Robin Gibb has long been interested in history. “It was my favourite subject at school,” he says. Accordingly, a man who says he’s still “a down-to-earth kind of guy” even after selling more than 200 million records is keen to find out more about his forebears.


In particular, he wants to know if a “need not to conform” he sees in himself and his brothers runs through the family. “I don’t worry about finding out if someone was crazy or not because I’m already mad,” he jokes.

First up, Robin wants to research the life of his great-grandfather, Matthew Gibb (1849-1920). He begins by meeting a cousin, Ann, Matthew’s last surviving granddaughter. Matthew was a military man and Robin learns that he enlisted in the 60th Rifles in 1867. But Matthew’s career wasn’t entirely smooth: in 1874, he was demoted from corporal to private for drunkenness, what happened?

To learn more, Robin meets military historian Arthur Robertshaw at the regiment’s Winchester headquarters. Matthew joined up as an ordinary soldier in 1867 and was sent to India. Boozing and gambling were both big problems among bored British soldiers at this time, but Matthew’s offence must still have been serious for him to have been demoted.

Nevertheless, Matthew didn’t leave the military. Instead, he knuckled down, took advantage of an army education course and was promoted again in 1882. After 37 years, he retired as a decorated staff sergeant and warrant officer.

Robin, who admires Matthew’s character and toughness, still wants to know why his forebear joined up. The 1861 census gives a clue: Matthew is listed as living in a ragged school, a charitable institution for destitute children. In Paisley, Scotland, Robin discovers what led Matthew to such desperate straits. Matthew’s father, William, was a handloom weaver who fell on hard times because of the decline of the town’s textiles industry (associated with the distinctive Paisley pattern).

In the town’s library, Robin sees records that show William first applying for relief in 1854, the same year he became a widower. There’s evidence that William traveled around Scotland looking for work, but it was to no avail. In 1874, following at least one period when he suffered “depression of spirits leading to insanity”, he died in the poorhouse.

“You want to reach out and help from this point in history,” says Robin. “That’s the problem, you can’t.”

Robin also wants to know more about his maternal grandmother Norah’s family, in particular his great-grandmother, Cecilia Lynch. She was a midwife, but it seems that a cloud may hang over her career because she was called before a penal hearing of the Central Midwives Board in 1937.

Initially, Robin has trouble finding out what happened because documents relating to the hearing, held at the National Archives, aren’t due to be released in 2013. However, a freedom of information request allows him to see the records, although the name of the family involved is blanked out to protect their identities.

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Cecilia didn’t follow the procedures for dealing with a baby’s eye infection. As children in this era all too often suffered from ophthalmia neonatorum, a form of conjunctivitis related to the mother having gonorrhea and which could cause blindness, this was a serious matter. However, there were mitigating circumstances, and Cecilia, who was “almost defiant that she is innocent” in the estimation of University of Salford midwifery expert Jeanne Lithgow, received only a caution.


Robin’s again proud he’s found a forebear who squarely faced adversary. He’s got to know “two heroes”. He concludes: “The world is different because they lived.”