The story of William Fox Tibbitts is remarkable. A man of extraordinary business acumen but who lived the life of a poor man.
At the time of his death in 1927 he was described as “probably the most eccentric rich man in Sheffield.” He was a mass of contradictions, so bizarre and so unlikely that only personal sight and knowledge of them could make them credible.
Tibbitts was born in 1842, educated at Collegiate School, and was the last in a long line of Sheffield attorneys, a profession he turned his back on to become a shrewd property owner and speculator in stocks and shares.
He lived at Netherthorpe House, built by the Hoyle family in 1750, at what was once the centre of an estate of green fields. By the time he died, the house was in one of the poorest districts of Sheffield, situated at the junction of Meadow Street and Hoyle Street, surrounded by back-to-back houses, mean streets, shops, and the smoke of works.
Tibbitts’ father had married into the Hoyle family, one of noble recognition in Sheffield, and to which Hoyle Street got its name.
William Fox Tibbitts bought block after block of property at Upperthorpe and ultimately almost all that district fell into his hands, and he became known as the ‘Upperthorpe Lawyer’. He also purchased properties in Skegness and London.
Tibbitts was of careful disposition and in his early years said he could not afford to marry, and in later years had no inclination toward marriage.
Notwithstanding his eagerness to amass money, there was a kindly disposition to him and frequently befriended poor people offering them free legal advice.
His motor-car was a Corporation tram; he was a keen traveller, mountain climber and walker; a wizard of finance who kept personal records of all his shares and transactions in old-fashioned ledgers with a medley of out-of-date newspaper cuttings; a solicitor who sold coal mines; a big landowner who let off a portion of his own house as a surgery and who had titled relatives in the highest rank; a man who might have been Lord Mayor, but never tried to enter public life.
Shortly before his death in March 1927 he agreed to an interview with a reporter from the Sheffield Independent: –
“I recently found him at his house. Several minutes of ringing called his housekeeper, and I was ushered into the presence of a well-preserved, very old and venerable man seated before a small fire by a desk poring over a rent book in a sparsely furnished office lit by a single lamp in a common shade. He greeted me with kind courtesy and, with an emphatic embargo on notebooks, he talked almost as a monologue for two hours.
“’My friends tell me that I should take a house in the country,’ he said, ‘but if I did I should never be able to get down here to work every day, and I often take a penny ride on the tramcar for exercise. People will not believe me when I say that I can hardly afford to keep this old house going.’
“He sighed, and I noted the frayed cuffs of his old coat and the worn waistcoat.
“Yet a few minutes later this amazing old man told me that he sold a colliery (he mentioned its name) and believed that he might have got about £50,000 or more if he had pressed.
“’I held a controlling interest in the shares,’ he explained, ‘but they wanted me to put up the money for another 400 houses at over £400 each, and I refused.’
“Politically, he was still back in 1909, and he revealed an astonishing collection of cuttings denouncing Mr Lloyd George’s Budget campaign (all mixed up with denunciations of Arthur James Cook), and then he bemoaned the break-up of the big ducal estates, the approaching flight of capital from this country, and the especial iniquity of death duties. His newspaper cuttings, yellow and creased, were like leaves of Vallombrosa.
“He knew the Sheffield Stock Exchange Daily Price-List almost by heart, and the sight of it on his desk moved him to further sighs of regret concerning the vast interests he had in shares that were not paying a dividend.
“With a great effort he lifted down a ponderous ledger, scanned the index, and turned up entries recording the financial history of big blocks of shares in Sheffield and other companies. ‘I am the biggest shareholder in So-and-So,’ he mentioned quite casually, and the name he mentioned was that of one of the oldest and biggest steel firms in the country.
“Page after page recorded his holding of thousands and tens of thousands of shares, and a sheaf of company reports, fresh from the postman, gave an idea of what his yearly total of such documents must have been.
“Mr Tibbitts took a boyish pride in speaking of his travelling and mountaineering exploits, discontinued since the war on account of the ‘big charges now made at the hotels.’
“A bachelor, he talked of this and that famous person, whose names are national property, and of this and that big industrial organisation and their weaknesses and scandals far too piquant to repeat, until at long last he closed his ledgers and I rose to leave.
“I had gone, by the way, to ask him for his views on ‘success’. ‘It would not do,’ he had said in refusing. ‘I may finish in the Bankruptcy Court.’”
Tibbitts liked to speak tongue-in-cheek, his wealth assured, and following his death Samuel Mather, a close friend and sharebroker, revealed more about Tibbitts’ character: –
“In ordinary justice to his memory, the idea of some of his supposed eccentricities should be removed.
“He had a simple, unassuming, genial nature, making no display either in his mode of life or dress. When, on our walks, we had been asked to help some good cause, it was a surprise to the recipients to get a gold coin instead of a silver one which was all that was expected from a plainly attired wayfarer.
“Most sensible men enjoyed wearing an old comfortable suit but cannot afford to defy convention by doing so except when pottering about the garden.
“Ostentation was an anathema to him. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘should I be troubled with all the cares occasioned by the upkeep of a large establishment.’ His only desire was to be comfortable. His residence was not in a salubrious neighbourhood, but he had grown accustomed to the old home of his family, and so remained there, notwithstanding the change in the character of his surroundings. It was, too, convenient as an office and for his workmen.
“Living as he did, a somewhat self-centred life, it was perhaps inevitable that, as do many others, he should possess the defects of his qualities, but it would be a good thing for our city and country , as well as for themselves personally, if others could be induced to follow in his footsteps.”
After his death, press speculation said Tibbitts had left about £2 million to his niece, Sheffield-born Henrietta Sarah Fisher, who lived at Tunbridge Wells, and this prompted her to avoid media attention by fleeing to France.
The actual figure was £1.5 million, and after dispositions and death duties, the amount left to her was £938,000.
In the 1930s she returned to Sheffield and made her home at the Kenwood Hotel before moving to Devon. In her lifetime she gave generous donations to the Royal Hospital as well as providing £2,100 for the purchase of Prior Bank at Nether Edge, a home for rest for the chronically ill, and gave £1,000 for the relief of post-Blitz distress in 1941.
She died in 1950, leaving £1.49 million, but death duties amounted to a staggering £1.14 million, leaving just £350,000 to be distributed as per the terms of her will.
After personal bequests, she left sums of £5 each to be distributed among Sheffield’s oldest tenants and her cars were left to her chauffeur. All her letters were burned and all her apparel, except furs and laces, were given away.
The residue was given to the Cutlers’ Company. The bequest, known as ‘The William Tebbitts Fund’, was for the protection and benefit of the trade of Hallamshire, for charitable and other purposes.
Netherthorpe House succumbed to the bulldozers, its site consumed by Netherthorpe Road’s dual carriageway, but Hoyle Street survives as a reminder of an old Sheffield family.
The Tibbitts Papers were given by Henrietta Sarah Fisher to Sheffield Reference Library after William Fox Tibbitts’ death. These provided matter relating to the history of Sheffield, particularly Owlerton, including a ‘Court Roll of the Manor’ from 1711. There was a great deal of information about turnpike roads, including minutes of meetings, maps, plans and documents about the keeping and management of toll-bars. Other papers related to the keeping and management of local canals and rivers. Included in the collection were legal records accumulated in the 18th century. These are held by Sheffield City Archives.