October 2019 meeting: Olive Gibbs, councillor and peace campaigner

On 14 October, noted Oxford historian Liz Woolley expounded highlights from the life of Olive Gibbs (1918-1995). Olive was born in a tenement block in Osney Lane, Oxford. In her autobiography Our Olive she described her father’s violent tyranny, and her childhood grudge that their flat had no upstairs: in stories, children always went to bed upstairs. According to her sons Andrew and Simon, Olive was ‘five foot cubed’. She won a scholarship to Milham Ford school, and achieved an excellent School Certificate. She wanted to become a journalist, but that was considered unsuitable for a woman. Instead, she became a librarian. Her boss thought she ‘had presence’. She thought him a ‘pompous ass’.

Olive’s political career began with a campaign against a planned wholesale closure of nursery schools. She was a city councillor for 30 years, and also a county councillor. She rebelled against the domination of politics by men who seemed ‘older than God’, and overcame bouts of depression and anxiety. In 1959, she refused to follow the local Labour party line, and opposed the plan to build a road through Christ Church Meadow. She and her husband Edmund Gibbs led the campaign for the demolition of the infamous Cutteslowe walls. Olive drove the successful opposition to the demolition of the Jericho quarter of Oxford. She championed wide educational opportunities at the (then) Oxford College of Further Education and Oxford Polytechnic.

At an RAF dance in August 1945, there were cheers for the bombing of Hiroshima. Olive wrote that she ‘alone remained slumped in my seat, pale and trembling’. She became a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and its chair 1964-1967. Andrew Smith, MP for East Oxford 1987-2017, once commented that he learnt from Olive all the good arguments against nuclear weapons.

A member’s comment after Liz Woolley’s talk noted the universal respect for Olive Gibbs, even among supporters of other parties.

This was the History Club’s first meeting in the parish church. The sound system worked notably well. The heating had failed, but the church is confident it will work properly for the next meeting: 7.30 pm on 11 November, a talk by Richard Dudding on ‘Radley Large Wood: monks, deer, riots, canal and bluebells’.