“My mother was very engaged in all kinds of social activities, and she believed very strongly in helping people and in doing good works…I suppose its all informed a lot by her religious beliefs; there’s no separating them from her.”
Woodrow Phoenix is Chair of Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust. His parents Sybil Phoenix MBE MS1 and Joe Phoenix came to England from Georgetown, Guyana in 1958, moving to Lewisham in 1961 to buy a house. At the time “nobody would sell a house to black people” and so a white friend of theirs, Woodrow’s godfather, pretended to be the buyer. During his childhood, Woodrow’s parents fostered children for Lewisham Council from their home in Tressillian Road. “I grew up with foster brothers and sisters around all the time.” Sybil Phoenix was a Methodist minister and had preached all around the world with the British Council of Churches.
In 1973, when Woodrow was 12, the extended family was on holiday in Kent. His 11-year-old sister was tragically killed in a car accident. It was in her memory that his mother decided to start a children’s home and name it after Marsha. Two empty houses opposite where the family lived belonged to the Council and around this time Sybil Phoenix was nominated for an MBE. “She wasn’t gonna take it because she was really very upset with all the ways that black people had been treated. She said, ‘Well, I’ll take this MBE if it means that you’ll help me open this children’s home’ ”. In 1973, Sybil Phoenix became the first black woman to receive the MBE. The home was officially opened in 1976.
“She was very insistent and very determined that it should not be institutional. That was how she ran it, just like a big house.”
Woodrow describes his experience as a young black man in the 1970s, “We were very conscious of the fact that we weren’t seen in the same way as young white kids were seen, and that you had to be careful about how you looked and how you walked and who you were…and that you could be stopped at any time for any reason.”
It was in this climate that his mother began her pioneering work at the Pagnell Street Methodist Mission Hall. “At the time she was looking for a space because there wasn’t anything for black youth in the borough. She started a youth club in a church hall in New Cross. Then she found the empty mission hall and got the Council to agree to let her use it. Everything shifted to the Mission Hall. It started off with just the youth club, called ‘Moonshot’, with table tennis tables and a football team, and then it started to get bigger and bigger.”
Work at the Mission Hall included the Young Mothers’ Project, “because lots of young women were getting pregnant and had no support.” Sybil Phoenix worked with other community activists, including Mavis Stewart supporting young women to get health education, and items and food for their babies. There was after school education too and on Saturdays and Sundays there were dances with Jah Shaka and other sound systems playing. “It was very much a black community centre.”
However, not everyone was in favour of the centre’s activities. Woodrow explains, “They didn’t want black kids and black people down here. The National Front used to regularly throw things at the windows” and so these had be covered with bars and wire. This hostility culminated when the building was burnt down in what he describes as “mysterious activities” that many believed to have been perpetrated by the National Front. These events served to make Sybil Phoenix determined to raise funds for a new building, what Woodrow describes as “a place for the people.” One of her fundraising initiatives included selling brick-shaped badges designed by Woodrow.
At this time, the whole area was starting to be redeveloped and the new Pagnell Street Centre was built as part of these plans with a skate park next door.
Because she was deeply engaged with the black community, his mother was often looked to as a spokesperson, although he says, “she didn’t think of herself that way”. Following the tragedy of the New Cross Fire in 19812, members of the Ruddock family came to stay with the Phoenix family and Sybil Phoenix went with the bereaved families to the morgue to identify the children who had died in the fire. This gave her nightmares for years after. Particularly upset by the lack of response from official bodies, Woodrow remembers his mother’s reaction to a telegram from the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, the last line of which was: “Please give my condolences to your people’’. He can still remember her infuriated response, “Who gave me people? Aren’t they supposed to be your people?’’ He believes that experiences like this led to the organisation of the Black Peop|e’s Day of Action3. “Lots and lots of people got together to discuss what kind of response there should be to that kind of institutionalised neglect and contempt for people who were British citizens. That was why they decided to have that march.”
“My mother was very engaged in all kinds of social activities, and she believed very strongly in helping people and in doing good works…I suppose it’s all informed a lot by her religious beliefs; there’s no separating them out from her.”
1 MS is the Medal of Service, given to Sybil Phoenix by the Guyanese government in recognition of her representing Guyana as a Minister without Portfolio
2 On 18th January 1981, a fire at 439 New Cross Road resulted in the deaths of 13 young black Londoners celebrating the 16th birthday of Yvonne Ruddock, one of the victims. One survivor died nearly two years later, bringing the total loss of life to 14.
3 On 25th January 1981, community activists called a meeting at the Moonshot Club to discuss the Government’s failure to acknowledge the tragedy of the New Cross Fire and to protest about the police investigation. Plans were made for a Day of Action on 25th March 1981 when thousands marched from New Cross to Hyde Park