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Robert John Gibson

St Peter's 13-18

Robert John Gibson

(St Olave’s 1938 – 44, The Manor 1944 – 49)

Eric Thompson, who was at school with John Gibson, has informed us of the death of John.

John went to live in Canada after attending Trinity College, Dublin. He married in Canada and is survived by his wife, Judy and his two daughters Caroline and Jane.

John became famous as Dr. John Gibson, an expert in Marine Biology and an ardent Conservationist. He was awarded several medals of distinction by Newfoundland for his work.

He and Eric became friends in 1939.

When John died in May this year, Eric went to Newfoundland to pay his respects to John. There was a gathering of over 100 people and tributes were paid by leading figures of the community.


Tribute to John Gibson, given by Eric Thompson in St John’s Newfoundland

There is an old saying that no prophet is accepted in his own country. That is a quote from the Bible and was true for Jesus of Nazareth who had ideas which would radically change the world for the better - and still do where they are used - but He was rejected by the authorities of his own nation.

Now, I couldn’t say that Dr. Gibson was ever rejected, by his country or by me; in fact I have greatly admired him all his life. His ideas may sometimes have met with local opposition, but he was generally respected and had four prestigious awards for his contribution to

Conservation. But to me he was never Dr. Gibson, he was just the little eight year old boy who befriended me when I first went to boarding school. And we have remained friends ever since.

John’s father was an officer in the Army in India and he wanted John to have an English education. So he came to St Olave’s at the age of seven - one year earlier than the normal age of entry. As a result, by the time I got there, John was already a seasoned pupil and knew all the wrinkles of how to survive. So, even in those days, he showed me great kindness and that remained an essential part of his character.

He was always adventurous, whereas I was a timid lad from a country village.

In St Olave’s we often went unlawfully outside the school grounds to look at life in a local stream. John had an innate love of biology, especially aquatic life. He had several aquaria at home and he made remarkably accurate drawings of fish all over his school exercise books, for which he was often rebuked or punished. Near the stream was a tree-stump from which John learned to jump across the stream. I was too timid, but he showed great patience as he tried to teach me. Look, he said ‘It’s as easy as falling off a log.’ In proving it to me he landed in the middle of the stream and I had to go and surreptitiously sneak some new socks from the dormitory, which was forbidden because of wartime cutbacks. So there we have, even in those early days, two other facets of John’s character - his sense of adventure and his patience with the less gifted.

On another occasion John had found something absolutely fascinating in the stream and was busy trying to get me to be equally fascinated by it. As a result, we were nearly late back for roll-call and took a shortcut through a gap in the hedge around the school fields. This led us across an area where they dumped the grass cut off the playing fields. John, being light and athletic, bounced cheerfully over the crust of the silage. Eric being slower and heavier, sank into the smelly depths. For a moment I thought I would sink into oblivion but John came back and helped me out. It was then his turn to sneak some socks for me from the forbidden area.

This highlights two more of his characteristics – generosity and timelessness. When I say timelessness, I mean that he often left did things until the last moment. For example, He was due to go to a summer course of the naval section of the cadet force and when he should have been going to the station he was still feeding his fish. His family were beside themselves with anxiety that he would miss his train. John, however, looked at them, smiled and said ‘Well, well, how time flies’. John often found it amusing when people got into a great flap while he kept his cool. Of course, he did catch the train.

As I have already hinted, all his life John has been an enthusiastic teacher. When he came to stay with us, or I came over here (Canada), he always taught me something new.

When going round in Yorkshire, he would look at a culvert under a road bridge and carefully explain to me why it ought to be at least ten centimetres wider.

Once, when I came to visit, as soon as I arrived, tired and dusty from the flight and the rough dusty road to Matamek he said, ‘You aren’t tired are you?’ gave me a pair of boots and rucksack with the beer in it and we set off through the forest to an unknown destination. After about half an hours’ walk, when I was feeling really tired he said to me, ‘Oh dear, I think we are lost, I’ve no idea where we are!’At that moment there was a whoop of welcome and some colleagues from the research station came and got us into a boat where we rowed across a beautiful silent lake whilst drinking a welcome glass of champagne. John always had this lovely sense of humour, and irony. We spent the night with a camp fire on a safe island as we ate a barbecue and drank the beer which I had carried so dutifully. To add to the scene, I saw the most gorgeous array of the Northern Lights - something I had never seen before and have never seen since. Life with John was always a new experience of reality, no silly frills and fancies.

Finally, I will just mention that, on another of my visits, John took me to see the caribou, an animal which was also new to me, and afterwards we finished up fishing in a stream. Now I had never fished in my life. With great patience, John taught me how to cast a line and in the end I caught a fish. My one and only fishing triumph. It was in fact only a minute brown trout and we carefully let it go back on its way. John once told Caroline that Eric didn’t fish. She opened her eyes in amazement and said ‘Then how did you come to meet Eric?’

There is much more I could say, about John and his late brother William and the many adventures they shared. There have been many tributes paid to Dr. Gibson, and mention of his awards for conservation and biological knowledge. But, to me, he will always be the John Gibson I have known for 77 years. In one of his last e-mails to me, he said that we had been more like brothers than friends.

It was the poet, William Wordsworth, who wrote ‘The child is father of the man’.

I hope that I have just shown John as a child and a man of kindness, patience, determination, adventure, unflappability, reality, a love of the outdoors, and a great sense of humour. And you can’t ask for a better friend or brother than that. 

John Gibson and Eric Thompson aged 8John Gibson and Eric Thompson aged 8John Gibson and Eric Thompson in later yearsJohn Gibson (second from right) in Newfoundland at an award ceremony for his contribution to conservation