One of the oldest family stories that I grew up with was of my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Gibbons, who was the first man in the Midlands town of West Bromwich to own a car. I don’t recall hearing too much else about Thomas, it wasn’t as if all we did was harp on about past family glories, but the photo of him in the car has always been a family treasure. The car, made by the Star Motor Company of Wolverhampton, was navy blue and had a top speed of 20mph. Here he is sitting proudly astride it in 1903.
In recent years, this snippet of information about my ancestor has grown into something quite wonderful, thanks to my father getting in touch with many of our more distant relatives. It turns out that all of Thomas’s descendants have grown up with a copy of this photo, and that second, third and fourth cousins, strangers to each other, have been telling the same story of the first man in West Bromwich to to own a car.
One of the relatives my father has been in contact with is our ancestor’s namesake, Tom Gibbons. Having been named after the great man himself, Tom has perhaps a little more affection and reverence for him, and so this summer he took it upon himself to arrange a reunion of Thomas’s descendants to commemorate the centenary of his death in summer 1911.
Tom earns his living as an events organiser, and his talents shone through. This was half family get together and half museum exhibition. Each branch of the family was colour coded, with a coloured name tag for every guest, complete with their relationship to Thomas. On a board at the side of the room, the colour coded family tree of each of Thomas’s sons was displayed, complete with pictures of other relatives from the first decades of the last century.
Relatives came, with children and partners, from all over the country and even from Canada. Most had never met, but they all knew about Thomas and his car. So it was pretty special that Tom had managed to get in touch with a man that owns one of only four remaining Star Cars in the world. This isn’t Thomas’s car, but it’s the same model and age, and lived up to its name by becoming the star of the show. Each of Thomas’s descendants can now put a picture of their own alongside the one taken in 1903.
This one is taking pride of place on my desk:
As well as the car, the exhibition featured prizes and medals that were awarded to family members and many heirlooms and records of family memories. Tom and his father Paul have shown a lot of tenacity in collecting the medals from the various, non-Gibbons, men that have come to own them, and the result was a display of history that was better than some exhibitions I’ve seen. Perhaps that’s nonsense, I’m biased after all. It’s difficult not to be moved, though, when reading a letter written by a great-great uncle to his sister, describing the German gunfire he can hear as he writes from his trench.
As the drinks flowed, so did the stories. Thomas was granted a patent for a metal processing system in 1895, presumably where some of the money came from to buy the car and still be able to leave a tidy sum when he died. The plate and the jug featured above were issued by Thomas’s son William to customers of his shop. Both are now owned by own father, whose volume of poetry on memories and family life features a picture of Thomas on the front cover. The reason that so much is still known to us is that my great grandmother Maud kept newspaper cuttings of her cousins, whose war medals we have, for 50 years and we still have them nearly another 50 years later. Cousin Alfred perished at the Battle of Loos and John of the flu at the end of the war.
It was fantastic for the younger generations to be introduced to their distant relatives, and deeply moving to hear older people recall the lives and stories of past generations. There were a few nostalgic tears being shed by the time a toast was raised with a few dozen glasses of bubbly and slices of this splendid cake.
If you have been thinking of organising something like this, or you’re beginning to research your family tree, I urge you to keep it up. Just look how happy all these people were that Tom Gibbons made the effort.
If you do have historical pictures or stories to share, I would recommend going to www.historypin.com/. This is a fantastic website that allows people to pin their pictures of yesteryear to a version of Googlemaps. Whether your pictures are of modern times or in grainy black and white, there is a place for them to be seen, commented upon and shared by people with similar memories. Careful though, it’ll suck you in and steal your afternoons.