The thread about the Gibsons of Leith; the enterprising fish smokers who survived shipwreck at the ends of the earth to become pioneers of aviation in Scotland

This thread was originally written and published in February 2023.

John Gibson was born in September 1856, the first child of Margaret Forrest and John Gibson of New Street, Fisherrow, the small harbour village just to the west of Musselburgh. John (senior) was a fish curer and town councillor, like his father before him, and the family lived in a house by the name of Gibson’s Land. The family moved to Liverpool in the 1860s, business at Fisherrow having been disrupted by the coming of the railways. John Junior went to sea as an apprentice aged 14, learning that trade across the globe on oceanic sailing ships.

In August 1875, when aged just 18, he found himself wrecked off Cape Horn after the on which he was serving had to be abandoned. The Albert Gallatin of Liverpool became uncontrollable after losing her rudder and was in danger of being wrecked on the rocky shore of the Ildefenso Islands to the south of Chile. The ship’s complement of 30 took to the boats; the first mate and 20 seamen in the larger and Captain Groves, his wife and two children, and five seamen including John in the smaller. The latter boat made it safely to Islas Hermite, where they spent 9 days, before setting off again in search of something from which to construct a sail. After 2 days fruitless rowing they landed on another island, where they were reduced to a diet of half a cracker and 3½ ounces of salt beef each per day and suffered badly from exposure. They were fortuitously rescued by the ship Syren of Boston after 18 days. The other 21 men were never seen again.

Islas Hermite, CC-by-SA 3.0, Jerzy Strzelecki
Islas Hermite, CC-by-SA 3.0, Jerzy Strzelecki

John Senior moved the family back to Scotland around this time, re-establishing his fish curing business in Leith, but his son fancied his chances and headed to Australia to prospect for Gold. Not striking it rich, he soon returned home and joined the family trade, dealing in smoked fish in Newhaven. In 1897 he set himself up as a dealer of machinery and soon took to repair work and it was not long before this extended to bicycles. He entered the cycle trade at 109 Leith Walk around 1905, this business soon took the name of the Caledonian Cycle Works. These premises had substantial workshops to the rear, under the Manderston Street railway arches, perfect space for Gibson to indulge in tinkering with bikes, cars and engines.

Plaque dedicated to John Gibson adjacent to his “Caledonian Cycle Works” at 109 Leith Walk, which now houses a Salvation Army shop. The date given for his birth does not match his birth certificate and as nice as it is to imagine the fact, he did not build Scotland’s first aircraft (although he did claim to!).
Local newspaper adverts for the Caledonian Cycle Works in 1907

It’s not exactly clear why, but in early 1909 John Gibson decided to get himself into the aircraft industry by building his own machines. Perhaps he was inspired by those two other bicycle repair shop proprietors; Orville and Wilbur Wright. Or perhaps it was the contemporary adventures of Scotland’s other aviation pioneers, which had been plastered all over the newspapers. The Barnwell brothers of Stirling – Frank and Harold – had been experimenting with gliders and had even tried to fit an internal combustion engine to one in 1905. In 1908, Lt. Laurence D. L. Gibbs made short, powered hops in a curious, swept-wing, “automatic stability” biplane called the Dunne D.4 in much secrecy in Glen Tilt near Blair Atholl. In July 1909, the Barnwells made the first powered flight in Scotland. Closer to home for Gibson there was a financial incentive to budding aviators too; in September 1909, the directors of the Marine Gardens amusement park in Portobello had offered a £500 prize, good for 1 year, for the first flight across the Firth of Forth by a Briton in a British-built plane, so long as it started from Marine Gardens. It was noted in April 1910 that Mr Charles Hubbard, an engineer living at Viewforth, was experimenting with a Bleriot-type monoplane of his own construction on Portobello Golf Course and had made a number of powered hops before it crashed.

Suitably inspired, Gibson’s first forays into aeroplanes were quarter-scale models, c. 10 feet long and certainly showing the influence of the Wright Brothers: being biplanes controlled by warping the wings and by a canard (a leading control surface rather than a tail), being powered by two propellers driven by chains from a single engine and by landing on skis. They were built both to hone and refine Gibson’s techniques and design, but also as demonstration pieces to be put on public show. In total he built nineteen different models, and the design of his craft evolved over this time.

An early variant Gibson aeroplane, before the Farman type. This one may be that described as being shown at the Leith Flower Show in Victoria Park in August 1910
A subsequent model, from a photo submitted to Flight magazine by John Gibson in February 1912. It is beginning to look more like a Farman-type, but still retains features of the earlier craft above such as the chain-driven propellers

The definitive model moved up to half-scale, 15½ feet long and 12 feet in span, and adopted the layout of Henry Farman, a French aviation pioneer and a type which was very popular in the UK at that time. Again a canard biplane, it had movable ailerons on the wing-tips for control, a single, 7-cylinder rotary engine and the refinement of wheels with rubber suspension added to the landing skis. This was built specifically to exhibit in London and Berlin in March and April of 1910 respectively and was sponsored by the North British Rubber Company to exhibit their rubberised aircraft fabric. The structure was of ash wood, braced by piano wires.

The Gibson Farman-type half-scale biplane, at the company's workshops in Manderston Street
The Gibson Farman-type half-scale biplane, at the company’s workshops in Manderston Street

Even before half-sized Farman model was completed, Gibson had already moved on to the construction of a full-sized version of it – Caledonia No. 1. In July 1910 it was ready and The Scotsman reported it to be 30 feet long and 28 feet in span, with a loaded weight of 700 lbs. It was powered by a 3-cylinder, water-cooled engine of 30 hp, driving a 2-bladed propeller of 6 feet 8 inches at 1,100 rpm. The pilot sat on the lower wing, with the engine to his back and the radiators on either side. In contrast to the model, the vertical tails were mounted one above the other, rather than side-by-side. Construction was of silver spruce, with elm skids, and again it was covered in North British rubberised fabric. The aircraft could be disassembled for transport, and a photo of it exists in a field outside Edinburgh being put back together again. Gibson told the press that the only part of his machine that was not built in Scotland was its engine. He had intended to enter the machine into the Royal Aero Club’s inaugural Scottish flying meeting at Lanark Racecourse in August of that year, but the proprietors were wary of the public relations disasters experienced by other events as a result of amateur flyers who could not convince their homespun machines to take off and barred all but experienced pilots in proven aircraft. Gibson was disappointed to be excluded from the Lanark meet, but this was probably for the best as No. 1 refused to take off.

Gibson's Caledonia No. 1, probably at Balerno. Photograph donated by John Gibson's son G. T. Gibson to the National Museums of Scotland and on display at the East Fortune Museum of Flight
Gibson’s Caledonia No. 1, probably at Balerno. Photograph donated by John Gibson’s son G. T. Gibson to the National Museums of Scotland and on display at the East Fortune Museum of Flight

Undeterred, the machine was rebuilt as Caledonia No. 2, and in August it is reputed to have managed to make some short, controlled hops at Buteland Farm, outside Balerno, with Gibson’s 30 year old son – John G. Gibson (the G was for Gibson!) – at the controls. The main visual changes to No. 2 were the twin canards at the front and the curved supporting skids between them and the wheels (which protected the plane in the event of it nosing-over on take off and landing).

Caledonia No. 2, from photos submitted by John Gibson in August 1910, before it had managed a controlled flight. His son is at the controls.
Caledonia No. 2, from photos submitted by John Gibson in August 1910, before it had managed a controlled flight. His son, John G., is at the controls.

Gibson undertook some of the flying himself, but as injured in a crash and broke his leg. Thereafter he deferred most of the flight testing to his son – John G. There are mentions online of testing being undertaken on Leith Links, but I can find no references to substantiate this, and as far as I’m aware Buteland Farm was used as their test ground. The Gibsons now had a working aircraft and began soliciting for orders, charging £450 for a complete machine. Full-page spread adverts were placed in the Edinburgh and Leith post office directories:

Gibson's Aeroplanes advert from 1910-11, from the Edinburgh & Leith Post Office Directory.
Gibson’s Aeroplanes advert from 1910-11, from the Edinburgh & Leith Post Office Directory.

Planes, Tails, Ailerons, supplied on receipt of measurements and other details on very short notice.
Best materials only used. Your orders solicited for Scottish-built Planes.
Spare parts or complete machines.
Wood Spars cut any length, straight-grained and free from knots.
Aeroplane Fabric, all grades, at factory prices.
We make Aluminium castings from customer’s patterns or drawings. Wood patterns made to order.
We undertake Aeroplane repairs.

Advert for Gibson’s Aeroplanes, 1910-11

Nine more machines were built by the company in the next few years, most for sale to private customers. In September 1911, Gibson reported to the press that one of his machines – Caledonia No. 11 – had accidentally but successfully performed a “somersault” in the air when being flown at Cramond by Gordon T. Cooper, the son of the secretary of the Edinburgh Aeronautical Association. In November of that year, one of the Gibson machines was included in the display of the Scottish Aeronautical Society at the National Exhibition, at Kelvingrove in Glasgow.

Farman biplane in flight in 1910, with a passenger clinging on to a strut next to the pilot.
An American Farman biplane in flight in 1910, with a passenger clinging on to a strut next to the pilot.

Of the 11 full-size machines built by the Gibsons, four were written off in crashes, one was destroyed in a fire when on display at an exhibition in Brussels and another met the same fate in the Manderston Street workshop. Progress seems then to have stalled, this is perhaps because John G. had graduated from Edinburgh University as a prize-winner and passed an entry exam to the Indian Civil Service, which gained him a prestigious appointment in London with the HM Office of Works. A larger machine was designed in 1913 and was said to be under construction the following year when the outbreak of war saw it being cancelled. This event saw John G. join the Royal Engineers, and he was twice wounded during the conflict. Post-war he took a civil service job attached to the Air Ministry.

Wooden propeller from a Gibson aeroplane at the National Museums of Scotland Museum of Flight at East Fortune. Given the date, and the size, this may have been fitted to the Farman-type half scale model.

During the war, the Caledonian Cycles business was relocated to Dalry Road and the Leith Walk premises and its workshops became the Caledonian Motor Works, with additional workshop premises being taken on Sloan Street and Jameson Place nearby. Business became focussed on providing bodies for lorries and post-war the company would become a principal agent in Scotland for Leyland lorries and buses, with premises taken in King Street, Aberdeen to serve the north-east of Scotland. Later they would become an agent for Morris Commercial Vehicles.

John Gibson (senior) died aged 79, at his home at 19 Pilrig Street in Leith on August 7th 1935. The Scottish newspapers mourned his passing and noted a surprising further string to his bow; he was an acknowledged authority on Egyptology and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquities. John G.’s younger brother – George Thomson Gibson – seems to have largely taken over the running of the company. George was a capable engineer – taking out his first patent for improvements to motorcycle frame joints in 1918. In the 1950s he took out a series of patents for improvements to refuse vehicles and these would become something of a company speciality.

1957 patent by George T. Gibson for a tipping refuse lorry
1957 patent by George T. Gibson for a tipping refuse lorry

Another line of business was “Gibson Towers”, which they designed and built for themselves; mobile platforms for working at height. Still based in Leith, a pleasing throwback to their aviation heritage was the continued use of “Aero, Edinburgh” as the telegram address.

A 1956 advert for Gibson Towers

George T. died in Edinburgh in 1960 aged 69. John G. died in 1970, aged 80. The company continued for a while after the death of the Gibson brothers, being closed and wound-up in 1975.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

One comment

  1. […] John Gibson, a cycle repair shop owner and engine-tinkerer of Leith, was the most prolific builder of flying machines in Edinburgh, running through a series of quarter and then half-scale models before moving on to full size machines of the Farman type. The flying experiment s of John Gibson and his son John Gibson Gibson were conducted at Buteland Farm outside Balerno and some short flights were managed. Machines made for paying customers also took successfully to the skies. The full story of these are covered in a separate thread. […]


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