented this scheme from coming to full fruition it was a great conception.

His resource and power of adaptation were not of course confined to expedients in wartime. One very notable instance of his peacetime planning ability lay in his recognition, in advance of almost all other engineers, of the important part which hydroelectric development of our apparently insignificant water resources might play in this country's electric power programme, and long in advance of the general movement he by his exertions in Galloway gave the country a convincing demonstration of this.

Another way in which Sir Alexander seems to have been thinking ahead of contemporary opinion was demonstrated by his abandonment after the 1914 war of the remunerative and assured position he could have occupied on the purely constructional side. This he did in favour of building up a consulting engineering organisation which for him was almost like starting life afresh. He no doubt perceived that whereas the old contracting firms like S. Pearson and Sons had in Edwardian days been the finest exponents of British civil engineering practice in lands overseas, the mantle was already falling from their shoulders and lighting upon those on the consultancy side of his profession.

Sir Alexander's subsequent achievement in building up in Britain the world's largest and most well known firm of civil engineering consultants was the outcome. Perhaps he had been influenced in doing this to some extent by the fact that he himself had from his earliest years been steeped in the best civil engineering tradition which Thomas Telford, helped by his own great grandfather, had first created a tradition in which he himself followed so worthily.

1959 Obituary [4]

Sir Alexander Gibb, G.B.E., C.B., LL.D., F.R.S., whose death occurred on 21st January 1958, had been a Member of the Institution for 40 years.

Born in 1872, he was educated at Rugby and University College, London. From 1890 to 1900 he was a pupil of Sir John Wolfe Barry and H. M. Brunel and was concerned with work on the Metropolitan Railway.

During the period 1900 to 1916 he carried out various works as a contractor, among them Newport Docks, Kew Bridge, Rosyth Naval Base and most of the anti-submarine defences for Scotland. He was awarded the C.B. for his services during the 1914-18 war as Chief Engineer Ports Construction to the British Armies in France and Belgium from 1916 to 1918. As Civil Engineer in Chief Admiralty in 1918-19 he was responsible for all naval civil engineering works at home and abroad; and as Director General of Civil Engineering, Ministry of Transport, from 1919 to 1921 he was in charge of engineering for all railways, docks, harbours, canals and roads.

In 1922 Sir Alexander became Senior Partner in the firm of Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners, Consulting Engineers.

At various times he served as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Chemical Engineers, Institute of Transport, Institute of Welding and the London Chamber of Commerce.

1958 Obituary [5]

Sir Alexander Gibb - An Appreciation by J. Guthrie Brown.

"It is a great honour to have been asked by my Partners to write this all too inadequate article for the News Letter on the passing of Sir Alexander Gibb, the founder of this great firm of consulting engineers.

If ever there was a man born to be an engineer, it was Sir Alexander. Tradition and instinct both combined to this end; the long line of Scottish ancestors, all of whom had achieved success in engineering, and given him intelligence, courage, determination and a typically Scottish sense of humour. Yet he had an outstanding gift which would have made him a success in whatever profession or business he had taken up. That was his uncanny knack of choosing the right people to work with him and thereafter supporting them through thick and thin. As a result they, on their part, served him with the utmost loyalty and counted themselves honoured to be so doing. What a list there is of those who served him faithfully and well, many fortunately still with us; Menzies, Matthews, Maunsell, Salmond, Ferguson, Savile,Rustat Blake, Beaver, Stileman, Smelie, Warren, Williamson, Paton and many others, including the writer, if he may modestly join the end of the queue.

It is an almost impossible task to deal in short appreciation such as this with the influence which Sir Alexander had on my life since I first met him over forty years ago. At that time, I was working as a junior engineer in Glasgow under the late John Ferguson, who had been called to assist Sir Alexander on the Rosyth claims. He held up Sir Alexander to me as model of what an engineer should be. I met Sir Alexander from time to time thereafter until I joined the firm in 1926 and was closely associated with him from that time until his death.

After becoming a Partner in 1938, I had the privilege during the war years of meeting him on the most friendly and informal terms, going over weekly to his home at Hartley Wintney (which, incidentally, I selected for him), and he coming to see me at my cottage at The Old House, Rotherwick, where, with a section of the staff, we were busy on the Captain Cook Dock and other war works. During all our years together I take pride that we never had any difference of opinion on policy. He was invariably kind and friendly to me, as to all his staff, and proved without doubt the greatest single influence in my whole career. Generous to a fault and the soul of hospitality, he was a wonderful example to those who worked with him.

In the later years, during and after the war, his visits from Hartley Wintney to Queen Anne's Lodge were reduced to one or two days a week. Even then his personality made an impact on the staff. I always felt that it was possible, on entering Queen Anne's Lodge, to sense whether or not Sir Alexander was in the office by the general effect that his presence created. Just as in a hive, when the queen is busily pursuing her duties, there is a deep hum of contented activity from the worker bees all fully occupied on their varied tasks, so Sir Alexander could create an increase in the efficient working of the staff throughout the office, from the desire of all to show their admiration for their gifted leader.

One of Sir Alexander's admirable qualities was that he would back his Partners and staff to the hilt. If any mistake was made- and most engineers who deal with a large volume of work occasionally do make mistakes-then Sir Alexander shouldered the responsibility. He never tried to excuse himself by saying it was the fault of the staff ; it was his fault and he would take the blame.

He had his share of misfortunes during his full life; an arm with little power in the fingers, and the loss of an eye, are indeed major afflictions. Like Nelson, however, whose portrait occupied a prominent place in his room, he took these physical limitations in his stride and largely ignored them. The loss of his eldest son, Alistair, was a grievous blow. He never complained, but it left its mark on him for the remainder of his life.

If pride is sinful, then Sir Alexander sinned greatly in two respects. The first was pride of birth. He was proud to be a Scot, descended through many generations of fine Scottish stock. He sang the praises of Scotland wherever he went; in fact he used to say that during his Canadian tour he was better known in Canada, not as an engineer, but as the Scot who taught the Canadians the correct words of" Auld Lang Syne " and how to sing it properly.

Gruinard occupied a special place in his affection and even in the closing period of his life he visited Gruinard each year, travelling by air from Blackbushe aerodrome, near his home, to Inverness so as to ease the strain consequent on such a long journey. It is fitting that his ashes will be taken to the little cemetery overlooking the House of Gruinard.

Second, and above all, he was proud of the firm that he established. Which of us at the age of 50, with an assured reputation and ample money for his own modest needs and those of his family, would have ventured at this late age into the hurly-burly of professional work and courageously burst open the closed shop of the consulting engineers in Westminster, few of whom welcomed this intruder?

Many of the present generation will not be aware of his early struggles to put the firm on its feet, which involved him in many weary journeys all over the world and in an expenditure for ten long years that would have intimidated most men, before the firm's finances began to break even. He carried the entire financial burden on his own shoulders and asked nothing from his Partners. That is the measure of the man, not afraid of hard work, and even less afraid of losing money for an ideal and an ambition, to build up the biggest and best firm of consulting engineers in Great Britain.

Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners: that is his finest memorial. May those f us who follow in his footsteps maintain this high purpose.

Hi favourite poets were Burns and Kipling; who better than Burns, therefore, to provide his epitaph:

Few hearts like his, with virtue warm'd. Few heads with knowledge so inform'd. If there's another world, he lives in bliss, If there is none, he made the best of this.

An Appreciation by T. A. L. Paton.

"It is not an easy task to express in words my admiration and respect for a man who guided my career from its early stages and who later entrusted me with the leadership of the firm he founded.

In my early days as a pupil, three years after the founding of the firm, Sir Alexander was truly an awe-inspiring man. The galaxy of talent from all walks of life who came as his guests to the firm's dinners gave the junior staff some idea of his many friends and interests.

A few years later, when he paid a visit to Rangoon to inspect Strand Market Wharf under construction, and again when he carried out the National Ports Survey in Canada, I really began to appreciate to a much greater degree Sir Alexander's qualities. His personality, his flair for getting on the best terms with people, and the zest with which he tackled any problem were most impressive to anyone who was fortunate enough to accompany Sir Alexander on a site visit whether at home or overseas even for a few days.

Later, working in or near London, I came to understand more and more the exceptional qualities of Sir Alexander as an engineer, as a leader and as a man. Although generally he was most considerate, he could at times be devastating in his comments when he felt strongly on some particular subject or individual.

The way he broke up a meeting with a well-known contractor, A - C-r-i-h--1, in 1935 was absolutely shattering (and of course well deserved) ; his remark in 1941 to Sir A-f-e M-c-1-i-e that he hoped his engineers had been civil to " Mr." Mac- - -, when he came to inspect the plant at Rosyth left the talkative old gentleman quite speechless. But later at lunch they were cracking jokes together to such an extent that no one else in the party had time to do justice to the meal.

Sir Alexander was always most kind to anyone connected with his family or with his firm. He was intensely proud of the firm he founded and of the loyalty and devotion of those who worked with him. He kept in close touch with our aehievements right to the end and was always ready at any time with encouragement and advice."

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