Photo credit: Rebecca Gethin
Elizabeth Mary Gibbins was known as Betty to her friends and colleagues, Gibby to her pupils in Hong Kong, and Miss G to St Mary’s girls. Born in 1911 in Dorset into a medical family, she had what in later life she described as an “Edwardian” upbringing. A clever child, she insisted on learning to read alongside her older brother. In an interview after her retirement she related how, after her father’s death when she was seven, the family “moved down the road and down the social scale”, and having been educated by a governess, she went to the local school. Her grandparents moved nearby and became a regular presence in the children’s lives, her grandmother speaking to Elizabeth in French and German.
When ten years old, Elizabeth won a scholarship to Sandecotes School where she was described as “a pupil of exceptional ability, showing a decided talent in art and elocution”. Westfield College in London followed, where she gained a First in history and was a leading member of the art club and was in the dramatic society. She then took a Dip Ed at Cambridge. Her first teaching post was at St Brandon’s School in Bristol where she headed the History Department and ran the library.
Elizabeth had been at St Brandon’s for three years when the Bishop of Hong Kong, who had met Elizabeth through his sister at Westfield, asked her to take on the headship of the Diocesan Girls’ School in Hong Kong. There she became a much-respected member of the community, revitalising the school and creating a caring and more relaxed environment. She introduced Chinese as a subject, learning it herself from the daughter of a Cantonese master while teaching her English in return. While at the school Elizabeth took an active part in the educational, religious and social activities of the colony including supporting mental health in one of the hospitals.
After the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong Elizabeth was interned, along with other civilians from allied countries, among them many women and children. Severe deprivation and hardship followed but amid the turmoil a school was established. Elizabeth headed the senior school for 200 students. With limited resources they relied on what was available such as bibles and some copies of Shakespeare, so these became their textbooks. Fellow internees with particular skills taught the children alongside Elizabeth. The school provided a sense of security, normality and achievement, and remarkably the exams she organised for the pupils were recognised at the end of the war as matriculation standard by the University of London. Elizabeth also set up an adult education programme in the camp, herself running evening lectures on European history in a dark stairwell.
Following the liberation of the camp in 1945, Elizabeth was instrumental in getting the Diocesan School up and running again before returning to England to care for her elderly mother. On her departure the Bishop of Hong Kong wrote of her great achievements as the school’s Headmistress saying, “She will be an irreplaceable loss to us.”
After a brief period in a temporary post in Bath, Elizabeth joined St Mary’s in the summer of 1946. The school had been going through an unsettled interregnum and it was with relief that Miss Gibbins was welcomed. One pupil said of her, “She looked exciting and sailed into the school with confidence”.
There followed twenty-four years of a remarkable headship. Those who knew Miss G will have their particular memories of her. Her personality marked the direction and atmosphere of the school. Many years later at her funeral the vicar giving an address described how behind a bluff exterior was a complex character, one of “great sensitivity and deep humility, no cant or humbug, just genuine humility”. He talked of her no-nonsense approach to life, her first-rate brain and quick perception. He acknowledged her forthrightness and lack of patience with pretentiousness, but balanced by kindness, generosity and an intense practical concern for others. Her theology was described as “fairly radical”. She believed strongly in the ordination of women.
Miss Gibbins’ arrival at St Mary’s at the end of the war coincided with the start of a building programme that had been put on hold. Over the next years St Cecilia’s became ready for use, the kitchens were improved, Plumer Wing was built, as were the laboratories, the gym, an outdoor swimming pool, a boarding house and the chapel. She drove the plans, headed fund-raising, and wrote many letters. The traditions of school life were resumed as the limitations of the war receded and the girls were able to travel further afield for matches, concerts and theatre. Lectures covering topics such as the Common Market, nuclear research, mental health, drug addiction and the 1968 student revolt in France were part of each term. Dances with Marlborough College were introduced, and foreign trips and field outings undertaken.
In the 1960s changes in the wider society began to impact on St Mary’s. Pupils leaving to go to co-educational boarding schools or sixth-form colleges provided challenges for the governors and the headmistress. Miss G feared that the curriculum requirements of new universities would compromise a rounded education. The school met the challenges with a number of changes including the introduction of a tutorial system.
Those who knew Miss G recognised her strong faith and her ability to convey the importance of carrying Christian values into daily life. Her lessons, brief noteless sermons and evening bible study discussions were memorable. It was right that her time at St Mary’s should be completed alongside that of the new chapel. On her retirement in 1972, the Chairman of the Governors, Sir Edmund Compton, said of her, “A whole generation of St Mary’s has been blessed with a headmistress who is both great and good. Greatness in rare. So is goodness. The two together are pretty well unique. There is nothing derivative in her speech and action, always original, always practical. Utterly sincere in herself, she will always respond to sincerity in others.”
On leaving Calne Elizabeth went back as acting head of the DGS in Hong Kong for a few months and then returned to her home in Bosham where she became very involved in village life. She died in 1992.
St Mary’s Archivist