A building in the Oxford suburb of Marston preserves a unique connection with the lost world of imperial Russia. Its typical late-Victorian exterior belies the remarkable nature of its hidden history. In this building for a period of time, personal possessions once owned by the Russian Imperial Family were carefully preserved and stored, because they came with the belongings of the person who purchased the house, whose past lay in far-distant Russia. Though from Yorkshire, this man had known the Romanovs intimately and had the privilege of teaching the Russian imperial children. In turn, he became a recognisable figure walking about 1950s Oxford, with his long Orthodox robes and white beard. His name was Charles Sydney Gibbes.
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 four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, 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, a role for which he is possibly best remembered.
During the internment of the Russian Imperial Family at Tsarskoe Selo, Gibbes was one of those retainers who chose to remain faithful, even into their Siberian exile and imprisonment. Gibbes was unable to enter the Ipatiev House (the ‘House of Special Purpose’) until after the murder of the Imperial Family, in that 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 at Oxford on the same road as the Marston House he later bought, 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, whose memory he considered sacred. Gibbes again returned to England, moving to Oxford in 1941, where he established an Orthodox congregation in the medieval chapel of St Bartlemas, which bordered the recreation grounds of Oriel, Jesus and Lincoln Colleges. It was after the end of the Second World War that Gibbes found himself looking for somewhere permanent to settle. At this point, he came across the building in Marston.
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 every one of 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 halfway 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. This was displayed recently in the exhibition at London’s Science Museum, to commemorate the centenary of the murder of the Russian imperial family. It is now in private ownership. Among the icons hung in the chapel were some 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 Tsarevich Alexei. There was also a pair of Tsar Nicholas II’s felt boots which he 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.
Prior to Gibbes’ purchase of the Marston house, it had originally 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, having also been the main A.R.P telephone station for Oxfordshire until 1945. Sometime after Gibbes’ death, the Marston House was split into flats and the chapel that held such poignant relics of the Imperial Family was also turned into an apartment. Nothing now 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 is now in private hands, as the present author was told by the Wernher Collection. When I found the house, it was for sale and unoccupied. To satisfy my curiosity, I looked through the letterbox and saw the original hallway, empty but for a dead pot-plant. There was nothing to hint at its imperial Russian past.
The Marston 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 Russian Orthodox Chapel in Marston today contains an engraving of Gibbes in its main entrance hall. Fittingly, the chapel contains also icons of the Russian Imperial Family and Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna in its window niches, the former having been recognised as Passion Bearers by the Moscow Patriarchate in 2000 and the Grand Duchess canonised.
Gibbes died aged 87 in 1963. His burial place is at Headington Cemetery, behind the gigantic bulk of Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital. His gravestone bearing the three staves of the Russian Orthodox Cross.
In 2013, a memorial service took place at Headington Cemetery to mark his 137th birthday, attended by Oxford’s Russian Orthodox Community. The service took place in deep snow. It was a scene that fittingly could have occurred in Russia.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.