Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gibson, William (1842–1918)

by Sally O'Neill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William Gibson (1842?-1918), draper and importer, was born at Glasgow, Scotland, son of James Gibson, clothier, and his wife, née Dick. As a boy, he entered the firm of Mann, Byars & Co. He had risen to the position of cashier, with the reputation of 'honest, steady and industrious habits' at the time of his marriage to Mary Hislop in 1881 at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Glasgow. Later that year he resigned from the firm and in February 1882, with his wife and infant son, he sailed for Australia.

From his early twenties Gibson had cherished hopes of setting up a drapery business; but once in Melbourne he did not rush into putting his plans to action. By the end of May 1882 he had obtained a position as New Zealand representative for the wholesalers Beath, Schiess & Co. Late that year a chance to buy into a drapery business came when Mark Foy was looking for a partner for his son Francis. The agreement setting up Foy & Gibson, drapers of Collingwood, was signed on 6 March 1883 with Gibson and Francis Foy each putting in £5000. Francis Foy continued to act as manager, controlling both the buying and selling, while Gibson took charge of the office and routine work. While naturally reserved, Gibson had a genial manner and excellent memory for names and faces, and soon established good relations with customers and clients. However, as the business prospered, he began to resent Foy's control over the buying and general management of the store. Matters came to a head after a disagreement in mid-1884, and when tempers had cooled, it was decided to dissolve the partnership. In August 1884 Foy went to Sydney where he established Mark Foy's Ltd, and Gibson became sole proprietor of the Collingwood shop; they agreed not to set up in opposition.

Gibson now set out to improve his overseas buying organization, and established the practice of sending departmental buyers to Britain. Growth was rapid and he soon brought others into the firm: first William Dougall and later his nephews Samuel Gibson and John Maclellan. A huge four-storey hardware department was built next door to the Collingwood store. In March 1889 Gibson went overseas to take on the firm's buying himself. He visited Paris, where he was particularly impressed by the Bon Marché department store. He toured the main manufacturing centres of Britain and bought £100,000 worth of merchandise before returning to Australia in March 1890. He left again for Glasgow at the end of 1891 and in 1893 was in London when news reached him of the bank crashes in Melbourne. He hurried back and by hard work and 'dogged determination' kept the business going in the depression that followed.

In 1895, after a preliminary investigation of the business situation in Perth, Gibson arranged to set up a branch of the firm there. Undeterred by the problems of scarce building supplies, he had a prefabricated corrugated iron structure sent from Melbourne to Perth to serve as temporary premises. In 1897 he transferred his overseas buying office from Glasgow to London. About the same time he began the manufacture of articles such as men's clothing and shirts, ladies' underclothing, millinery, furniture, bedding and hardware to supply the Perth and Melbourne stores. His large 'Gibsonia' woollen and hosiery mills developed from a few hand-knitting machines for producing men's socks. In 1902 a new store was completed in Prahran, known as Maclellan & Co. or 'The Big Store'; Gibson was senior partner. On a visit to South Africa he bought a site in Johannesburg, but never went ahead with his plan to set up a branch there. He opened a store in Brisbane in 1903 and in Rundle Street, Adelaide, in 1907.

Gibson went to London for a six months visit in 1914 but war conditions detained him there. In 1917 a son was killed in action and in August 1918 another died in London. On 5 November that year Gibson died. He was survived by five sons and four daughters. His estate in Australia was valued for probate at over £1,850,000. His nephew John Maclellan carried on the business, which survived until 1967.

Select Bibliography

  • S. W. Davies, Foy's Saga (Perth, 1946)
  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 14 Nov 1918
  • Foy and Gibson Ltd collection, and William Gibson estate papers, and P. Howson collection (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Gibson, William (1842–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-william-6311/text10885, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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