The J.A. Gibbs Home/Headlands

- a war memorial 'where useful service could be carried out'

Tribute from Queen’s College, Taunton

The following entry for John Angel Gibbs in a volume of tributes to former pupils of Queen’s College, Taunton, who fell in World War I, provides relevant background to an unusual and useful war memorial in South Wales.

“Major J A  Gibbs  D.S.O., Welsh Regiment, was killed on September 20th, 1917, at the age of thirty-seven, during the attack on the Menin Road. He was at Queen’s from 1890 – 1897. He enlisted as a trooper in the Glamorgan Yeomanry soon after the outbreak of war, obtained his commission in November, 1914, and was gazetted to the Welsh Regiment.

He went to the front in February, 1916, received the D.S.O. for conspicuous good services and was mentioned in despatches. The Colonel of his Battalion wrote:  ‘He commanded the Battalion on the 20th when it went into action and he was as pleased and as proud as could be to take them over the top. Everything from a military point of view went perfectly, largely due to his organisation of the start, but soon after they started he pushed forward, regardless of himself, to adjust something in the line,and was killed by an enemy machine gun. I should like you to know how much we all thought of him, for myself I can say that nothing in this war has made the world feel more empty. He was a loyal friend and a good soldier.’

In a letter to Mrs Gibbs only an hour before his death, the Major wrote: ‘This will be the proudest moment of my life, as I know my Battalion will live up to its reputation.’

Major Gibbs married the only daughter of Sir Thomas and Lady Morel, and left one little son. He was greatly interested in work among lads, and not long before his decease had discussed with Mrs Gibbs, who sympathetically shared his interest, various plans for giving it some practical and tangible form. Property known as ‘The Penarth Hotel’, estimated to be worth £15,000, commanding a fine view of Cardiff and the Bristol Channel, and standing in its own beautiful grounds of about five acres subsequently came on the market.

Mrs Gibbs purchased this property. After the necessary alterations and renovations are effected, the whole will be presented to the Trustees of the National Children’s Home as a memorial to her late husband. (Note: This entry must have been written early in 1918.) It is intended by the donors that this new Branch of the Home shall be used for the education and training of boys for the sea and engineering trades, preference being given to the needy sons of men who have fallen in the Welsh Regiment. The late Major Gibbs greatly admired the splendid grit and courage of the men under his command, and in this Institution his memory will be kept green, and will be an inspiration to the lads who will be trained there.

The Home will provide accommodation for about 150 boys, and the members of the family are also undertaking to furnish and equip the premises. It will be known as ‘The J.A. Gibbs Home’, Penarth Branch of the National Children’s Home. (Queen’s  College War Memorial,  1918, 24-25.)”

The Home

The former hotel, purchased from the Taff Vale Railway Company and staffed by NCH sisters led by the very distinguished Sister Ella Curnock, opened its doors to twenty-seven boys on 24 October 1918.

In his  ‘History of a Family Shipping Firm’, The Morels of Cardiff, John Morel Gibbs,  the ‘ little son’ in the quotation above, referred to the Home and the involvement of  various family members, notably Tom Morel, in its establishment. A later work, by John Gibbs, written with his wife Sheila, provides a gloss on the thinking behind the gift:

“One of the objects of the Twentieth Century Fund had been the provision of Homes for War Orphans, and even before 1917, John (Angel) and Gladys Gibbs had decided to provide a building to meet this need. Had (John Angel) returned it would have been a Thanksgiving: as he was killed, it became a memorial.”             (Trinity Methodist Church, Penarth, A Portrait, p.67. For information on the Fund referred to see Methodist Central Hall website.)

The same book includes a rationale for the nautical orientation of the Home –  in terms of the opportunities for employment offered  in the thriving South Wales ports, and alludes to the official opening of the Home by the Duke of York (later George VI), in 1921.  The Portrait includes references to some of the ‘Home boys’ Gladys, John and Sheila Gibbs got to know and these  hint at the long, close links between the  Gibbs Home/Headlands and the Gibbs family.

For the changing uses of the premise at the discretion of the NCH (initially known as the National Children’s Home and Orphanage), links to relevant background reading, information about the construction of additional buildings on the five-acre site and reasons the change of name from ‘J. A. Gibbs Home’ to ‘Headlands’, see the works by Phil Carradice listed below. Before becoming a full-time writer, Carradice was Headteacher at Headlands, and he and his family lived at the school. Writing for a BBC programme about the town’s war memorials in 2012, Carradice observed:

The J A  Gibbs Home – now known as Headlands School – was an unusual but more than effective type of war memorial. It was not just a piece of sculpture or a roll of honour but a place where useful service could be carried out.

see also Susan Gladys Gibbs nee Morel 1880-1952


Anon. Queen’s College War Memorial, Taunton: Queen’s College, 1918.

Carradice, Phil,1989, A History of Headlands School, MEd thesis, University College, Cardiff, 1989.

1991, Headlands School in Camera, Buckinghamshire: Quotes Ltd, 1991. (Full pictorial record)

2012, 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.

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