Newsletter 2012

Paul William ‘Bill’ Gibbs, 1922 – 2009

This brief biography was provided by Bill Gibbs’ daughter, Pauline Harrowell

Born in South London on the 2nd March 1922 to wealthy parents, Bill and his sister enjoyed a privileged upbringing with a governess until their parents split up in 1928. The unfortunate children, having been abandoned, were separated and spent an unhappy time in care whilst their father, originally from Herefordshire, began a new life as a schoolmaster in Kent and their mother, from Yorkshire, reinvented herself as a spinster and worked until her retirement for the Post Office Telecommunications in London, spurning all the attempts her children made to re-establish contact in later life.

The children were eventually taken by their father to Woolwich where he found – rather by chance – a wonderful foster family for them. This was a warm, loving working-class family who already had three children of their own but still found room in their home for two more. Bill’s foster father was an active trade unionist and his influence was lasting. Bill and his sister thrived in this very different world where, instead of the private education they had been prepared for, they attended the local school. Bill left school at the age of 14 and took a job as an office boy with a firm in the City.

With the outbreak of the war, he volunteered for the Royal Navy and trained as a Wireless Telegraphist, the first steps in the career he was to follow throughout his working life. In February 1942, his wartime career took a dramatic turn when his ship, Arbutus, was torpedoed while on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. He was 19 at the time. Luckily after many hours on a life raft in the freezing water of the Atlantic he was picked up by another convoy vessel. The rest of his wartime service was spent in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and Africa.

Peacetime saw Bill using his skills learned in the navy at the REME workshops in Woolwich where he worked repairing radios. It was there that he met Doris Amphlett. They married, set up home together and not long after daughter Pauline was born. Hearing that there were job opportunities for technicians at Marconi in Chelmsford that brought with them the chance of a new house in Basildon New Town, Bill and Doris took the plunge and became ‘New Town Pioneers’ He worked hard professionally, eventually becoming a senior test engineer in avionics and working on projects like the Harrier. He retired in 1987.

He had a variety of interests. As well as being a keen gardener producing both fruit and vegetables on his allotment and in his garden Bill was an accomplished amateur brewer and country wine maker. He brought his technological methods, thoroughness and attention to detail into play at every turn and, as a member of the local horticultural society, regularly carried off trophies at the annual show. His elderflower wine was the stuff of legend. He was also a gifted watercolourist.

Bill was very active in his community – repairing talking book equipment for blind people, serving on neighbourhood committees, being an active member of his horticultural club, his art circle and a well-loved member of his local church. When Doris died suddenly in 2000, Bill, who had never cooked before, turned his hand to the kitchen and was soon producing meals that Doris, who was a fantastic cook, would have been proud of.

Diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in 2007, Bill fought the disease whilst continuing to live his normal lifestyle, attending church activities, painting, gardening and visiting the Marconi Social Club. He died peacefully at home, in his sleep, on 22nd December 2009. He is survived by his daughter Pauline and two grandchildren, Elly and Alex.