The First Female Judge in Britain

Screen Shot 2022-03-25 at 8.44.50 PM

In 1945, Sybil Campbell became 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. She remained the only full-time female professional magistrate or judge in England until she retired in 1961.

Born in Ceylon, Sri Lanka in 1889, where her father worked as an agent for the Anglo-Ceylon General Estates Company, she was one of three sisters. Her mother was the daughter of Sir William Bovill, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. Homeschooled until age thirteen, Sybil then attended to school in North Berwick. After a few months at a finishing school in Paris, she went to Girton College, Cambridge in 1908. She majored in Economics. She also acted as president of the debating society.

Upon leaving Cambridge, Sybil worked as an investigating officer from 1913 to 1918 with the Trade Boards, carrying a gun for protection. During WWI, Sybil worked as an enforcement officer with the Ministry of Food in the Midlands, helping to prosecute black marketeers.

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 practiced as a barrister in the chambers of H. H. Joy on the Midlands circuit despite widespread opposition to women in that position.

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 for London. 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 supported Sybil’s application. Her 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”.

Within a few months, the national press criticized Sybil for the severity of her sentences, 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.

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.

She died on the 29th August 1977 in Glasgow.