Sybil Campbell OBE

First woman full-time professional judge

Listen to Ros Wright QC Discuss Sybil Campbell

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1889 - 1977

On 23 April 1945 Sybil Campbell took her seat as the first woman full-time professional judge in England and Wales, as a Metropolitan stipendiary magistrate at Tower Bridge Police Court.

The only training she had received was to observe a day’s hearing on two occasions. Her appearance was that of a “benign headmistress”. Master Stella Hollis, who appeared before her as counsel, recalls her as “small, with short grey hair and a fearsome reputation”.  The “fearsome reputation” showed itself quickly.

By October 1945, she was widely criticised for her seemingly heavy sentences for first offenders

She sentenced William Head, awaiting his discharge after 27 years in the armed forces, to prison for stealing 3s 2d worth of brewers’ saccharine from his employers; Henry Lucas, who had served 35 years with his employer, jailed for stealing four small Christmas puddings; so was Charles Bird, for stealing butter; James Drummond, Ethel Watts and Ada Graham each received three months imprisonment for petty theft.

Sybil Campbell was among the first cohort of women called to the Bar by Middle Temple on 17 November 1922. She had been appointed Assistant Divisional Food Officer (Enforcement) for London at the outbreak of World War 11. She was described in the popular press as “Britain’s number one food detective”. Professor Patrick Polden called her a “ruthless hunter of black marketeers”.

In 1913, she took employment as an investigating officer for the Trade Boards, with responsibility for enforcing minimum wages in the 'sweated trades', made up largely of the garment and boot-making industries, typified by long-working hours and poor working conditions.  In this role, which she held until 1918, she prosecuted her own cases. The entry for Campbell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records that

her work involved visiting the roughest parts of many cities to inspect working conditions and her parents insisted that she carry a gun – which she did, hidden and unloaded.

In 1944 she returned to chambers, from which she applied, probably by invitation, for appointment as a magistrate. There was a vacancy at Tower Bridge Court, in March 1945, and Campbell’s application appears to have been the only one to merit serious consideration, although another woman barrister, Venetia Stephenson, applied unsuccessfully for the position. She was appointed by the then Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison.

By October 1945 protests started to come in in droves.  One protester sent a postcard addressed to “Chief Clerk, Home Office, Belsen Chambers, Whitehall” and wrote, “Public opinion should make you remove Old Woman Campbell from Tower St [sic] bench. Instead of your department hanging 5 innocent Germans at Pentonville last week for nothing, why not hang or gas an inhuman woman who has caused much more pain?”

She was booed on her way to the court and called names such as “the beast of Belsen”. Appeals against her sentences for the most part succeeded, with small fines being substituted for the prison sentences imposed by her.

A report from the police division covering Tower Bridge Court, requested by the Home Secretary a few months after her appointment, showed that of all those tried summarily, there was a very much heavier recourse to imprisonment in Campbell’s court than the national average.

“Cassandra”, in the Sunday Pictorial, observed that:

Sybil Campbell looks like Auntie, your Auntie, my Auntie … but at Tower Bridge, Auntie always says ‘No’, softly pushes open the dungeon door, smiles sweetly and another wrongdoer begins his penance.

Cassandra’s piece raised a storm of angry protests against Campbell. She was “a fiendish vixen”, displaying “vindictiveness towards unfortunates” and the Home Secretary should “chuck her out into the Thames”.  Local Union branches called her “harsh, brutal and unreasonable” and called for her dismissal.

In retrospect, Campbell was accounted fair and compassionate; she was particularly concerned for the well-being of women students, spearheading the fundraising campaign to establish an international hall of residence for women students at Crosby Hall in Chelsea.

On the bench, she dealt severely with those whose actions she regarded as damaging to the greater good. She was motivated by a strong work ethic and moral sense.

Courting a favourable public image for members of the bench (and indeed the legal profession as a whole) would have been regarded as totally alien to her.

Criticism of her sentencing died down and she continued to sit at Tower Bridge until she retired in 1961. No other full-time female judge was appointed until Elizabeth Lane, to the county court bench in 1962.

Ros Wright CB QC

Master of the Bench, Middle Temple