Sybil Phoenix is a community leader who has devoted her life to helping other people, especially in Lewisham, the town she made home.
She was born Sybil Theodora Marshall on 21 June 1927 in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana). Sybil’s mother died when she was nine, and, as her father worked in the quarries outside of the capital Georgetown and returned home for only a few days each year, she went to live with her grandfather, who was a Congregational minister. Sybil became very interested in religion and was admitted to full membership of the church at an unusually early age.
Unfortunately, when she was twelve her grandfather died, and she moved in with an uncle and aunt who did not treat her very well.
When Sybil left school she became secretary to the minister of the church where her uncle worked as a handyman. She also helped in the church youth club and did a three-year course of evening classes in social work. She met her future husband, Joe Phoenix, at the youth club, and when she was in her early twenties Sybil moved into a home of her own and set up a business with Joe, making dresses and hats, which did well.
The move to England
In 1956 The British Council of Churches arranged for a placement at Notting Hill Citizen’s Advice Bureau, London so Sybil and Joe came to England. They were married in June of that year. During their early years in England, they experienced racism and hostility for the first time, both when looking for accommodation and at the local church, where Sybil was already doing youth club work. It was hard for them to find somewhere to live because many places to let displayed ‘No Coloureds’ signs which were not illegal back then.
At one stage, Sybil lived in a coal cellar and became ill. A church minister asked a church member to help, but the church member told Sybil, “Nobody in my street has taken in coloured people yet and I’ve got the children to think of.”
Their first two children were born in 1960 and 1961, and Sybil, who had been working at a milliner’s, gave up her job and took a night job as a canteen cook. As she was looking after the children during the day, she got only two or three hours sleep a night, and yet she also found time to do piecework at home.
The move to Lewisham
Eventually, in 1962 the Phoenixes moved to 67 Tressillian Road, Brockley. Using the couple’s money, a white friend purchased the house and did not disclose that the new owners were black.
Sybil gave up her job in the canteen and began to foster teenage children, as well as having two more of her own, in 1964 and 1965. As usual, she also ran the youth club in her local Methodist church.
In 1971 Sybil founded the Moonshot Club in St John’s Hall, Lewisham Way. The Moonshot became so popular that it was common for 500 people to gather there every night. Sybil organised events, talked to members and counselled them about their problems, and set up classes to enable people to get better educational qualifications.
In 1973 Sybil became the first black woman to be awarded the MBE, in recognition of her outstanding work in the community. The following year she suffered a personal tragedy when she was involved in a car crash while on holiday in Kent. Her ten-year-old daughter Marsha was killed, and Sybil herself was crippled for months. For a time her faith was shaken, but she realised that she was needed at Moonshot and she threw herself back into her work there.
By now the Centre had sports teams, a young mothers’ project, discos and other social events, as well as classes. In 1977, as part of the Royal Jubilee celebrations, Prince Charles visited the Moonshot Club.
On 18 December 1977, the Moonshot Club was gutted in a firebomb attack. This was a blow to the community. According to a national newspaper, the burning down of Moonshot had been discussed at a National Front meeting the previous month.
This led to a good deal of tension in the area, and Sybil had to calm people and find temporary accommodation for the club’s activities. She also immediately began to raise money for the rebuilding of the centre, this time in Pagnell Street. This project was the first of its kind to establish a purpose-built centre for the Black community, open to the whole community. Sybil alone raised £64,000 to commence the project and was instrumental in raising a further £750,000 to see the project to fruition.
Sybil Phoenix working in the community
In 1979 Sybil and her husband founded the Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust, a supported housing project for single homeless young women aged from 16 to 24.
In January 1981 thirteen young black people died in a fire which gutted a house in New Cross Road while a party was in progress. The cause of the fire has never been determined. Sybil gave practical assistance to the bereaved families, such as arranging funerals for them and helped them to cope with their grief and anger.
In March 1981 there was a happier occasion when Prince Charles returned to Pagnell Street to open the new Centre. Sybil stayed as director until November of that year, when she resigned, thinking that it was time to move on.
She went to work at a Methodist church in Camberwell, Where she became director of MELRAW (Methodist Leadership Racism Awareness Workshop). For this, she ran courses and weekend conferences in racism awareness. Sybil has also worked for the Community Liaison Scheme, and as Vice-Chair of Lewisham Council for Community Relations, and of course, she remains closely involved with the Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust.
Aside from her MBE, Sybil received many other awards and accolades including, an OBE in 2008 for services to the community. She became a Freeman of the London Borough Of Lewisham in 1996 and a Freeman of the City of London in 1998.
The inspiration behind her work lies in her Christian faith, and in her steadfast belief in the dignity and rights of human beings, whatever their colour.
Famous Women of Lewisham
Dimensions in Religion: Places and Spaces
Records of Pagnell Street Youth and Community Centre
Local History and Archives Centre, Lewisham