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Sowing Roots: Sybil Phoenix OBE

For the Sowing Roots oral history project, we are grateful to Woodrow Phoenix for agreeing to be interviewed on behalf of his mother Sybil Phoenix. Woodrow was interviewed by Nazzar Amponsah-Afari, one of the young people taking part in the project.

Sybil Phoenix OBE was born in 1927 in Guyana, which was at the time ‘British Guiana’ and is part of the Caribbean. Guiana means ‘land of water’. The country gained independence from Britain in 1966. Guyana is on the northern mainland of south America and most of the population live along the coast, as it is cooler than inland. Georgetown is the capital and is on the coast.

Sybil came to the UK before independence in 1958. She and her husband lived in West London near to Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush and in 1963 they were able to buy their own house and moved to south London settling in Brockley, Lewisham. They hadn’t been able to buy in West London; no-one would sell them a house, but a friend helped them to buy in Brockley. Sybil would go on in due course to be Mayoress of Lewisham and receive the honour of being the first black woman in Britain to receive an MBE in 1973 for services to the community followed by an OBE in 2008.

Sybil started gardening as soon as she had her own garden “she was very good at knowing what plants were for, and what you did with them and the things you could make with them… and she made choices about the kind of plants that she planted and where they came from, sometimes based on what the plant itself was or its history as well as how it looked and… performed.”

Yucca plants in Sybil Phoenix's garden (c) Federico Rivas
Sybil Phoenix's garden (c) Federico Rivas

Plants in her garden include palms, a fig tree, Japanese maple, a cherry and apple tree and various roses; “For her the garden is really a place just to unwind and relax… she’s one of these people that can grow anything. People would give her plants that were dying, and she would resurrect them, and people are always saying how amazing she was at being able to grow anything. It’s like she didn’t have a green thumb, she had like green hands… so for her it’s very much about a place to switch off from everything else”.

Sybil created a water feature in her garden, a fishpond (full of goldfish until the heron got them) with a fountain in the middle. With the help of her husband, they created a rockery next to the fishpond. Water ran down the rockery to the pond. “So, whenever she went out into the garden, she would turn on the fountain, so you could sit inside and hear the water running.”

They also created a bird bath. Another area next to the pond was made into a sandpit for the children to play in. As a child, Woodrow “pretended it was the moon, I’d play there with my toys, with my space man and my trucks”.

Sybil took inspiration from visits to garden shows. They’d often go to the Ideal Home Exhibition and “she would spend a lot of time there in the garden sections. She would go with her friends to the Chelsea Flower Show… Whenever we were on holiday, anywhere, it didn’t matter where it was, she would often take samples of plants from wherever it was we were and bring those home and plant those in the garden… She got inspiration from all over.”

Guyana is a huge country which borders Brazil and Venezuela. In Guyana, most buildings are wooden and painted bright colours. Georgetown has the largest wooden church in the world.

“People often do a lot with stones, they decorate their gardens a lot with painted things. It’s something I think you see in other countries around the Caribbean as well, is, they’ll have concrete and they’ll paint it colours, and they’ll have rocks and will paint those colours. And they’ll use like pottery and statuettes and things too – which they also paint different colours”.

Ceramic ornament of a woman stirring a pot made by Sybil Phoenix

Sybil painted her concrete patio a pinkish red and she made her own sculptures which she placed around the garden. These are still there.

“There’s a kind of bust of a woman, there’s a rabbit, there’s a couple of other heads, yeah, sculptural elements just placed around. There are some painted stones in a couple of places as well. The front garden is very noticeably painted – again the concrete is painted a kind of a dark red and the bushes and things are all arranged around that in a very particular kind of way… there are definite Guyanese elements that you could identify, looking at the garden now”.

Sybil grew lots of plants indoors. “For instance, in the dining room, above the door is a whole windowsill and that would always have loads of plants on it. And one of us would have to get up on a ladder or get up on a chair and water those plants every couple of days. And in the front room, by the window, again would just be like a big row of different potted plants of different kinds… like a cheese plant, my mother liked cheese plants I think and that’s one of those things that I quite like now.”

Ceramic ornament of a rabbit made by Sybil Phoenix (c) Federico Rivas

Woodrow doesn’t consider himself a natural gardener. He tries to maintain his mother’s garden for her now but is aware that she’d prefer him to keep it neater. Where he has made his mark is in the front garden where he has created topiary from existing hedges, cutting it into a box like shape – “boxes stacked on top of each other”. He was pleased with it and “mum likes it, so that’s okay. So that’s my kind of creative contribution to gardening, is to cut the hedge into a shape.” He’d like to have more hedges to cut into shapes!

Woodrow Phoenix holding one of his mother's ceramics (c) Federico Rivas

Woodrow doesn’t like gardening in the same way as his mother does “it’s like, you know, she’s happy to be out doing whatever, because just being in the garden makes her feel happy. Whereas to me, I feel I’ve got a task, I must complete this task, when the task is done, then I’m okay.

The Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust was “started by my parents, by my mother particularly, in 1979 although it was active for a couple of years before that. It’s called that because it’s named after my sister who died in a car crash in 1973.”  The Trust is a medium support hostel for young women, aged between sixteen and twenty “and women live there until they are able to live independently. So, they tend to be there anywhere from three months to two years at the most and they will go from there onto their own houses.”

The house that the young women live in is two houses knocked into one and has a large back garden. Sybil “thought it was an important part of any kind of project to house people, to have a garden that people could go and sit in, so she would always involve the residents in gardening, and she would have volunteers from the local community in Brockley, who would also help with cultivating the garden, sowing different kinds of flowers, taking care of them.” It has a water feature, large greenhouse and “there’s a banana tree actually in that garden and more palms. So, she just wanted to make again, a kind of good sculptural space that people could relax in.”

Woodrow thinks that it’s because of this mother’s connection to Guyana that she likes to grow certain plants – “because they remind her of where she came from”. Woodrow is personally interested in the work of Roberto Burle Marx, a Brazilian garden designer, who was active in the 1960s-80s. He was known for creating natural and manmade environments using concrete as well as rock and stone and had a strong use of colour. He used geometric designs and the painted boardwalk in Rio Janeiro was one of his projects. Woodrow finds these gardens interesting “because they’re kind of like taking the idea, the Guyanese idea of using concrete and using stone, and using paint to make things lovely. But he’ll do it in a slightly more kind of abstract geometric kind of way.”

Sybil Phoenix OBE

Sybil’s birthday is on 21st June, the longest day of the year and fittingly, the family and community would celebrate it in her garden, “so every year on June 21st, she would have a garden party and we’d set up a marquee.”