Legends and Historical Notes on the Places of North Westmorland

Legends and Historical Notes on Places of North Westmorland,  published in 1887, remains a useful resource for family historians and local historians some 134 years later. But who was Thomas Gibson, the author?

When researching the Twelfth Night holly tradition post, I found references to it in a book, published in 1887,  called Legends and Historical Notes on Places of North Westmorland. Which is still available today.

When I then started looking into who Thomas Gibson of Orton was, I uncovered a ‘rags to success’ story that also deserves to live on.

By the time of Legends and Historical Notes

Thomas Gibson MD, of Orton, Westmorland, was a physician who had studied medicine at St Andrew’s University, in Scotland, and qualified as a surgeon in London. The 1881 census shows him at Town Head House, Orton, aged 47 and widowed, with sons Robert Wilson Gibson and Thomas Horatio Gibson (both medical students) and a housekeeper. He was still there in 1887, when he entertained ‘a large company’ at Town Head House, to see in the new year.

The 1871 census show hims living in Croft House, Kirby Stephen with first wife Sarah (née Wilson) and their two sons. Sarah died at Town Head House on June 6, 1877. In December 1882, Thomas married Elizabeth Robinson (she was 28, he was twenty years her senior). A son was born in May 1884: Hermann Gibson. He chose a different branch of medicine to his father and half-brothers – going on to be a veterinary surgeon.

Thomas Gibson was president of Tebay Liberal Club, said to be kind to his political foes, and treated many poor patients free of charge. He reportedly practised in Bedford and Middlesbrough at some point after Kirkby Stephen and before Orton. 

In Westmorland, he served as a guardian of the poor, resigning in 1878 as he ‘wished to remodel the board (of guardians) and had not succeeded’.

He also served on a drainage/sanitation body. And he was interested in agriculture and once lent his piano for an amateur concert at Orton.

Sadly, Thomas Gibson died of a heart attack in August 1887, just seven months after writing the introduction to his book Legends and Historical Notes on Places of North Westmorland. This was a second edition – three times the length of the first, published in 1877, and with illustrations.

It all sounds admirable, but unremarkable. But Thomas Gibson’s background meant few people could ever have imagined him achieving so much.

A humble start

Thomas Gibson was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Gibson, born on January 16, 1834, and baptised in Warcop. And in 1871, he and Sarah were with his still unmarried mother, and maternal grandmother (also Elizabeth Gibson). Neither grandmother Elizabeth Gibson (83) nor his mother Elizabeth (49) has an occupation. Thomas Gibson may well have been providing for both,

Ten years earlier, the 1861 census for Kirby Stephen really gives a clue to his his backstory. For it lists his widowed grandmother as a pauper and charwoman, his mother Elizabeth as pauper and servant – and Thomas Gibson as a medical apprentice.

The report of his death, in the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald tells us more. 

Dr Gibson was always pleased to allude to the humble position in which he started life.

The writer says Thomas Gibson started working for ‘the late, kind, and ever-to-be-remembered Dr Blades’ as a ?groom?. 

He showed a keen interest in the work of the surgery, in chemistry and in medicine. Dr Blades recognised his potential and made him an apprentice. From there he went to university, where his hard work and dedication saw him achieve a First in medicine.

Trolling in 1880

When attacked by an anonymous correspondent in the (Tory-supporting) Westmorland Gazette in 1880, Thomas Gibson thought this was ‘contemptible’. 

It would seem the letter writer (believed to be from Tebay) had made allegations about Thomas Gibson’s past. Namely that ‘squires’ had paid for his education and thus raised him to his present position.

The accusation seems thus to have been that he owed his position to Tories. Thomas Gibson wrote to the (Liberal-supporting) Kendal Mercury to make it clear he had gained his professional position by his own efforts entirely. And emphasised that his opinions had always been ‘Liberal, without any thought of self-interest’.

Thomas Gibson also thought the attack suggested envy that he had done well for himself. And that the writer had been put up to it by senior Tories.

‘When men of certain degrees of temperament or disposition begin to cast dirt towards their fellow men and they do not stick to the truth in their statement, it does not rebound to their credit, when they show a snarling and vituperative line of conduct.’

Other honorable characters

For the illigitimate son of a poor woman to become a qualified physician, surgeon, magistrate and author makes him a very worthy Cumbrian Character – along with his mother and grandmother, for supporting his ambitions when they had so little in life. 

His mother Elizabeth looks to have died in 1862, aged 52. 

Grandmother Elizabeth seems to have died in 1866, aged 90. 

Thomas Gibson’s mentor, Dr William Dawson Blades, was born in 1822 Sedbergh, Yorkshire. He died in 1869 in Blackburn, Lancashire, having moved there from Kirkby Stephen, but it was in the Westmorland town that he was buried. Most shopkeepers and traders closed their premises for the funeral.

It was to Dr Blades, not squires or grandees (and his own enthusiasm and hard work) that William Gibson owed his start on the ladder to professional success.

Footnote: Petty Hall/Old Orton /Hall

Thomas Gibson’s son Robert Wilson Gibson is listed on the 1911 census as ‘physicial, surgeon, obstetrician – and poultry farmer’! 

He was a boarder (with the Rothery family, as he was on 1901 and 1891) of Town Head House, Orton. Robert’s brother Thomas Horatio Gibson was at Town Head House in 1891. 

This makes the claim that Thomas Gibson bought Orton Old Hall, Orton (aka Petty Hall) initially puzzling.

Yet Fred Brooksbank Garnett, in 1890, wrote that Orton Old Hall was sold by John Garnett Holme to Thomas Gibson the author. That Thomas Gibson had a small window re-opened that had been blocked up due to the window tax and that the hall now belonged to ‘Thomas Holme Gibson’ (sic) of Kirby Stephen. 

Thomas Gibson confirms in Legends and Historial Notes on Places of North Westmorland that he owns Petty Hall, which he says bears the date 1604.

It must have been ‘buy to let’! A family called Pallister were there in 1901. However… in 1881 and 1891, Petty Hall was occupied by a Robert Gibson (who died 1891), farmer, and his family. I think Robert was Thomas Gibson (the author)’s uncle.


A reader informs me:

The Robert Gibson who tenanted Petty Hall was brother to Dr. Gibson’s mother, Elizabeth. His was indeed a rags to success story and he seems to have been a larger than life character, much loved for his kindness to and empathy with his less fortunate fellows. He held very strong opinions on education and was a leading figure in the Temperance movement in the area.