Women's History Month 2022: Who was Sybil Campbell?

30 Mar 2022

In a blog post to mark Women's History Month (1-31 March), colleagues from the University's Centre for the History of Women's Education, reflect on the life and groundbreaking legal career of Sybil Campbell (1889-1977), arguing that hers is a life worthy of a place in the history of women's education.

The London press was rather unkind to the first women stipendiary magistrate, calling for her dismissal or even for her 'to be chucked in the Thames' as a result of her harsh sentencing.

This was the same Sybil Campbell who lends her name to the University of Winchester Special Collection on loan from the British Federation of Women Graduates.

But who was she? And why is a collection of 8000 books generated through donations from intellectual networks, including many from the London School of Economics in the 1930s and 40s, named after her?

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Miss Campbell's sentencing was, although strict, not dissimilar to that of her male colleagues. Patrick Polden has concluded that she was undoubtedly the victim of sexual prejudice and her stoic refusal to bow to criticism left a 'record to be admired and a life to be remembered'.

Sybil Campbell (1889-1977) was born in Sri Lanka, but was educated in England, first at home and then at Girton College, Cambridge. She was one of the first women to take up a legal career after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919 removed barriers to women as barristers and solicitors. She was also one of ten women called to the bar in 1922 and in 1945 became the first woman in a full-time paid judicial capacity. She remained as a magistrate until her retirement, despite her initial unpopularity.

Sybil Campbell was also an enthusiastic and energetic member of the British Federation of University Women (BFUW), an organisation founded in 1907 to 'afford a means of communication and of united action in matters affecting the interest of women'. In 1927 Crosby Hall was opened by the Federation to provide a hall of residence for graduate women in Chelsea who were studying and working in London.

Sybil had acted as secretary to the BFUW from 1921 to 1933, spearheading the campaign to raise funds for the Hall. She actively campaigned for further funding for an attached library where women could relax and borrow books. With others on the library committee, she encouraged a range of prominent figures such as the Woolfs, the Webbs and Lady Astor to donate books. Her indefatigable work for the BFUW and the library led to the naming of the library in her honour after its move to a purpose-built room in the 1960s.

Further contributions came from overseas University Federations such as Romania and Bulgaria and the Collection still boasts a large foreign language section. When the Hall was sold in 1988 the Collection eventually came to Winchester, where books can be borrowed to read on site on request.

Thanks to generous time by the Library staff, the books are gradually being entered on the main catalogue, but the full catalogue is available here, where it is also possible to see a longer list of donors.

The Collection is widely used by members of the Centre for the History of Women's Education at Winchester to explore the wider networks of intellectual women both nationally and internationally. Crosby Hall provided support, assistance and an intellectual home to many women academic refugees in the 1940s and 50s.

The importance of the Collection is more than the sum of its parts: its donors and the books themselves offer an insight into the reading preferences of intellectual women in the mid twentieth century. It is not primarily about women, neither it is solely books authored by women. It is a collection that was facilitated by women under the guidance of Sybil and her fellow committee members.

Sybil Campbell provides a good example of how women's lives and work can be misrepresented by too much adherence to one source. If believed at face value, contemporary newspaper accounts suggest that Sybil Campbell held back the cause of women in the legal profession.

However, a wider look at her work includes time working in the Ministry of Food in both World Wars that led to her award of OBE. There is still much to be learned about her life and work but her work for the BFUW and her energy and enthusiasm for supporting women's professional and social networks at Crosby Hall, demonstrate that hers is a life worthy of a place in the history of women's education.

The Centre for the History of Women's Education and the Trustees of the Sybil Campbell Library will be holding a symposium 'University Women and the Wider World' on 14 June at Hampshire Archives and Local Studies. For further information contact: CHWE@winchester.ac.uk 

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