Fifty years have passed since the death of the Right Reverend Percival William Gibson, MLC, DD, BA, CBE, and during that period far too little has been done to educate the Jamaican people on the life and work of one of their greatest sons.
His contribution to the growth and transformation of the Diocese of Jamaica is second only to that of his mentor, the Most Reverend Enos Nuttall (1842-1916), who became the first Archbishop of the West Indies.
However, his pioneering work in the field of education remains unequalled, and is not likely to be superseded. He was the founder of Kingston College, Glenmuir High School, Bishop Gibson Girls’ School and Church Teachers’ College. During his 30-year tenure as headmaster of Kingston College, he consistently nurtured a leadership cadre from among his staff which produced 17 headmasters for other schools. These included Osbourne Bell to St Jago; Sydney Scott, Glenmuir; E A Barrett, Cornwall; Joseph Earle to Calabar; S W Isaac-Henry to St Andrew Technical; Eric Frater, Rusea’s; L A Prescod, Mannings; Mortimer Geddes, Titchfield; Edgar Cargill, St Mary High; and W B Johnson, Holmwood.
It is inexplicable that despite the national impact of Percival Gibson’s life and work, there is no published biography of him, and his name does not appear among the recipients of national honours.
Percival William Gibson was born on September 15, 1893 to William Gibson and his wife Esther. The Jamaica in which he grew up was no longer the ‘jewel in the crown of Imperial Britain’. The collapse of the sugar industry in the second half of the 19th century had led to severe economic recession. As unemployment soared, Jamaicans emigrated to Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba in search of work.
The Gibsons were a working-class family who barely made ends meet. Percival was the third of four children. Louise was the eldest, followed by Ernest, and Gwendolyn was the fourth. William Gibson, who worked as an artisan at the Cavalier Waterworks on Maurescaux Road, was the sole breadwinner. Fortunately, his job came with a three-room wooden house located on the property.
Neither Louise nor Ernest went to high school, as the family income just could not afford it. Percival received his elementary education at the Mico Practising School, and in 1906 at age 14 was in the first batch of students to sit the scholarship exam for St George’s College and placed first. His sister Louise would later reflect: “We were so poor that if Percival had not won the scholarship, he never could have gone to a high school”.
His enrollment at St George’s marked the beginning of an outstanding academic career. In his four years at this institution, he never came less than first in any subject and scored at least 90 per cent in every subject. In his third year he achieved an unprecedented 100 per cent in four subjects and 95 per cent in the other two. His fixity of purpose and sustained pursuit of excellence places him in the same mould as his contemporary, Norman Washington Manley, who credited his own outstanding achievements at Jamaica College with what he described as “a real capacity to work hard for what I wanted and…an unquenchable belief in excellence”.
In 1910 Percival Gibson graduated from St George’s College, and that same year accepted Christ. Two years later, he accepted a post at Church House, the seat of the Anglican Diocese, and during his tenure he came under the influence of Enos Nuttall, who over time became his mentor and inspiration. Nuttall had been Bishop of Jamaica since 1881. He also served as Archbishop of the West Indies, chairman of the Schools Commission, chairman of the Board of Education, chairman of the board of directors of Mico and Shortwood Teacher Training Colleges, member of the board of management of the Agricultural Society and chairman of the Poor Relief Committee.
After the 1907 earthquake destroyed Kingston, it was Nuttall who chaired the committee for the rehabilitation of the city. Up until his death in 1916, he exerted the single greatest influence on Jamaica’s educational policies. This was the man who Percival Gibson sought to emulate.
In 1912, at age 19, he entered St Peter’s Theological College and was ordained in 1917. His first post was the curacy at Golden Grove in St Thomas. On December 21, 1918 he was ordained a priest at the Kingston Parish Church and in 1919 was appointed curate at St George’s Anglican Church in Kingston. His sermons there became a weekly attraction and he energised the religious life of the city by broadening the scope of his ministry to include the staging of plays and concerts and organising the St George’s Men’s Debating Society. His efforts earned him the Musgrave Gold Medal in 1922.
The same year that Percival Gibson entered St Peter’s Theological College, he also enrolled as an external student at the University of London. He gained the BA in 1923, and BD (Hons) in 1924, and continued to demonstrate a capacity for classical scholarship that would only exceeded by the acclaimed Monsignor Gladstone Wilson, whose achievements as a classical scholar are yet to be superseded by any Jamaican.
In 1924, at 31 years of age, Percival Gibson subordinated his academic career and the certain prospects of further elevation as a clergyman to the founding of Kingston College. There were only four high schools for boys in the capital city at that time. The most prestigious was Jamaica College, the preserve of the planter/merchant class with an enrollment of 134 students, the majority of whom were boarders paying £20 per term. The other three schools — Wolmer’s, St George’s and Calabar — had a combined enrollment of just over 1,000 boys. It was to meet the pressing demand for high school education for boys from working and middle-class homes that Percival Gibson, with the assistance of Louise, his sister, purchased the premises at 114 ¾ East Street and set about renovating the building for the first 49 boys to enter Kingston College on the morning of Thursday, April 16, 1925. The fees, which were set at £12 per annum for boys under 14 years, and £14 per annum for those over 14 years old, made quality high school education affordable for working and middle-class families.
As headmaster of Kingston College, Percival Gibson became “Priest”, first to the boys and over time to the wider community. From the outset “Priest” established that the mission of Kingston College was to produce graduates, not only proficient in academics, but Christian gentlemen and nation-builders as well. By the end of the first decade the school was well on its way to realising its mission. In 1929 eight boys sat the Senior Cambridge Examinations and all eight were successful with two, A F Brown and F W Williams, placing second and third in Jamaica. Of the 16 boys who sat the Junior Cambridge Examinations, 14 were successful. In 1931, just six years after the school was established, the Department of Education elevated Kingston College to a Grade One Grant-aided secondary school. In 1934 Charles Burgess won the £80 scholarship to record the school’s first success, and two years later L L Murad was the Rhodes Scholar.
For Percival Gibson, organised sports was a medium for building character by inculcating “positive virtues of loyalty, unselfishness, cooperation, a sense of honour and the capacity to be a good loser”. The degree to which he succeeded in was evident in a crucial football match between KC and Calabar in 1950. In that match, Jerome Walters, playing at outside right for KC, took a ball from outside the line and beat the Calabar goalkeeper to score what would have been the winning goal. However, even as the KC boys cheered, Walters informed the referee that the ball had gone outside the line and the goal was disallowed. The Daily Gleaner described the incident as “a gem of sportsmanship”.
Percival Gibson took a determined stand against racism. Up until 1950 no African–Jamaican had been employed in any of the island’s commercial banks. That year, in response to a request from Barclay’s Bank for a clerk, Gibson wrote a letter recommending Roy McFarlane, one of his sixth formers for the position, and indicated that if he was denied employment on the basis of colour, he would take up the matter from his pulpit. Roy McFarlane got the job and became the first African-Jamaican to be employed in Barclay’s Bank.
I first heard Bishop Gibson preach at Christ Church, the Anglican Church in Vineyard Town which my family attended. By then he had been elevated to the Episcopate as Suffragan Bishop of Kingston in 1947. However, my first meeting with Bishop Gibson was when I went down to KC to take the entrance examination. I was immediately impressed by the extent to which his commanding presence exuded authority despite his small stature. I felt intimidated in his presence.
There was a certain inevitability about my attending Kingston College, for the fact that my brother Huntley Neita had been enrolled there from 1946. On January 5, 1951, I took my place with the other new boys wearing my school tie and looking forward to life in an institution at a time when the institution was experiencing its golden decade. This period of unprecedented achievement started in 1949, the year when KC won the Manning Cup, the Sunlight Cup and the Jamaica Scholarship. The Manning Cup remained at Clovelly Park for four consecutive years and KC again emerged winners in 1957 and 1958. KC also claimed the Olivier Shield in 1949, 1952 and 1957. During this period, I had the thrill of seeing my brother score the winning goal in 1952 and the pride of being a member of the 1957 and 1958 teams. I also have the distinct recollection of seeing Freddie Green, Barrington Watson, Lawson Douglas, George Thompson, and Roy Mclean establish their superiority on the field of play.
The golden decade was equally productive in academics with Evan Morris winning the Rhodes Scholarship in 1949; Norman Rae, the Jamaica Scholarship in 1950; David Kirkpatrick, the Jamaica Scholarship in 1953; D Jones, the Jamaica Scholarship in 1954; F Smith, the Centenary Scholarship in 1955; Edward Clarke, the Jamaica Scholarship in 1956; and Lloyd Demetrius, the Jamaica Scholarship in 1957.
In cricket, the Sunlight Cup victory in 1949 paraded the skills of the immortal O’Neil Gordon “Collie” Smith, who went on to play for Jamaica and the West Indies, and who epitomised in every way the Christian gentleman and nation-builder that Bishop Gibson wanted every KC boy to be. The Championship Cup for schoolboy athletics was the virtual property of KC during the golden decade, as the school emerged winners in 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954 and 1957.
In 1955, Bishop Gibson’s tenure as headmaster of KC finally came to an end when on December 15th Percival Gibson was elected the first African-Jamaican Lord Bishop of Jamaica. That year he was also appointed a Member of the Legislative Council. His elevation fittingly came in the middle of the golden decade. For 30 years he had inculcated in generations the values that would make us, not only successful in our individual areas of endeavour, but also builders of a better Jamaica. These values were the substance of his exhortation every morning in chapel. During his tenure he taught at some time, every form in school, and imparted with clarity a range of subjects. Even when he became Bishop of Jamaica he still came back to school and taught religious knowledge.
All of us need an ideal, and an example worthy of emulation to rouse our spirits to realise the latent powers within us. For me, and thousands of other KC boys, “Priest” symbolised both. For us, he became that symbol of achievement, of mastery over fate and triumph over adversity. As a result, KC old boys have an unrelenting passion for their school and wherever we meet we greet other with our motto “Fortis” which is the guiding principle of our lives. “The brave may fall but never yield”.
Today, official statistics show that there are over 300,000 young Jamaicans between the ages of 15 and 34 who are neither working nor looking for work and are responsible for 75 per cent of the murders and other criminal offences committed. Most of these young Jamaicans attended secondary schools for four years or more, but left without certification in a single subject. We pay the price for not ensuring that our schools, where our children meet for eight hours each day, are led by principals who share the vision and values of Percival William Gibson.