John Gibson (1778-1840) Palaeontologist
John Gibson was a manufacturing chemist and collector of fossils from Kirkdale Cave, Yorkshire and Ilford, Essex. He was was baptised at Kirkby Moorside, Yorkshire on 15th February 1778. Gibson was a native of Yorkshire, but later lived in Plaistow and Stratford, Essex from about 1805-1830. By 1833 he was living in Tredegar House, Bow. His political affiliation is not clear. In 1830 he voted for a Whig and a Tory candidate. Gibson’s faith is not in doubt. He was a committed Christian and a practising member of the Church of England. John Gibson was elected church warden at St. Mary’s Stratford, Bow, Middlesex in 1836, 1837 and 1838. He was described as “able, polite and impartial”.
John Gibson died after a short illness following a haemorrhage on 2nd October 1840 at Bow Road, aged 62. He was buried in St. John’s Church, Stratford on 19th October, and a white marble memorial tablet placed on the north aisle wall. He wrote his will on 31st May 1839. His estate was estimated at being below £35,000. He was a very wealthy man and his will mentions his furniture, plate, linen, china, glass, horses and carriages, wines and liquors which he left to his wife. He stipulated in his will “…after my decease I give my books, pictures, prints, philosophical instruments, coins, shells, fossils and all my other natural curiosities unto my son John Gibson.
His parents were Jonathon Gibson, a labourer, and Betty Pridoms. He married Ann Harrison, whose father was a tanner, on 1st May 1809 at Great Edstone, Yorkshire. They had five children. His second son became a clergyman, both his daughters married clergymen and four of his grandsons went into the church.
In 1805 he was working at a chemical works in Plaistow, Essex and in 1807 he went into partnership with the meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864) and Joseph Jewell (1763-1846). The three of them were running a chemical works in Stratford, Essex. Both his business partners were Quakers.
John Gibson was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society on 4th June 1824 and remained a member until his death in 1840. One of his sponsors was William Buckland (1784-1856), Professor of Geology at Oxford. Gibson’s main geological work was at two very important Pleistocene sites, Kirkdale Cave, Yorkshire and Ilford, Essex. In the summer of 1821, while visiting friends near Helmsley, Gibson noticed some bones and tusks among lumps of limestone which had been used to repair a road. He tracked them back to a quarry adjacent to Kirkdale church and soon realised the antiquity and significance of the bones which the quarrymen had thought were modern. Gibson amassed and preserved a large collection of bones, tusks and teeth. He acquired, for example, more than 300 hyaena canine teeth belonging to at least 75 individuals. Gibson also obtained a bear’s tooth. He soon had the best collection of fossils from Kirkdale Cave. Some drawings of his better specimens were sent to Cuvier, the great French naturalist in Paris, to be incorporated into a new edition of his monumental work on fossil quadrupeds. Gibson’s great discoveries prompted William Buckland to investigate the cave. He declared that Kirkdale Cave was a hyaena den and reported his findings and research to the Royal Society in February 1822 and published his famous Reliquae Diluvianae in 1823. Gibson donated specimens from Kirkdale to the Geological Society, British Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons Museum. These finds are now considered to be of Ipswichian age, about 120,000 years old.
Shortly after his work in Yorkshire, Gibson was collecting Pleistocene fossils from Ilford. In 1824 the entire skeleton of a large mammoth was discovered at Ilford at a depth of 4.8m in a tenacious clay. He spent much time and effort diligently collecting and preserving the bones. Professor Buckland and William Clift helped him to excavate “a large tusk and several of the largest cylindrical bones of the legs, many ribs and vertebrae, with the smallest bones of the feet and tail lying close upon one and other”. Unfortunately he was unable to reassemble the skeleton estimated to have been at least 4.5m high. Gibson used glue as well as plaster of Paris to protect his specimens. In 1833 Gibson donated to the Yorkshire Museum “an interesting suite of bones of elephant, rhinoceros, ox etc. from the diluvium of Ilford. Some of John Gibson’s Ilford specimens, including mammoth bones & teeth and bones of a large aurochs, went to the Royal College of Surgeons Museum where they were destroyed by enemy action in the last war. The Ilford fossils are about 210,000 years old.
W.H. George. 1998. John Gibson (1778-1840) manufacturing chemist and fossil collector of Stratford, Essex. Essex Field Club Newsletter No. 25. May 1998 pp.4-5.
W.H. George. 1998. John Gibson (1778-1840) manufacturing chemist and collector of Pleistocene fossils from Kirkdale Cave, Yorkshire and Ilford, Essex. 20 pages. ISBN 0953409201