Charles Sydney Gibbes (1876-1963)

PHOTO: Charles Sydney Gibbes

This article [sourced from Wikipedia] is a general introduction to Charles Sydney Gibbes (19 January 1876 – 24 March 1963). Gibbes was a British academic who from 1908 to 1917 served as the English tutor to the children of Emperor Nicholas II. When Nicholas abdicated the throne in March 1917 Gibbes voluntarily accompanied the Imperial family into exile to the Siberian city of Tobolsk. After the family was murdered in 1918 Gibbes returned to the United Kingdom and eventually became an Orthodox monk, adopting the name of Nicholas in commemoration of Nicholas II. He died in 1963, and is buried at Headington cemetery, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England.

There is little which is new that I could write about Gibbes, therefore, to compliment this article, I have provided a list of books and articles written about Gibbes which I trust will provide readers with a much more comprehensive understanding of one of the most devoted and beloved persons associated with the Russian Imperial Family – PG

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BIOGRAPHY

Charles Sydney Gibbes was born in Rotherham, Yorkshire, England on 19 January 1876. He was the youngest surviving son of John Gibbs, a bank manager, and Mary Ann Elizabeth Fisher, the daughter of a watchmaker. Whilst at the University of Cambridge, Charles Sydney added the ‘e’ to the spelling of his own name. He entered upon theological studies in Cambridge and Salisbury in preparation for holy orders but realised that he had no religious vocation. Sydney is described as: severe, stiff, self-restrained, imperturbable, quiet, gentlemanly, cultured, pleasant, practical, brave, loyal, honourable, reliable, impeccably clean, with high character, of good sense and with agreeable manners. He could also be stubborn, use corporal punishment freely, that he could be very awkward with others, and he is recorded as having quite a temper, at least in his younger years.

Having some talent at languages, he decided to teach English abroad. In 1901 he went to Saint Petersburg, Russia, as tutor to the Shidlovsky family and then the Soukanoff family. He was then appointed to the staff of the Imperial School of Law, and by 1907 he was qualified as vice-president and committee member of the Saint Petersburg Guild of English Teachers. He came to the attention of the Empress Alexandra and in 1908 was invited as a tutor to improve the accents of the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana; and subsequently Maria and Anastasia. In 1913 he became tutor to Tsesarevich Alexei. The children referred to him as Sydney Ivanovich.

PHOTO: Gibbes with Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna. 1910

Gibbes’ career as court tutor continued until the February Revolution of 1917, after which the Imperial family was imprisoned in the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. He was in St Petersburg at the time, and immediately after returning to Tsarskoye Selo was forbidden from seeing the Imperial Family. He was only allowed to recover his possessions after the Imperial Family had been sent into exile to Tobolsk in Siberia. Gibbes voluntarily followed the family, arriving in the village in October 1917 shortly before the Provisional Government fell to the Bolsheviks. In May 1918 the Imperial family was moved to the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, and neither Gibbes, French tutor Pierre Gilliard, nor most other servants were allowed to enter. A number of servants stayed in the railway carriage which had brought them to the city.

PHOTO: Gibbes with Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich. Alexander Park, spring 1914

This carriage became part of a refugee train on 3rd June and the tutors were in Tyumen but returned to Ekaterinburg after the murder of the Imperial family on the night of 16/17 July 1918 and the fall of the city to the White Army on 25th July. Gibbes and Gilliard were early visitors to the scene of the regicide at the Ipatiev House and were both involved in the subsequent enquiries carried out by Ivan Alexandrovich Sergeiev and later by Nicholas Alexievich Sokolov.

As the Bolsheviks took Perm and closed in on Ekaterinburg, enquiries were abandoned and Gibbes and Gilliard left for Omsk. Gibbes was appointed as a secretary to the British High Commission in Siberia in January 1919, retreating eastwards as Siberia was captured by the Red Army. He was briefly employed at the British Embassy in Beijing and then became an assistant in the Chinese Maritime Customs in Manchuria.

There was a large White Russian refugee community in Harbin and it was there in 1922 that he met an orphan, Georges Paveliev, whom he adopted. He established George in 1934 on a fruit farm at Stourmouth House in East Stourmouth in Kent.

PHOTO: images of Father Nicholas. St. John’s Orthodox Church, Colchester, England

RETURN TO ENGLAND AND CONVERSION TO ORTHODOXY

Gibbes returned to England in 1928 and enrolled as an ordinand at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, but again decided that ordination in the Church of England was not to be his vocation.

In Harbin, China on 25th April 1934 he was received into the Orthodox church by Archbishop Nestor (Anisimov) of Kamchatka and Petropavlovsk who was there in exile. Gibbes took the baptismal name of Alexei in honour of the former Tsesarevich. He was tonsured a monk on 15th December, ordained deacon on 19th December and priest on 23rd December, taking the name Nicholas in honour of the former Tsar. In March 1935 he became an Abbot. He again returned to England in 1937 and was established in a parish in London.

At the time of the Blitz he moved to Oxford where in 1941 he established an Orthodox chapel in Bartlemas. In 1949 he bought a house at 4 Marston Street, subsequently known as the Saint Nicholas House. The house was built circa 1890 by a charity founded to distribute free medicine to the poor. During the war the building became the central ‘Air Raid Protection’ telephone exchange and there is still a ‘bomb proof’ concrete partition between the ground and first floor. Gibbes kept a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker within the property. This chapel was home to several icons and mementos of the Imperial family which he brought with him from Yekaterinburg, including a chandelier from the Ipatiev House. The house was divided into flats in the 1960s, and the chapel was converted into a flat in the late 1980s.

PHOTO: grave of Fr. Nicholas Gibbes, Headington cemetery, Oxford

DEATH

Gibbes died at St Pancras Hospital, London, on 24 March 1963. His open coffin was displayed in the cellar (or crypt) of Saint Nicholas House before his funeral. He is buried in Headington cemetery, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England.

His collection of Russian possessions were left with 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 these memorabilia, consecrated by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. The museum has been moved from Luton Hoo and is now a part of the Wernher Collection in Greenwich.

PHOTO: Charles Sydney Gibbes (1876-1963)

LEARN MORE ABOUT CHARLES SYDNEY GIBBES

There is a vast collection of books and articles written about Gibbes, for which I have provided links below:

Archimandrite Nicholas Gibbes: From the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile to the Moscow Patriarchate by Nicholas Mabin

Fr. Nicholas Gibbes: The first English disciple of Tsar Nicholas II and the first English priest of the ROCOR by Archpriest Andrew Phillips

From Romanov tutor to Orthodox missionary: The life of Charles Gibbes by Alexandra Kulikova

The Last Days of Sydney Gibbes, English Tutor to the Tsarevich by Helen Rappaport

Russian Revolution: The tutor who witnessed the downfall of the Romanovs

BOOKS

Benagh, Christine (2000) An Englishman in the Court of the Tsar. Ben Lomond, California: Conciliar Press.

Trewin, J. C. (1975) Tutor to the Tsarecvich – An Intimate Portrait of the Last Days of the Russian Imperial Family compiled from the papers of Charles Sydney Gibbes. London: Macmillan

Welch, Frances (2005) The Romanovs & Mr Gibbes: The Story of the Englishman Who Taught the Children of the Last Tsar. UK: Short Books

VIDEOS

The English Tutor Who Became a Monk. The Last Years of Sydney Gibbes narrated by Helen Rappaport [Duration: 18 min., 20 sec.]

The Winter of 1962/3 was one of the coldest ever experienced in Britain. At St Pancras Hospital in London, the death rate was very high. Fifty-five years later there is one death that still sticks in the mind of nurse Anne Scupholme. His name was Charles Sydney Gibbes, but since 1934, when he had taken his vows as a Russian Orthodox priest, he had been known as Father Nicholas. He had been English tutor to the five children of Russia’s last Tsar and Tsaritsa, and during that time had developed a very close relationship with the young tsesarevich, Alexei.

© Paul Gilbert. 23 May 2021