It has been almost 50 years since the publication of The House of Special Purpose by John Courtenay Trewin was published in 1975 by the US publisher Stein & Day. It was also published the same year in the UK by Macmillan, but under a different title Tutor to the Tsarevich.
Trewin’s book is a collection of letters, journal entries, photographs and memorabilia diligently kept by the English tutor to the Russian Imperial Family – Charles Sydney Gibbes (1876-1963). Described as “An Intimate Portrait of The Last Days of the Russian Imperial Family compiled from the papers of their English Tutor” this carefully produced record is also an enchanting, touching glimpse into the private world of Emperor Nicholas II and his family.
Gibbes story really began on 9th June 1908, during a meeting of the Russian Imperial and British Royal families in Reval [today Tallinn, Estonia]. The historic meeting marked the first visit to Russia by a British monarch: King Edward VII. It was during this visit that the King remarked to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna that neither of her elder daughters possessed a very good English accent. This prompted the Empress to get an English tutor for the girls and shortly thereafter Charles Sydney Gibbes found himself, most unexpectedly, appointed English tutor to the Tsar’s children.
For ten years, from the autumn of 1908 until their deaths in July 1918, Charles Sydney Gibbes was a member of the household of Emperor Nicholas II and his family. During much of that period, Gibbes served as the English tutor to the Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, as well as teaching his sisters, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Nikolaevna..
PHOTO: John Courtenay Trewin —photograph published in The Illustrated London News (London, England) of Saturday 11th January 1958
Gibbes became an intimate friend of the family, first in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, and then during the family’s exile to Tobolsk from August 1917 to April 1918. He followed them to Ekaterinburg, where he was separated from them before they were brutally murdered by the Ural Soviet in the early morning hours of 17th July 1918. Their death and martyrdom would have a profound effect on him, he honoured their memory until the end of his life
During his years spent with the Imperial Family, Gibbes kept notes and diaries recording the Tsesarevich’s illness, the books which the children read and the plays which they acted during their time in exile. He collected a mass of souvenirs, exercise books, menus, letters, sketches, official permits and other documents, from all of which British journalist, writer and drama critic John Courtenay Trewin (1908-1990) has constructed a fascinating and highly personal narrative. This book was written from Gibbes’ surviving archives of letters, photos and other memorabilia relating to the last Imperial family of Russia which are now kept in Oxford.
Gibbes managed to preserve it all throughout his extraordinary subsequent career, first as an Inspector of the Chinese Maritime Customs at Harbin and latterly as a priest, and finally as an archimandrite, in the Russian Orthodox Church in Oxford, where he left his remarkable collection to his adopted son George Gibbes, who provided the material for this fascinating book.
Gibbe’s depositions form an important part of the official reports on the fate of the Imperial family, but none of the rest of this material has been published before, nor even been consulted by writers on the subject.
PHOTO: Charles Sydney Gibbes collection of Russian possessions were left with his adopted son, George, in Oxford. In this photo we see George Gibbs at this home surrounded by photos of the Imperial Family.
A year after the regicide, Gibbes found himself at the “House of Special Purpose” [Ipatiev House] where the tragedy took place, and he was at the Four Brothers where he assisted Nikolai Sokolov in his investigation into the deaths of the Emperor and his family. He witnessed the recovery of numerous items from the mine, which belonged to members of the Imperial Family, and assisted in getting them safely out of Russia in a sealed blue box.
In addition, the collection of precious Romanov artifacts that Gibbes brought back with him from Russia – including an icon from the Tsaritsa, a pair of Nicholas II’s felt boots, the Tsesarevich’s pencil case and exercise books belonging to his sisters Maria and Anastasia, and the beautiful Italian Murano glass chandelier of red and white lilies that he retrieved from the Grand Duchesses’ room of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg were later on display at his chapel dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker in Oxford.
Following his death in 1963, Gibbes’ collection of Russian possessions were left to his adopted son, George, in Oxford, and George subsequently donated them to the museum at Luton Hoo. A small chapel was built there to house the collection, consecrated by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. The museum was later moved from Luton Hoo to the Wernher Collection in Greenwich. Sadly, the collection was sold and is now in the hands of a private collectior, including the Murano glass chandelier, which is now in the private collection of the Butters Family in England.
In 1986, George Gibbes, sold off two of the most important Romanov pieces in his father’s collection made by Fabergé: a pair of monogrammed cufflinks given to Gibbes by the tsar’s eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, and a miniature gold Easter egg pendant with a diamond in the A note, that belonged to Anastasia. The latter was bought by film maker Steven Spielberg as a gift for his then wife, Amy Irving, when she finished filming at TV mini series in which she played the role of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna.
PHOTO: in 2022, a blue plaque was unveiled in Rotherman, which incorrectly notes that Gibbes “identified remains of the Tsar’s family following their murder in 1918”. As Trewin records in his book, Gibbes took part in Sokolov’s investigation and helped identify relics belonging to the Imperial Family found at the Four Brothers Mine, near Ekaterinburg, in 1919
Charles Sydney Gibbes died at St Pancras Hospital, London, on 24th March 1963. His open coffin was displayed in the cellar (or crypt) of Saint Nicholas House in Oxford before his funeral. He is buried in Headington cemetery, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England.
A blue plaque, unveiled in 2022, marks Gibbes’ father John’s workplace at the former Sheffield and Rotherham bank, where he worked as the manager, from 1870 until around 1901. The plaque was organised by The Rotherham District Civic Society, and funded by the Rotherham Grammar School Old Boys Association, where Charles Sydney Gibbes was educated.
Bernard Fletcher, of the Rotherham Civic Society said that the process had taken about 18 months, and that he is “relived and glad” the plaque is up to commemorate the life of Mr Gibbes.
In his speech during the plaque unveiling, Tim Mumford, president of the Rotherham Grammar School Old Boys Association paid tribute to Gibbes: “He was born here, he went to Grammar School, we think in the late 1880s, and left there about 1895.
 In 1922, during his stay in Harbin, China, Charles Sydney Gibbes met a 16-year-old orphan, Georges Paveliev [born 16th June 1906], whom he adopted. In the early 1990s, I had the pleasure of corresponding with George Gibbs in whose letters he shared numerous anecdotes about his father. The regular exchange of letters came to a stop, and it was only after making enquiries that I learn of George’s death on 11th May 1993.
 During his investigation, Sokolov discovered a number of personal items at the Four Brothers Mine, which belonged to the Imperial Family, including a severed finger believed to be that of the Empress. Today, the box is stored in the Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Job in Uccle, Brussels.
 On a personal note, I am very grateful that I had an opportunity to visit Luton Hoo in the 1990s, and had an opportunity to see with my own eyes the Gibbes collection. I was delighted, yet again, to see the Murano glass chandelier on display at The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution exhibition in September 208 at the Science Museum in London, England – PG.
© Paul Gilbert. 5 March 2023
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