Campaign to rename slave link school after its pioneering black headteacher
Beckford School is considering a name change after Black Lives Matters protests
19 June, 2020 — By Tom Foot
Beryl Gilroy teaching at Beckford School
A PRIMARY school could be renamed after its pioneering former headteacher after talks began over removing its link to a slave-using sugar plantation owner.
The New Journal revealed last week how Beckford School in West Hampstead was ready to consult with staff and parents over a name change in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Unknown to many until the demonstrations which followed the US death of George Floyd in police custody last month, the school is named after former London mayor William Beckford, who is said to have “owned” 3,000 slaves in Jamaica.
Now, a campaign is growing to change its name to honour Beryl Gilroy, one of the UK’s first black headteachers who was in charge of the school between 1969 and 1982, with supporters of the idea suggesting it would “send a message” to future generations.
Her daughter, Professor Darla Gilroy, said this week that she hoped the global protests would prove to be a “watershed moment”.
“Personally, I think it is so tragic that, more than 50 years after my mother got the job at Beckford, we’re still talking about race,” she told the New Journal.
“We still haven’t been able to resolve the issues she faced. They have, if anything, become more ingrained.” Camden Council is reviewing all public buildings, memorials and place names to see how they honour historical figures involved in slavery.
It follows the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston during protests in Bristol. The monument was pulled down during a demonstration and thrown into the city’s harbour.
Prof Gilroy, who lives in Messina Avenue, West Hampstead, said: “There is no point trying to eliminate history. My mother would say, ‘if you don’t know what has happened, you will make the same mistakes of the past’. But we can teach people history in a more honest way. We have to accept what we have done in the past.”
“I do think renaming the school would send a message. It is really important that we show to future generations that we honour all members of our society who are making a contribution.”
Beryl Gilroy was one of the country’s first black headteachers
Beckford was originally called Broomsleigh Street School – the address of one of its entrances – but in 1929 it was changed to honour William Beckford.
Beryl Gilroy is often written about as the first black headteacher in London but her daughter said she had been just pipped to that by Yvonne Connolly, two months earlier. Beryl came to Britain from Guyana in 1952 having been brought up by her grandparents and 13 aunts and uncles, with a “curiosity of the world around her”.
Later, she held posts on the UK Race Relations Board, was a founding member of the Camden Black Sisters group and was described after her death in 2001 as “one of Britain’s most significant post-war Caribbean migrants”.
Among her many published books was Black Teacher, an autobiographical account of her experience in the British education system.
Prof Gilroy said: “For a long time, her life has been filtered through race and the discrimination she suffered. She would say to me that I was visibly different, but she made me feel like that was an asset. She gave me an unusual name and said, ‘the spotlight is on you, use it to your advantage’.”
Prof Gilroy recently visited the school to speak to the headteacher about putting up a plaque to her mother as part of a Mayor of London scheme.
“She is now being recognised as somebody who made an enormous contribution to post-war education, who affected the lives of thousands of children. But there is not much about her online,” she said.
“I want her story to be told. As an educationalist, she was completely child-centred. She was a natural listener and confided in the children.”She used to say to us, ‘never let the child in you die’. “There was something about the way she saw the world as a child that she retained as an adult.”
Prof Gilroy added: “She wrote books for children who could not connect with Janet and John. They were called ‘Nippers’ and they were the first multicultural reading books. She noticed, through teaching, that children from diverse backgrounds didn’t engage with readings – they didn’t understand the words because they had no experience of what was in them.”
Prof Gilroy, a former pupil at Henrietta Barnett secondary school, said: “People used to say to me, ‘I bet your mother is really strict’. She’d say to me just to tell anyone who asked ‘yes’. “When I got home with some boring maths homework, she’d make me do a couple of sums just to prove I could do it and then say, ‘go and do something creative with your time’.”
“She taught me how to make a pattern for clothes. We would go to Liberty for fabric and she would get my designs made through one of the parents, who was a dressmaker. She was happy for me to walk down the street in my ridiculous outfits. For that I am eternally grateful.”
Prof Gilroy had a shop on the King’s Road and set up her own label, later having her work exhibited at the V&A.
Beryl Gilroy’s son Paul is a historian who is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Racism at UCL.
Beckford School is named after sugar plantation owner William Beckford
School governors met last week to discuss the link to William Beckford, and will now survey the opinions of parents. It is understood that some are of the view that the school should revert to its original name – Broomsleigh Street – while others think that changing names will be seen as a token gesture in the fight against prejudice.
But there is mounting support for Beryl Gilroy’s name to be used and a petition – not started by the Gilroy family – is already circulating online. It says: “Beryl Gilroy was a formidable and brilliant woman, and very influential on the entire community. She created a culture of tolerance, diversity and excellence, one in which all people (black, white, dual heritage, male, female, straight, gay, etc) were treated equally while also being nurtured and encouraged to perform, improve and excel.”
Sam Drake, Beckford’s current headteacher, said: “We stand together with the local authority in rejecting racism. We also believe in educating our children, so that we can move forward together towards an equal society. On Wednesday, I met with governors to discuss changing the name of the school and we agreed that, subject to the outcome of the Camden review, we will seek to start the process on consulting with stakeholders about a new name.”
A debate is also continuing over the future of a housing block named after Cecil Rhodes in Somers Town.