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An Oxford House and Imperial Russia

A building in a suburb of Oxford has a remarkably unique history. At first glance, it could be yet another late-Victorian townhouse, although the presence of its distinctive blue double-doors suggests something more unusual. Although now split up into apartments, the building hints at having once been something else, despite having been flats for over 30 years. The building replaced the apothecary and almshouses of the Cutler Boulter Charity on St Clement’s Road. It remained the main dispensary for this East Oxford suburb until 1948 and is, therefore, historically significant to the area. The building had incidentally also been the main A.R.P telephone station for Oxfordshire until 1945. Several years after this, it attracted the interest of the person with whom it is now most closely associated.

Charles Sydney Gibbes with Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna (By Romanov family [Public domain], Flickr via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Sydney Gibbes, who became a well-recognised figure in Oxford, was originally from Yorkshire and educated at St John’s College, Cambridge. Gibbes initially went to Russia to teach English to the aristocracy but was later summoned to the Russian Imperial Court to be considered as tutor to the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. In 1913, Gibbes became English tutor to the nine-year-old Tsarevich Alexei, the heir-apparent to the throne.

Following the Tsar’s abdication on 2/15 March 1917, the Imperial Family was detained under the Provisional Government, interned as prisoners within their residence of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar’s Village) outside St. Petersburg. Initially, the Imperial Family was moved to the ‘Governor’s House’ at Tobolsk in Siberia, but in April 1918, orders were issued to move the Tsar and his family again, this time to Ekaterinburg. The Imperial Family was housed at the Ipatiev House (also dubbed the House of Special Purpose) where on the night of 16/17 July 1918, the entire family – together with their faithful retainers, the maid Anna Demidova and the former court physician Dr Botkin – were shot in the cellar of the house by Bolsheviks. Gibbes had not been allowed contact with the Imperial Family and was only able to enter the Ipatiev House later, following the murder, in the subsequent period when Ekaterinburg was briefly under the control of the White Army.

Gibbes returned to England and enrolled in an ordination course at St Stephen’s House in 1928; although, he subsequently decided against a career in the Anglican Church. On his return to Harbin, he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church as a tonsured monk, taking as his new name Father Nicholas, after the murdered Tsar Nicholas II. Gibbes again returned to England, moving to Oxford in 1941, where he established an Orthodox congregation in the medieval chapel of St Bartlemas, which borders the recreation grounds of Oriel, Jesus and Lincoln Colleges. It was after the end of the Second World War when Gibbes found himself looking for somewhere permanent to settle that he came across the building in Oxford.

Father Nicholas purchased the house in 1949 and converted one ground-floor room of the house into a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker, where the Russian Imperial Family was mentioned in the services which were celebrated there. It was within this chapel that Gibbes displayed many of the relics which he had preserved and carried with him across the world. Most poignantly perhaps, was the chandelier of red and white glass tulips which hung originally in the ‘House of Special Purpose’ at Ekaterinburg, which Gibbes had salvaged. Among the icons hung in the chapel were those which had been personally given to Gibbes by the Imperial Family or were those rescued from the dustbins and stoves of the ‘House of Special Purpose.’

Elsewhere, Gibbes carefully preserved his other relics of the Imperial Family, which included a handkerchief, pencil-case and bell owned by the Tsarevich Alexei. There was also a pair of Tsar Nicholas II’s felt boots which were kept near the altar. Gibbes established a library behind the chapel, which contained some exercise books of his imperial pupils Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia, as well as some of his photographs. Other items included a coat-of-arms from the imperial yacht Standart and a collection of sleigh bells.

The house was subsequently split into flats, and the chapel that held such poignant relics of the Imperial Family was also turned into a flat. Nothing remains of Gibbes’s time there. Much of his collection was sold to the Wernher Collection at Luton Hoo where a memorial chapel was made to house them, consecrated by Archbishop Anthony of Sourozh. When Luton Hoo became a luxury hotel, the Wernher Collection moved to Greenwich and was managed by English Heritage. The Gibbes collection, however, is now in private hands.

The house was successfully nominated as a heritage asset in 2015. It is also a building of spiritual importance regarding the history of Oxford’s Orthodox communities, as the Russian Orthodox Chapel in Oxford was only established much later and not within Gibbes’s lifetime. Appropriately enough, the chapel today contains an engraving of Gibbes in its main entrance hall, showing him as the white-bearded figure in black that he had familiarly become in 1950s Oxford. Fittingly, the chapel contains also icons of the Russian Imperial Family in its window niches, who were finally recognised – following much debate – as Passion Bearers by the Moscow Patriarchate in 2000.

Gibbes died aged 87 in 1963 and is buried in Headington Cemetery, his gravestone bearing the three staves of the Russian Orthodox Cross. In 2013, a memorial service took place at Headington Cemetery to mark the 50th anniversary of Gibbes’ death, attended by the Russian Orthodox Community. The service took place in deep snow; ironically enough, it was a scene that fittingly could have occurred in Russia.

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