Olive GIBBS (1918–1995)
Local politician and campaigner
Christ Church Old Buildings, Osney Lane, Oxford
Olive Cox was born in Christ Church Old Buildings (a tenement block built in 1846 by Christ Church for college servants) to Lazarus Cox, a letterpress printer, and his wife, Mary Ann, who was of Portuguese and English parentage. Olive had one much older sibling, Syd. The family, though poor, lived quite comfortably compared with many in the communities of central Oxford. In her autobiography she describes the domestic tyranny exercised by her father, although she came to see that he was caring in his own way, ambitious to give his children better prospects in life. Her mother had been brought up by the nuns of the convent attached to the parish church of St Thomas the Martyr. There Olive was baptised, confirmed, and in due course married, and the high church tradition was an abiding influence on her life. She attended the church school before winning a scholarship to Milham Ford (and one also to Oxford High School which her father deemed too ladylike for her). When she left school at sixteen, her godmother, Mother Anna Verena, arranged for her to spend a year in a warmer clime to recuperate from pleurisy. Living with a French family at Juan-les-Pins, she acquired fluent French and considerable savoir faire.
Christ Church Old Buildings. Olive and her family lived on the ground floor,
in the flat in the centre of the picture with the blue plaque
Her hopes of becoming a journalist like her brother were dashed as it was considered an unsuitable job for a woman. Instead she was employed as a librarian at the Oxford Central Library, a post she held for eight years until after her marriage to Edmund Gibbs. His father, R. W. M. Gibbs, a professional man, was a popular left-wing councillor, and Edmund followed him into local government. Olive’s own political career began with a passionate campaign against the proposed closure of nursery schools. Success led to her election as the city councillor for West Ward in 1953, a position she held for thirty years.
She was twice Lord Mayor (1974–5 and 1982), the first Labour Chair of Oxfordshire County Council (1984–5), and led many campaigns, sometimes in opposition to the party line, as when in 1959 she successfully thwarted the plan to drive a motorway through Christ Church Meadow and was in consequence expelled from the Labour Group on the Council. In the 1960s she intervened to save Jericho from the kind of heartless development which had devastated the communities and urban landscape of St Thomas’s and St Ebbe’s. She believed in educational opportunities for all talents and abilities and was an active Chair of Governors at the CFE and a governor of Oxford Polytechnic, receiving the first honorary degree awarded there. For her outstanding service to the city she was made an Honorary Freeman, a very rare accolade. She was also made a Deputy Lieutenant of Oxfordshire. On the national stage she became a founding member of CND which she chaired 1964–5, succeeding Canon John Collins, and was awarded the Frank Cousins’ Peace Award in 1986.
From 1953 she lived at 95 Iffley Road with her husband and two sons. Edmund Gibbs headed a well-known chartered accountancy firm in Oxford. She died in 1995 and is buried in St Thomas’s churchyard.
- Sources: ‘Our Olive’, the Autobiography of Olive Gibbs (1989);
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, article by H. C. G. Matthew
- Oxford Mail, 10 April 2015: “Former socialist firebrand of Oxford to gain Blue Plaque at Old Christ Church Buildings birthplace”
- Photograph taken at the unveiling ceremony showing the Lord Mayor of Oxford Mohammed Abbasi and Andrew Smith flanked by Olive's sons Simon Gibbs (left) and Andrew Gibbs (right), with Olive's granddaughter Melanie Gibbs on the far left
The plaque was unveiled on 11 April 2015 at Christ Church Old Buildings by Andrew Smith (MP for Oxford East until the dissolution of Parliament on 30 March). Among those attending were family members, the Lord Mayor of Oxford, the Leader of the Council, several former lord mayors, and Bruce Kent, former Chairman of CND.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
Lord Mayor of Oxford
Chairman of Oxfordshire / County Council
Defender of Oxford's urban landscape
Tireless champion of social causes
National Chair of CND
was born and lived here
Oxford City Council