Hathaway, Sibyl (1884–1974)

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Hathaway, Sibyl (1884–1974)

Dame of Sark who from 1927 to 1974 held feudal dominion over Sark, the fourth largest of the Channel Islands. Born Sibyl Mary Collings on the Channel Island of Guernsey, England, on January 13, 1884; died at her home on Sark, on July 14, 1974; daughter of William Frederick Collings and Sophia Wallace Collings; had one sister; married Dudley John Beaumont (died); married Robert Woodward Hathaway, in 1929 (died); children: four sons and three daughters.

As the 22nd individual to succeed to the seigniory of a tiny island in the English Channel, Dame Sibyl Hathaway stood firmly on her traditional feudal rights, keeping her domain intact during a five-year Nazi occupation and taking measures to keep the 20th century at bay, inspired by the notion that "What was good enough for William the Conqueror is good enough for us."

Approximately two square miles (c. 1,200 acres) in area and with a resident population of under 600, the island of Sark lies 7 miles from the island of Guernsey and 22 miles off the coast of France, which is visible on a clear day. Sark—part of the Channel Islands which were once part of the Duchy of Normandy and which by the 13th century became the only part of Britain's Norman possessions to remain loyal to the English Crown—stands 300 feet above sea level and is surrounded by 42 miles of rugged cliffs. The island boasts a varied scenery of banked and hedged fields, wooded valleys, and cliffs covered with wildflowers. Automobiles are not permitted on Sark (the only motorized transport allowed are tractors), so transportation is by horse and carriage, bicycle or on foot. The principal industry is tourism but the island is also extensively farmed, and fishing is a major activity.

Although the island had been inhabited during much of the Middle Ages, raiders drove off the population except for pirates and French privateers. In 1565, however, the premier seigneur of Jersey, Helier de Carteret, requested and received from Queen Elizabeth I the grant of Sark as an adjunct to his own fief in Jersey. With the feudal system thus initiated, the seigneur was required to maintain at least 40 men for the defense of the island. To muster these men, he divided Sark into 40 landholdings and, for a modest annual rente of chickens, wheat and barley, gave the land in perpetuity to 40 families. To guarantee political representation, he created a parliament, known as Chief Pleas, from the heads of the 40 families. Sark continues to this day to be governed through Chief Pleas, making its own laws and raising its own taxes. Law is upheld on Sark by two unpaid constables elected annually by Chief Pleas. The administration of justice is carried out by a court comprised of the seneschal (magistrate), prévôt (sheriff), and greffier (clerk to the court), all of whom are appointed by the seigneur.

Sark was ruled by the founding de Carteret family until the 18th century; they were succeeded by the Le Pelleys, who went bankrupt in the early 1850s when a vein of silver found on the island ran out. The Le Pelleys were forced to sell out to a new seigneur, Reverend William Thomas Collings. In 1882, William Thomas was succeeded by his son William Frederick Collings. The new seigneur—over six feet tall and sporting a splendid mustache—was a fearless sailor, cliff climber and crack shot who enjoyed the respect of the Sarkese population. He was also more than a mite eccentric, often drinking to excess, and because of his wild and sometimes terrifying antics he soon became a legend throughout the Channel Islands. On one occasion, he became so inebriated that he somehow turned up in Guernsey at dawn, clad only in a woman's petticoat. Sibyl Mary Hathaway was his daughter.

William Frederick Collings, ignoring his daughter's gender and the fact that one of her legs was shorter than the other, taught her to sail, shoot, and climb cliffs. When she dared to disagree with him, Sibyl had to dodge a book thrown in her direction as well as such epithets as "You are a damned Virago." On one occasion, he punished what he deemed to be an act of rebellion in the following manner: "Father came into my room about midnight, dragged me out of bed and downstairs in my nightgown and, without saying a word, opened the front door and threw me out of the house."

In 1899, Sibyl met Dudley John Beaumont when he visited the island and painted her portrait. Two years later, after a fierce argument with her father, she fled to England and married Beaumont in London. The couple went on to have seven children, four sons and three daughters. Sibyl's interest in her children was often minimal; she said she found them boring, preferring instead to be involved in amateur theatricals. Her husband died during the influenza epidemic of 1918. At this time, recently widowed and in financial difficulties, Sibyl explained her plight to her father who responded with: "I brought you up to be independent and I refuse to allow you to come to me for help."

Soon after the war, she took a job with the British Army of the Rhine in the occupied zone of Germany. There she learned German, a skill which would turn out to be valuable for Sark two decades later. In June 1927, Sibyl's father died, and she succeeded him, taking the title of Dame of Sark. After a number of years of investigating the possibilities of marriage, she almost married a man who was later convicted of bigamy and fraud, but fortunately the engagement was broken off. In 1929, she married American-born Robert Woodward Hathaway, son of a Wall Street banker. According to Sark law, her marriage turned Robert into the seigneur of Sark. But force of personality proved more powerful than law, and from the start of their marriage (Robert Hathaway died in December 1954) it was evident that Sibyl would continue to rule Sark. At meetings of the Chief Pleas, Sibyl—unofficially still the Dame of Sark—sat next to her husband, prompting his every action and continuing (although quite illegally) to give voice to her own opinions.

In 1940, the fall of France to a victorious Nazi Germany made it clear that the Channel Islands—Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, and Sark—all within shelling range of the coast, could not be defended. The British government declared the islands to be an "open" territory and offered to evacuate all who wished to leave. Dame Sibyl warned the Sark population of the hardships ahead, but, although a few of the Britishers on the island chose to leave, the entire native-born population remained. The German forces arrived on the island on July 3, 1940, and they were met by the seneschal who accompanied them to the seigneurie, the Dame's house, where the Dame's maid announced them as if they were normal guests. After Dame Sibyl had seen to it that the orders of occupation were publicized, she invited the German occupation officials, Major Lanz and his aide Dr. Maass, to lunch with her. After lunch, they signed her visitors' book before departing. They, and their counterparts in the other Channel Islands, were the first invaders to set foot on British soil in nearly one thousand years.

In August 1940, German Commandant Major Lanz announced that he hoped Germany's occupation of the Channel Islands would "be a model to the world." By 1945, the Channel Islands were supporting 37,000 German troops and had become heavily armed. In the final years of the war, food became scarce, clothing and shoes had to be patched, and soap was virtually nonexistent. Two unsuccessful British commando raids on Sark made both Germans and the native population nervous. Cordial relations existed between the Dame of Sark and a number of German officers even though her own husband had been deported to a prison camp in Germany, where he was held for more than two and a half years. Heiner Magsam, commandant of Sark from 1943 to 1945, met with the Dame on a weekly basis, and their amicable discussions usually ended with a spot of tea and a game of bridge.

On the other Channel Islands, German rule, while clearly less brutal than in other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe, was still ultimately a case of the "iron fist in a velvet glove." Although most Jews had been evacuated in 1940, a handful of foreign-born Jewish refugees from Nazism remained, and several of them would lose their lives in death camps. A number of individuals lost their lives because of various offenses, including listening to the BBC. On the island of Alderney, between 1,000 and 1,250 Slavic and French North African slave laborers lost their lives under the most inhumane of conditions. On Sark, however, a number of factors made life under the occupation regime relatively humane. The Dame of Sark's powerful personality (and her knowledge of the German language) doubtless played a role in carving out as good a diplomatic situation for her domain as was possible.

Sark was the most fortunate of the Channel Islands because it had no town population to support (the island has no village as such) and never had to undergo the construction of vast concrete fortifications or the importation of German construction battalions or Soviet prisoners of war and other slave laborers. A German garrison of about 275 men was a genuine burden on a population numbering 470, and by the last year of the war hunger had become a real issue with starvation not far behind. In January 1945, a Red Cross ship brought food parcels for the islanders. Near starvation, the German troops began to appear at doors to beg for food. Although they faced severe punishment if caught, the Germans began stealing vegetables, pigs, chickens, and even cats and dogs to eat. Maintaining discipline, however, the Germans never took the islanders' Red Cross food parcels.

Although hostilities in Europe had ended several days earlier, Sark was not liberated until May 10, 1945, when three British officers arrived on the island and asked the Dame if she would mind being left in charge of the 275 German troops on her land until British troops could be spared. She remained in command until May 17, ordering the Germans to "clean up the mess you've made these past five years," insisting that they remove 13,000 land mines before their departure.

Sibyl Hathaway regained her full legal status as Dame of Sark in December 1954 when her husband died. For the next two decades, she continued to rule her small domain in a queenly and convincing fashion. She also continued to show how skillful she was in dealing with the media in press, radio and television interviews which invariably emphasized the unique aspects of life on Sark. On one such occasion, she summed up her many decades of rule: "If I am a dictator, I'm certainly a benevolent one. I prefer to regard myself as head of one big happy family with the Queen, whom we still regard as the Duke of Normandy, as my overlord." Aspects of the Dame's family life had been far less than ideal, and by the time she died on Sark on July 14, 1974, she had outlived five of her children, several of whom had succumbed to alcoholism and personal problems. Dame Sibyl passed her authority over the island to her grandson, aeronautical engineer Michael Beaumont.

During his May 1995 visit to Sark, Charles, prince of Wales, paid tribute to the Dame's success in keeping the 20th century at bay when he stated, "What you have here is utterly timeless. Don't ever let anyone tell you you're old-fashioned. Fashions change. This kind of approach is perfectly relevant whatever century you live in."


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Foote, Timothy. "How to Keep the 20th Century Mostly at Bay," in Smithsonian. Vol. 17, no. 2. May 1986, pp. 92–98, 100, 102, 104–105, 170.

Hardman, Robert. "Prince Won Over By Timeless Sark," in Daily Telegraph. May 11, 1995, p. 20.

Hathaway, Dame Sibyl Collings. Dame of Sark: An Autobiography. NY: Coward-McCann, 1962.

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Lempriere, Raoul. History of the Channel Islands. London: Robert Hale, 1974.

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Parkinson, C. Northcote. A Law Unto Themselves: Twelve Portraits. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

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"Sark May Give Married Women More Freedom," in The Times [London]. October 4, 1973, p. 2.

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Stoney, Barbara. "Hathaway, Dame Sibyl Mary," in C.S. Nicholls, ed., The Dictionary of National Biography: Missing Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 294.

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Tremayne, Julia. War on Sark: The Secret Letters of Julia Tremayne. Exeter, England: Webb & Bower, 1981.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia