Sybil Campbell

Sybil Campbell, a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, made legal history as one of ten women admitted at Middle Temple in November 1922, when women were first called to the English Bar.

Sybil CampbellFrom 1945, she became the first woman to serve as a Stipendiary Magistrate in London, at Tower Bridge Magistrate's Court.

During the twelve years from 1921 that Sybil Campbell worked as Honorary Secretary to the British Federation of University Women (now the BFWG), she spearheaded the fundraising campaign to establish an international hall of residence for women students at Crosby Hall in Chelsea.

With others she enthusiastically built up the Library as a research resource for students living there. Her gift of £2,000 to the Library in 1975 was a major addition to the Trust Fund which had been established by BFUW in 1955. The Trust Fund continues today to finance the activities of the Library which was named in her honour in 1965 when it first occupied its purpose-built room at Crosby hall.


Funeral Oration given by the Reverend Andrew Duncan-Jones,
Rector of Christ Church, Lochgilphaed, Argyll

Miss Sybil Campbell, OBE, MA, FRHS

Sybil Campbell had her roots deep in the soil of Argyll. She was the grand-daughter of Alexander Campbell of Auchen-darroch, who originally owned most of the land on which Loch-gilphaed now stands, and many acres beyond. She inherited from her aunts that remarkable house Drim-na-Vullin; and though her professional career ran its course in England, it was always to Argyll and her beloved Drin-na-Vullin that – at every opportunity- her thoughts and her feet returned.

That professional career was in many ways remarkable. It never occurs to us nowadays to question that women are the intellectual equals of men: but Sybil Campbell was born in a generation when the truth of this was not universally accepted. And it is characteristic of her that before the First World War she went to Girton College, Cambridge – a college famous then (and no doubt now) for combining the most rigorous academic standards with equally rigorous standards of lady-like decorum. Right up to her last years the Federation of University Women and their headquarters, Crosby Hall, profited from her support and generosity. At Cambridge she read Natural Sciences and Economics. But it was the law that was in her blood, for her maternal grandfather was Sir William Bovill, who had been chief justice of the court of common pleas. So after the First War Sybil read for the bar; and in 1922 – the first year in which such a thing became possible –she was called to the bar, one of the first four women to enter that male preserve. During the Second War she was Enforcement Officer at the Ministry of Food; which meant she was in charge of a department responsible for searching out and combating the activities of the black market. It was a task that she pursued with unrelenting persistence and skill.

Sybil made history again after the Second War. In 1945 she was appointed Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate at the Tower Bridge Court, and thus became the first woman to enter the ranks of the judiciary. In her sixteen years there she made a reputation for thoroughness and fairness. In the early years she had to endure a newspaper campaign accusing her of excessive severity in sentencing, but she never allowed this to turn her aside for one moment from her duty as she saw it. For she was a person of firm will, positive, decisive, with a mind that was muscular and rather masculine: a person remarkable in any company and any generation.

And if all this sounds rather austere and even formidable, that is because it is only one side of her many-sided character. The beauty of flowers meant a very great deal to Sybil, right up to the end, and over the years she spent infinite thought and trouble on planning and improving the garden at Drim-na-Vullin, stocking it with lovely things.

She valued highly the love and affection of family and friends, and was loyal and generous in reciprocating it. She was immensely hospitable. I remember that when I remarked to her how kind it had been that she had a reception at Drim on the day that I was instituted rector here, her reply was “Oh, any excuse for a party”. Certainly that seemed to be one of her guiding maxims. She loved a party, and her parties were fun.

She had no great gift for writing: such articles as she wrote tended to be competent rather than stimulating. Her real métier was the spoken word. With her sharp mind and gifted tongue she was a skilled talker –never a chatterer, but a talker -; and this was how she kept up with her friends – right up to her last days her telephone bills were prodigious. And when she was in the mood, what an incomparable raconteuse she was! How many of us have been reduced almost to tears or to helpless laughter by her skilfully told anecdotes! There were anecdotes of her days in court; of the unofficial advice which as a magistrate she gave to any who came and asked for it; of her encounter with the shadowy criminal world of the black market; of Argyll in earlier days. She is still remembered in local legend as being the last woman to row across Loch Fyne at Otter Ferry; and no one who heard her relate how she shamed the ferryman into giving her the oars on a stormy night can ever forget the tale.

After she retired to Drim-na-Vullin in 1961 Sybil was for many years Churchwarden and later Trustee of Christ Church, this church which was built largely through the initiative of her grandparents and was erected on Auchen-daroch land. During these years she was unwearying in promoting the church’s welfare, getting up functions for its support, opening the garden at Drim-na-Vullin, and always setting an example by her own generosity. She was unwearying too in her Church attendance, even when someone less resolute would have thought her increasing physical disabilities would have made it impossible. Her Christian faith was simple, sincere and strong. There is no doubt that in her last year - and it was a happy year – in the Bon Secours Nursing Home in Glasgow, her peace of mind and spirit were immensely supported both by the Christian devotion and serenity of the nuns who looked after her, and by the visits of the Episcopalian priest who used to celebrate the Holy Communion with her in her room.

So today, as we lay her ashes in the soil that Achen-daroch gave to the Church, we thank God for Sybil Campbell, for a full life steadfastly lived; and we pray that God will grant to her, with all the faithful and valiant departed, light and refreshment in his Eternal Kingdom.

Trustees note

Sybil Campbell, OBE, MA, FRHS 1889-1977

Metropolitan Magistrate, Tower Bridge, 1945-61; first woman stipendiary magistrate in Britain
Hon. Secretary, British Federation of University Women 1921-33
Governor and Member of Council, Girton College, Cambridge 1933-42
Director, Crosby Hall Association 1926-39, 1945-68
Hon. Vice-President, BFUW 1947-77

Further reading

“Sybil Campbell 1889-1977”, by Katherine Bentley -Beauman
Dewey 920, date 1987, pamphlet box


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