Susan Gladys Morel was born in 1880, the fourth child and only daughter of Thomas Morel and Susanna, née Gibbs, who went on to have one more son. At the time of his daughter’s birth, Thomas, a ship-owner with a Jersey Methodist background, was rising within the commercial-political world of increasingly wealthy Cardiff, and he continued to rise. In 1898, he served as Lord Mayor of the city, and the following year he was knighted. Gladys’s mother, Susanna, had a Portland Methodist heritage and, frequently ill, shrank from public life. Gladys, known as ‘Glad’ to Sir Thomas because her birth brought him so much pleasure, grew up ‘something of a tomboy’ thanks to her four brothers. She enjoyed riding and farm life, but there was always a ‘serious side’ to her and this found early expression in her willingness to help her mother in appropriate activities linked with Trinity Methodist Church, Penarth.
Gladys fell in love with her cousin, John Angel Gibbs, the son of one of her mother’s younger brothers. However, Sir Thomas would not countenance a marriage between them partly because of Gibbs executors who had withdrawn money invested in Morel Brothers at an inconvenient time. To this was added a father’s protectiveness of his only daughter, for whom, her brothers joked ‘only a religious earl would be good enough.’ Morel family opposition to the marriage continued after Sir Thomas died in 1903, and in 1906, Gladys was sent on a visit to Egypt with an uncle and aunt in order to forget John Angel. In the same year, John Angel was able to set himself up as a ship owner and began to demonstrate that he had inherited his father’s sense of business. As his firm – the South Wales Steamship Company – flourished so the opposition of the Morels subsided, and on 21 April 1909, John Angel and Gladys were married at Trinity. They moved to 3 Park Road at the top of Marine Parade, Penarth, and on 17 August 1912 a son, John Morel Gibbs, was born.
Family life was ruptured by the outbreak of the First World War. John Angel enlisted as a trooper and, in September 1917, having won a DSO, been mentioned in despatches and risen to the rank of Major, was killed leading the 9th Welsh Battalion over the top.
Gladys and the NCH
In the months that followed, Gladys harnessed her grief and followed up plans she had made with her late husband to provide for orphans. She purchased the Penarth Hotel, valued at £15,000, and gave it to the major Methodist body working with children; the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. This organisation (that later became known as the National Children’s Home and later still as Action for Children or NCH/ Action for Children), became a major focus for Gladys’s Christian concern. Her life-long relationship with the organisation provides insights into her philanthropy, family life, values and deep commitment.
In 1918, the NCH opened the hotel as the ‘J.A. Gibbs Home’, a nautical training school. Photographs from 1921 show Gladys with the Duke of York (later George VI) at the official opening of the Home, and pictures from the Thirties show her enjoying herself surrounded by ‘Home Boys’ at their annual camp. In their Portrait of Trinity, John and Sheila Gibbs fill out the picture a bit by writing of Harold Woodhouse and Edwin Tabraham ‘living in a Hostel having left the Gibbs Home.’ (p101). Behind this observation lies the fact that, to mark her son’s majority, Gladys purchased a house a few streets from the Gibbs Home that could be used as a ‘hostel’, a ‘half-way house’ where ‘Home Boys, such as Harold and Edwin, could live on leaving ‘care’. Further light is shed on the observation elsewhere in the history when we read that ‘Harold Woodhouse (was) almost a second son to Gladys.’ (p103). In many and practical ways, Gladys gave a personal dimension to the gift she made in memory of her husband. Harold Woodhouse, a brilliant mathematician, came through the Home and Gladys enabled him to add a Cambridge degree to one he earned in Cardiff. ‘almost a second son to Gladys’, Harold was almost a brother for John Morel Gibbs.
In 1936, as a result of changing economic conditions, the decline in shipping in South Wales and changing patterns in the ‘treatment of delinquents’, the ‘Gibbs Home’, still administered by the NCH, became a Junior Approved School known as ‘Headlands’. In their Portrait of Trinity, John and Sheila Gibbs wrote: ‘The thinking of Gladys Gibbs (about the alteration of use), influenced by John Wesley’s precept ‘Go to those who need you most’, was crucial, although J A Gibbs’s brothers and sisters disapproved of the decision.’ (Portrait, p102-3.) One can imagine the conflict between ‘small mindedness’ and ‘generosity of spirit’ reflected in this comment and draw from it a sense of Gladys as donor. She, rightly, realised that having made a gift she should allow professionals to make decisions about how it could best be used. She remained deeply involved in NCH affairs and, during 1944, in her capacity as the Branch Treasurer of the NCH in the Cardiff and Swansea District of the Methodist Church, she attended the Methodist Conference in Leeds. She was one of only a few women delegates.
The story of the Penarth Hotel that was given to the NCH following a death on the Menin Road has been told from different points of view. For example, it has been presented as a ‘most unusual war memorial’. It has also been the focus of a flexible organisation responding to the changing needs of children and young people. The position of the property, and the fact it stood in five acres of land have been among the factors that has made it a much appreciated asset for nearly a century. In 2009, by which time the site accommodated children with special educational needs, state intervention led to the laying of an Astroturf sports pitch – costing £150,000 – as a facility for ‘Headlands’ and local groups. The gift valued at £15,000 in 1918 had ‘brought forth’ – in one coup – ten fold; it had also served generations of vulnerable young people.
Full life in widowhood
In his history of The Morels of Cardiff, John Morel Gibbs, reflected that his mother ‘made a full life for herself in her widowhood.’ (p122). In writing in this way he was thinking partly of what she put into the J A Gibbs Home / Headlands, but that was not the only focus for Gladys’s attention. For example, she took a leading part in the development of Child Welfare Services in Penarth and she created, with volunteers, ‘a service for which the local authority later took responsibility’. Gladys’s other contributions to wider society included sitting on The Bench as a Justice of the Peace, a function that was only opened to women in 1919.
As in her youth, local Methodist church life provided areas in which Gladys could exercise her abilities; she responded to various challenges and fulfilled various roles. A singular distinction in this regard was the fact that she took on the burdensome responsibilities of being a Circuit Steward, one of the first women to occupy this position in a circuit.
In various ways, Gladys put her property at the disposal of those taking positive movements in British Methodism. I recently came across correspondence in the Archives held at the New Room in Bristol showing that when, in 1929, the Bristol-based Rev’d Ferrier Hulme travelled to South Wales to discuss the purchase of the New Room with representatives of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, he stayed with Gladys Gibbs at her home in Penarth.
I have already mentioned the half-way house Gladys bought in 1933 when her son reached twenty-one. At about the same time, she purchased Worcester Cottage in the Usk Valley. Owning this house enabled her to share country pursuits with her son, but, with characteristic generosity, she made it available for use by Methodists from South Wales. It was used by church leaders and Sunday School teachers for conferences and retreats, and in 1938, the 6th Penarth Trinity Scouts established a tradition of holding their annual camp in one of the fields near to the ‘Worcesters’.
Gladys was hugely supportive of her son who, having read Law at Cambridge , ‘eaten his dinners’ and been called to the Bar, undertook a post-graduate degree in Psychology and took up an entirely new career: he became a Child Psychologist, and, after the Second World War, when he was a Conscientious Objector, he taught at Cardiff University. He followed up interests in the Methodist Church (becoming, for example, Vice-President in 1959), and in residential schools (he was a member of the Williams Committee on staffing them). She delighted in her daughter-in-law, Sheila Newton, with whose parents she had laboured at Trinity, and in the five sons born to John and Sheila between 1940 and 1949.
Continuing Philanthropy: The Gibbs Settlement/ Gibbs Charitable Trusts/ Gibbs Trust
Gladys Gibbs’s philanthropic instincts continued throughout her life. They found ‘historic’ expression on 21 October 1946, when she established the First Gibbs Settlement that became a basic document behind what is now known as the Gibbs Trust, registered charity 207997, whose accounts, holdings, records of grants, names of trustee, etc., etc., etc., are now accessible on line at the Charity Commission website.
Gladys clearly wanted to organise her giving on a firm, legal and modern basis. In doing so she established principles of family involvement and of ‘serious giving’ that can still be seen in the Gibbs Trust as it operates today. From the start the Settlement/Trust was a family affair: the first trustees were herself, her son, her daughter-in-law , Sheila, and Sheila’s brother, Malcolm Herbert Newton – who brought his professional skills as an employee of Lloyds Bank to the role of Treasurer. Gladys chaired and she was followed in that role by her daughter-in-law, a sequence that meant female leadership for the first five decades of the Trust’s existence.
The terms of the Settlement reflected Gladys’s instinct to give through Methodist structure and were denominational in focus. The purpose of the Settlement was designated as being ‘for such charitable purposes connected with the Methodist Church in the United Kingdom or any department of the Methodist Church as the Trustees should think fit.’ The schedule contained six low-yielding preference stocks, mostly in railways.
In1950, John Morel Gibbs, followed his mother’s example and, with 10,000 James Howell Ordinary Shares, made a Settlement. The terms of this Settlement were significantly wider in scope, no longer stipulating Methodist connections or departments. This broadening of concern reflected a tendency that has continued. Grants from the Gibbs Trust have supported a variety of causes and, while acknowledging Methodist initiatives have been widespread in their impact and form. During the Sixties and seventies, major grants supported Aldersgate Productions that was committed to professional Christian theatre and the Resource Centre at the David Livingstone Teacher’s Training College in Zambia.
The Trust has shown itself sensible of Gladys’s generosity of spirit as well as of her generosity.
Carradice, Phil, Headlands School in Camera, Buckinghamshire: Quotes Ltd, 1991. (Full pictorial record)
Penarth’s unusual war memorials,
Gibbs, John Morel. The Morels of Cardiff: the History of a Family Shipping Firm, Cardiff: National Museum of Wales,1982.
Gibbs, John and Sheila. Trinity Methodist Church, Penarth, a Portrait, Penarth: Trinity Methodist Church,1994.
Hulme, T Ferrier, Letters on File, New Room Archive, Bristol.
Minutes of Conference for 1944.