Sybil Campbell

Published 10th April 2018
Sybil Campbell was the first woman to be appointed to the professional judiciary full-time in Britain, when she became a stipendiary magistrate at Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court in 1945. She remained the only full-time female professional magistrate or judge in England until she retired in 1961.

The eldest of three daughters, Sybil was born in Ceylon, Sri Lanka in 1889, where her father worked as an agent for the Anglo-Ceylon General Estates Company. Her mother was the daughter of Sir William Bovill, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. Initially taught by her mother, Sybil went to school in North Berwick when she was thirteen. After a few months at a finishing school in Paris, she went to Girton College, Cambridge in 1908. She read Natural Sciences before transferring to Economics, achieving a Third. She also acted as president of Girton College’s debating society.

Upon leaving Cambridge, Sybil worked as an investigating officer from 1913 to 1918 with the Trade Boards. Her work involved investigating working conditions in the ‘sweated trades’ in deprived areas, and enforcing minimum wages. Her parents were concerned for her safety, and insisted that she carry a gun during her inspections, which she kept hidden and unloaded. During the First World War, Sybil worked as an enforcement officer with the Ministry of Food in the Midlands, helping to prosecute black marketeers. It was here that she met Gwyneth Bebb, another trailblazer in the legal profession, and Sybil became the godmother of Gwyneth’s first daughter in 1919.

Sybil continued to work for the Ministry of Food until 1921. After the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, she joined the Middle Temple in 1920, and was one of the first ten women called to the Bar at the Middle Temple on the 17th November 1922. Afterwards, Sybil practised as a barrister in the chambers of H. H. Joy on the Midlands circuit. At the time, it was a struggle to succeed as a woman in the very masculine environment of the Bar. One contemporary observer remarked that women were not doing as well at the Bar due to the fact it was “an eminently selfish profession, marked by ruthless personal ambitions”, which relied upon public school links of patronage.

In 1929 she was appointed a member of the Trade Boards, and later she was given a position on the Court of Referees. During the Second World War, Sybil returned to work at the Ministry of Food, becoming Assistant Divisional Food Officer (Enforcement) for London. The Daily Express described her as “Britain’s number one food detective” and “the directing brain behind the organisation that trapped food profiteers and black market racketeers” She was awarded an OBE in 1942 for her work.

Sybil returned to the Bar and Referees Courts in 1944, and in March 1945 she applied for the vacant position of metropolitan police magistrate in the Tower Bridge police courts. By 1945 there were around 3,700 female justices of the peace, but no woman had ever been appointed as a professional judge. The Home Secretary at the time, Herbert Morrison, was keen to appoint a woman to the judiciary, and supported Sybil’s application.

Sybil’s appointment was announced on 3rd April 1945. While the press was generally positive, the Law Journal voiced doubts, questioning whether “the hearing of very unpleasant matters” was “the most suitable judicial appointment for a woman”. The appointment was also questioned by members of the Bar in a letter to The Times and in Parliament, with Russell Thomas MP asking the Home Secretary “on what grounds he departed from precedent”. Formal objections that Sybil had not worked as a barrister long enough masked underlying beliefs that women were not suited for the judiciary.

Within a few months, the national press were criticising Sybil for the severity of her sentences, which was almost double the national level for first offenders. Henry Lucas, who had worked for his employer for 35 years, was jailed for stealing four small Christmas puddings. After Sybil gave Arthur Whiffen six weeks in prison for stealing three bars of soap, 5,000 factory workers participated in a demonstration against her. The Sunday Pictorial published a full-page attack of Sybil entitled ‘The Lady of Tower Bridge’, leading to angry letters from individuals describing her as a ‘fiendish vixen’.

However, a police report supported Sybil’s higher sentences due to the nature of crime in the Tower Bridge area, and the Home Office concluded that “Miss Campbell’s sentences are severe but we have no evidence that her findings are unfair.” Despite this, Sybil was booed as she walked to work, and called names such as ‘the beast of Belsen’, enduring the criticism with stoicism.

Later in her career, Sybil gained a reputation for fairness. She visited prisons and probation houses to witness their conditions, and was sympathetic in her use of probation. She also served as honorary secretary for the David Isaacs Fund for the Poor of London. Sybil continued as stipendiary magistrate until she retired aged in 1961 aged 72, having remained the only woman to be appointed a full-time judge in Britain. A year after Sybil’s retirement, Elizabeth Lane became the first female county court judge.

Sybil was a fervent supporter of women’s education. She served as Honorary Secretary of the British Federation of University Women from 1921 to 1933, and Honorary Vice-President from 1947 to 1977. Her duties included acting as delegate to conferences in Madrid and Budapest. She also spearheaded the campaign for the establishment of Crosby Hall of Residence for international women postgraduates in Chelsea.

After her retirement to her family home in Argyll, Sybil devoted herself to gardening and her duties as Churchwarden. She died on the 29th August 1977 in Glasgow, remembered for her wit, determination, and sense of duty.

Written by Annabel Twose, Project Coordinator for First 100 Years

Image © National Portrait Gallery