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Thursday, 23 October 2014

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Dialect maestro with local roots

OOPS! It’s slap on the wrist time.

Only one problem, Gibson was no offcomer. He was, in fact, born in Harrington.

A few facts. He was born on March 17, 1813.

Over the years writers disagreed about the forename of his father, Joseph, John or James?

Most now agree that he was Captain Joseph Gibson, himself born in Harrington, who was master and, with others, a shipowner.

An 1840 record of Harrington shipping lists one Joseph Gibson as being master and owner of the brig “Margaret”.

Joseph married Mary Stuart Craig, who came from Lockerbie or Ecclefechan.

They had seven children, of which Alexander was the eldest son and the second born.

To date I have not been able to find much about his childhood years.

One thing is for certain. He would have enjoyed a relatively privileged early existence, compared with most other Harringtonians of his day.

The family was very far from being on the breadline.

He most likely didn’t fancy a life on the ocean wave. But what respectable occupation could a well-brought-up, middle-class youth turn his hand to in those days? The army? The law? The Church?

Then, of course, there was the medical profession – which he chose – or had it chosen for him.

One account has him being “apprenticed in medicine to Messrs Dawson and Thompson, in Whitehaven, in 1824.”

He served his time with them as both surgeon and apothecary. If the 1824 date is correct, he would have started his apprenticeship at the age of 11!

He obtained his formal medical qualification after studying medicine at Edinburgh. Being the proud possessor of nationally recognised qualifications, he returned to Cumberland.

He set up in practice on his own in the villages of Branthwaite and Ullock. This was in 1841.

In 1844 he married Sarah Bowman, the daughter of John Bowman from Hodyhod, Lamplugh. He was, at this time, practising in Coniston. He’d moved there in 1843 and was to remain there for another six, or was it eight, years – before moving his practice to Hawkshead in 1849 – or 1851.

To date a strict chronology of his comings and goings has proved difficult as the various, albeit few, accounts of his life vary.

It was during these years away from the west that his literary talents began to flourish. He seems to have started by writing pieces for the Kendal Mercury, many of which were reprinted in some of his later book publications.

He was a student of the various local dialects and, his being at that time resident out of our area, during his most literary productive period, I’d mistakenly assumed that he’d moved there from outside our county – and was an offcomer.

That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

He seems to have been a delicate soul – given to bouts of ill health and, I suspect, periods of black depression. He reportedly suffered from consumption and, for a time, serious blood poisoning – a result of a scratch received accidentally when treating a seriously ill patient.

Whatever the reason, he seems to have found country practice too much for him and in 1856 took himself, and his wife, off to live and work in Lower Bebington, near Birkenhead, on the Wirral – the insular peninsula.

His health didn’t improve and he retired in 1872. He was not to enjoy a long and peaceful retirement. After a prolonged and painful illness, he died there on June 7, 1874. He was only 61 years of age.

His contemporaries acknowledged him as being probably the foremost dialect writer and scholar of his time. But today he is very much a forgotten man – at best a footnote in North West local history.

It wasn’t always so. His fame must have spread abroad in his lifetime. Why else would he have been included in the Dictionary of National Biography? Not bad for a Cumbrian country doctor who dabbled in dialect.

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