When Doctor Richard Gibbs arrived in Colac in 1903, he could not have realised that he would ultimately spend a quarter of his life in the town and leave an enduring legacy.
Having initially enjoyed a three year stint in Colac from 1889 as a locum doctor, Richard returned to Colac after completing his medical studies overseas and periods of work in Warracknabeal and Sale. In 1892 he married Helen Maconochie, daughter of a well-known family of Westbank, Camperdown and Poligolet Station, Lismore and the births of three children soon followed. In 1901, Dr Gibbs travelled with his family to Great Britain where he ‘visited all of the great centres of medical and surgical teaching and in Edinburgh was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.’
Wanting to be closer to his wife’s family in the Western district, Dr Gibbs’ return to Colac heralded a successful working partnership with Dr Wynne at Lislea House, yet his first years were somewhat turbulent, as Dr Gibbs openly challenged some of the older established medical professionals of the town and their exclusive relationships with the Colac Hospital.
Despite these hurdles, Dr Gibbs quickly involved himself in the life of the Colac community, training first aid volunteers and nursing students, as well as acting as the volunteer medical officer for local groups. He rendered valuable service to the hospital and was esteemed and extremely popular amongst the townsfolk.
After the birth in 1905 of their fifth and last child, Richard and Helen Gibbs built a new family home, designed by renowned Camperdown architect Warburton Pierre ‘Perry’ Knights. ‘Glenora’, completed in 1907, combined a ground floor doctor’s surgery with family living quarters on the first floor and balconies at both the front and back provided ‘splendid views of Colac and the surroundings’. Helen had inherited a significant sum of money upon her father’s untimely death in 1903 whilst en route to a visit to his homeland of Scotland and she used these funds to ensure her new and imposing home contained many family comforts. There were even small stained-glass windows depicting sailing yachts, remembering the family’s love of yachting, a pastime they always enjoyed on Lake Colac.
The Gibbs family’s previous residence was moved to Connors Street and refurbished as a private hospital and named ‘Quisisana’ (‘Here you find health’). Renovations and modernisations included the addition of ‘a new operating room with ceiling light
When the First World War was declared, Dr Gibbs immediately joined the local Colac Patriotic Committee and eagerly ‘threw himself into the war effort.’ His two eldest sons, Richard (Mac) and John (Jack) quickly joined the Australian Forces and were sent overseas.
Mac was later awarded the Military Cross ‘for conspicuous gallantry in action’, the first Colac soldier to distinguish himself in that way.
Tragically, Mac was killed in France in July 1916 and his body never recovered, the anxious family having to wait almost a year for confirmation that he had died. Younger son Jack was invalided home in 1917 with tuberculosis and Dr Gibbs sought permission to care for him. Sadly, three months after his arrival, Jack died at the family home at Colac.
Devastated and deeply affected by the deaths of his two sons, Dr Gibbs, who had long been a strong advocate of the war, decided to dedicate his life to the repatriation of the many young men who were returning home maimed and debilitated.
Within six months, the family left Colac and took up residence in Brighton where Dr Gibbs commenced as a senior surgeon at the Australian General Hospital, Caulfield. At a farewell supper prior to her family’s departure from Colac, Helen Gibbs was described as ‘a true Australian woman and mother who had borne with fortitude her great sacrifice and loss.’
Sorrowfully, there would be further wartime grief and loss for Helen, still mourning the deaths of her beloved sons.
Newly commissioned Major Gibbs worked tirelessly to care for the returned servicemen and earned the respect from both the wounded soldiers and his peers. However, in a tragic accident in 1919, just 15 months after moving to Melbourne, Richard Gibbs fell from the back of an open tram and died. After a military funeral, thousands of grateful ex-servicemen and civilians lined Swanston Street and eight hundred soldiers followed the gun carriage bearing Dr Gibbs’ coffin to the railway station where it was transported to Colac for a largely-attended funeral service and interment at the local cemetery.
Helen Gibbs remained a widow for 40 years, enjoying the love and comfort of her remaining children; two daughters and a son, and her grandchildren. In February 1959, Helen died aged 90 and was laid to rest with her much loved Richard and son Jack in the Colac cemetery.
Today, ‘Glenora’, the Gibbs family home on the corner of Corangamite and Bromfield Streets, remains one of the most prominent buildings in Colac.