SYBIL PHOENIX

CHAMPIONS

Legendary community worker Sybil Phoenix, worked tirelessly to improve the lives of youngsters in her south London heartland of Lewisham

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Sybil Phoenix, née Marshall, was born in British Guiana in 1927 and settled in London in 1956 with her husband-to-be, Joe. She had been a successful businesswoman selling sportswear and leather goods and was also deeply involved in the church.

After being a youth worker for the British Council of Churches, she began fostering children in 1962 and within 10 years she had taken in more than 100 young women, transforming hundreds of lives.

She had settled in Lewisham in south east London and in response to the lack of youth facilities in the area, particularly for black youngsters, she founded the Moonshot youth club in 1971. Located in St John’s Hall, Lewisham Way, it quickly became a popular gathering place and members included the stand-up comic Angie Le Mar.

At a time of heightened fascist activity, the National Front publicly threatened to firebomb the club in 1977. Sybil recalled: “I doubted that such a thing could happen, but I was wrong. The following month saw our years of hard work destroyed and the club premises burnt by National Front members during the firemen’s strike”.

Undeterred, Sybil vowed to rebuild it, saying: “My name is Phoenix and I will build a new centre from the ashes of this club, so help me God”. Four years later the new club was opened by Prince Charles.

In 1979, with her husband, she founded the Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust, a supported housing project for single homeless young women aged 16-24, named in memory of her daughter who tragically died in a car accident in 1974.

Sybil was one of the leaders in the campaign around the New Cross Fire, which claimed the lives of 13 black youngsters in 1981, and helped organise the Black People’s Day of Action. This was a march of 15,000 people from the site of the inferno to central London to draw attention to the Metropolitan Police’s failure to properly investigate the causes of the blaze.

A Methodist minister, Sybil was awarded an MBE in 1973 and the OBE in 2008, and also received a DBE, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was awarded both the Freedom of the London Borough of Lewisham and Freedom of the City of London in 1996 and ’98 respectively.

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