Yesterday (4 April 2016) in the House of Commons I gave a talk at the Regional Suffrage Conference – one of the activities organised by Vote100 in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of (partial) women’s enfranchisement in 2018. I had been asked to speak on the methods that we can all use to recover something of the lives of hitherto unknown suffrage campaigners – the foot soldiers of the movement. I called the talk ‘Hidden from History?: using genealogical data to recover the lives of suffragettes’.
As a demonstration of what can be done – and the techniques used – I picked at random a few names from those who appeared in the Contributors’ List in Votes for Women, the newspaper published by the Women’s Social and Political Union, in the weeks of 7 and 14 April 1911. Over the next few days I will post their stories.
Here is the first:
In the issue of 14 April 1911 the list is headed by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who gave £200. Well I don’t think we need to find out more about her – and there are many other names in the lists that will also be familiar to suffrage historians – many of them with entries in my Reference Guide. But what about the next on the list after Mrs Garrett Anderson. Who was Miss Sybil Campion who gave 5 shillings?
Looking at the 1911 census on the Ancestry.com website there is a young woman of that name who fits the bill. She is a shorthand typist who works for a metal merchant and is living in what was described as a Ladies Residential Club – Hopkinson House – in Vauxhall Bridge Road.
She was one of 96 boarders – parish workers, secretaries, students, photographers, teachers – mostly, but not all, in their twenties. What was Sybil’s background? I easily found her – thanks to the Ancestry Hints – on the 1891 and 1901 censuses. In both cases she was living with her mother and Caroline, her slightly older sister – but there was no trace of a father. Her mother is enumerated as married and living on private means. On the first occasion, that is in 1891, when Sybil was under 1 year old and her mother was 42, they were living in Belmont Street, Bognor Regis. Another search showed that Sybil had been born at nearby Felpham between April and June 1890. By 1901 mother and daughters were living in Hastings.
But I then took a look back at the mother – Eva Campion’s 1881 census form showed that far from being a relatively elderly mother of only two daughters – she was in fact the wife of an ex- army officer who was now an indigo planter – and by 1881 she already had two young sons.
After I had completed my initial Ancestry and Findmypast searching on the family I then put Sybil Campion’s name into Google and was directed to an Ancestry members’ board thread where a query had been made about the family. And this revealed that Sybil’s father was Thomas Arthur Campion, superintendent of a plantation in ‘east India’ – I think we can take that as meaning ‘the East Indies’. In fact I then substantiated this by accessing yet another Genealogical site – ‘Family Search’ run by the Mormons – the Latter Day Saints. Access to this is free, but it offers more limited sources of information. However it was here that I found the record of Sybil Campion’s christening at Felpham on 20 May 1890. This gives her full name – Sybil Constance Burney Campion – and the full names of both her parents – Thomas Arthur Campion and Evelina Ross Campion.
Noting that her mother’s name was ‘Evelina’ I momentarily mused about the inclusion of ‘Burney’ in Sybil’s name. Could there be a family connection to Fanny Burney, author of Evelina? Well, I did quickly establish that her mother had been born Evelina Ross Burney in 1848 and that her mother’s married name was Frances Burney – though let me stress that was her married name. Evelina’s father was a major in an East Indies regiment and she had clearly followed him out east – for in 1867 – aged 18 – she had married William Henry Adley at Barrackpore in Bengal. Back in England the following year she had given birth to a son and buried him a few days later. And then 3 years later in India she and Adley had had a daughter, Lilian Maud.
And now the story gets rather murky. For there is no doubt that this Evelina is the same Evelina who ten years later was living in Bognor with two young Campion sons. She had probably not been divorced from Adley, who, in his turn, when he appeared in the 1891 Welsh census as retired surgeon-general of the India army, described himself as a widower – although as we know Eva was very much still alive. Living with him then was 20-year-old Lilian. Had Evelina left her husband to live with Thomas Campion, and produce 4 further children, including Sybil? Had she lost contact with her first-born daughter?
Following up Thomas Arthur Campion in the Findmypast newspaper archive, I discovered that he had retired from the Army – the 5th Foot Regiment – as a lieutenant in 1876 and resigned his commission as a reserve officer in 1885. There is a suggestion that as a young lieutenant his role had been that of interpreter. An entry for ‘Sybil Campion’ in the same newspaper search engine yielded the fact that a girl of that name – and it must have been our Sybil Campion – was a pupil at Kenilworth College, a girls’ school in Hastings, passing the Preparatory class of the Royal Drawing Society in 1900 and taking part in a ‘pretty tambourine dance’ during a conversazione in 1902. Her sister, whom I can see was known as ‘Carrie’, is also mentioned as a pupil at the school. At this time the 1901 census shows that Sybil, her mother and sister lived in ‘Stewart Lodge’, Baldslow Road in Hastings. In 1901 all the houses in the road had names and not numbers and unfortunately house names such as this have now vanished from usage and without a good deal of local searching it is difficult to identify exactly which house ‘Stewart Lodge’ was in a long road of large houses – even if it is still standing – –Street View shows me that there has been some redevelopment. The Campions shared the house with the family of an artist – named Herbert Sparks..but I’ll resist getting sucked into his family’s rather interesting-looking history.
Another quick search showed that Evelina Campion, described as the wife of Thomas Campion, died in Bournemouth in 1908. However probate was not given to her husband but to one of her own relatives, Charles Burney. Her estate amounted to a rather pathetic £41.
But where was her putative husband – Thomas Arthur Campion? Following all leads, a Google search led me to another Ancestry forum members’ thread that suggested that the younger son, George, might have emigrated to Canada. So I turned to Ancestry’s selection of Canadian records and there in those of Canadian soldiers of the First World War I discovered the answer to Thomas Arthur’s whereabouts. For when he joined up in 1916 George gave his father’s address as ‘Rose Bay, New South Wales, Australia’. A quick jump to Ancestry’s Australian records found the death of a Thomas A. Campion in Sydney in 1914. Rose Bay is a suburb of Sydney – is this the correct Thomas A Campion? In 1916 did George not know of his father’s death two years earlier? It seems to me quite probable – but obviously more hard evidence would be required.
The army records afford a good deal of information – for instance, in answering a question about previous military experience George cited membership of the Hurstpierpoint Cadet Corps. I knew of Hurstpierpoint College in Sussex, but interested in further details I read online that it had moved to its present site in 1853 thanks to its local benefactors – the Campion family. What is one to make of that? I see that the East Sussex Archives hold Campion family papers – mentioning connections to army service in India in the 19th century. More paths to follow? Well – not at the moment. Incidentally, on the army form George described himself as a farm labourer – not exactly the rank in society that might have been expected of one who had been educated at Hurstpierpoint. A little more Ancestry searching led me to discover that Arthur, the elder of the Campions’ sons had joined a Royal Navy Training ship when he was a teenager.
So I had now uncovered something of Sybil’s apparently rather unstable background. I had discovered where she had lived and where she was educated, and had established that by the age of 18 she was to all intents and purposes a penniless orphan. It was time now to forge on into her adult life.
Well, I couldn’t find any obvious death date or will for her but I did see that when her sister, Caroline, died in 1965 her birth date on the death register was given as 1885 rather than the correct date of 1889, which suggested to me that when she died she was not in the company of anybody who knew her full details. She didn’t leave a will.
Giving up on a death date for Sybil I looked at the London electoral register and I saw that between 1922 and 1925 she was living in shared premises at 18 Endsleigh Terrace – just off the Euston Road. There are more entries for ‘Sybil Campions’ on the local London electoral register but one has to beware of red herrings – a Sybil Campion who pops up in the late 1940s in Wandsworth is living with a James Campion, ie they are likely to be a married couple and not our Sybil. I had, of course checked Ancestry’s marriage records – but there was no evidence that our Sybil had married. I then looked at the 1939 Register on Findmypast but there was no trace of her there. I must explain that the 1939 Register is just that – a register taken in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. It is useful in giving the most basic data – such as an address – and also does give an exact date of birth and an occupation. However, for women – particularly women involved in the suffrage campaign who by 1939 were necessarily no longer young –this ‘occupation’ designation can be rather opaque – ‘Unpaid Household Duties’ being the most common. But occasionally the subject will be a little more forthcoming and allow themselves to be enumerated as ‘Artist’ or ‘Headmistress (Retired).
Anyway back to Sybil Campion. I then checked the Ancestry Travel files and lo and behold there she was – on 6 May 1927 Miss Sybil C. Burney Campion had embarked from Southampton to Auckland, New Zealand, sailing on the ‘Remuera’. She was 37 years old and gave her occupation as ‘Household Duties’. The address she left behind didn’t give much away either – just care of the National Provincial Bank in London’s Victoria Street. And there we must take leave of her – I can’t find her death in New Zealand – probably because the available records only go up to 1964 and she may have been as long lived as her sister.
From all this we can get something of a picture of that young woman who sent off her 5 shillings to the WSPU in April 1911. She came from a family where the father was mostly absent – indeed where her parents may not have been formally married – where her two considerably older brothers from an early age made their own way in the world, where her mother coped alone with bringing up her two daughters, living in towns along the south coast of England. Did Sybil know of the existence of her half-sister, Lilian – who, incidentally, married the professor of civil engineering at Birmingham University. Sybil probably did not stay at her genteel girls’ day school past 16, then trained as a typist and found work in a London office, living for a time in a hostel and then in a series of shared flats.
She didn’t have an opportunity of boycotting the 1911 census –even if she had intended to – because the form for the hostel was filled in by the superintendent and not by the individual boarders. But now that we see the forces that shaped her life it was little wonder that she was a WSPU supporter. The 5 shillings she gave was likely to have been the equivalent of a day’s pay – working on the basis that a clerical wage was about £2 a week (for instance, that was the amount that suffrage organizers were paid). She could see that she would have to fend for herself through life. She could have had little faith in relying on men for support. In her late-30s Sybil shook the dust of old England off her feet and set sail for a new adventure – as had many of her ancestors. I wonder what became of her?