James William Tibbs, headmaster of Auckland Grammar School for nearly 30 years, was a key figure in the development of secondary education in New Zealand. He was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on 27 October 1855, the first of nine children of Elizabeth Hoggins and her husband, Charles Tibbs. His father had come out to Australia from England, and was a civil servant in the customs department. James attended Hutchins School and the high school in Hobart, and obtained the Senior Tasmanian Scholarship in 1874. This took him to Keble College, University of Oxford, where he studied mathematics and gained a second-class BA in 1879; he took his MA in 1883. He was mathematics master at St Edward's School, Oxford, from 1879 until 1881.
On 6 September 1881 at Chelsea, London, Tibbs married Alice Kelly; they were to have six children. The couple left for Tasmania, where Tibbs became mathematics master at the high school in Hobart. He was appointed to teach mathematics at Auckland College and Grammar School (later Auckland Grammar School) in 1885. He became headmaster in 1893, at which time Auckland Grammar was the only secondary school in Auckland endowed by the state; it taught both boys and girls.
James Tibbs made a central contribution to the creation of a grammar school tradition in Auckland, emphasising academic success, and concentrating on professional and classical courses as a preparation for matriculation and university study. Tibbs seems never to have come to terms with the provision for free-place students, fearing that this would lower academic standards. He also resisted the introduction of vocational and technical education to secondary schools.
Tibbs had a high conception of the role and prerogatives of a headmaster. His physical presence undoubtedly helped his personal dominance: he was tall, broad-shouldered and strongly built, with a large well-shaped head, piercing blue eyes, a strong nose and a full moustache. His clear, powerful voice dominated numerous school assemblies. He tempered his authority with compassion, and could be genial and humorous. He was brusque with the lazy, unwilling to delegate authority, and insisted on his right to discipline and organise his school as he saw fit. He never reconciled himself to the loss of many of his powers, particularly those relating to staff, after the passing of the Education Act 1914.
Autocratic Tibbs may have been, but his ability saw the school cope successfully with stressful changes such as an increase in the roll from 132 in 1893 to 700 in 1916, the separation of the girls' school in 1909, the removal, in 1916, of the school to a new site in Epsom, and the disruption of the war years. He had also given the school a prominent place in the life of Auckland. Tibbs stressed that he was training not merely scholars, but citizens with a sense of civic responsibility and the capacity for making sound moral judgements. At the time of his retirement in 1922 he had built Auckland Grammar into the biggest secondary school in the country. He was made a CMG in 1923.
James Tibbs played an active part in the civic life of Auckland. He was a trustee of Dilworth Ulster Institute, and of the Jubilee Institute for the Blind. A member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand from 1910 until 1923, he also served as a member of the Grey Lynn Borough Council. He was regarded as an authority on horticulture, and was a keen gardener. Tibbs died at his home in Ponsonby, Auckland, on 17 February 1924, survived by four children, Alice Tibbs having died in 1907.
Tibbs claimed that, of all the secondary schools in Australasia, Auckland Grammar was 'second to none in achievement and renown'. He, and the traditions associated with him, helped to ensure that it remained prominent and successful amid the growing diversity and conflicts of New Zealand education in the twentieth century.