Tributes to Britain’s first black headteacher as Yvonne Conolly dies at 81
She had warned: Institutions have to question themselves at every point
01 February, 2021 — By Tom Foot
TRIBUTES were paid this week to the country’s first woman black headteacher who moved to Camden from Jamaica with just £36 in her pocket.
Yvonne Conolly, who has died aged 81 following a long battle with myeloma, had to be accompanied by a “minder” on the day she took over Ring Cross primary school, Islington, in 1968.
“All hell broke loose” with “all sorts of nasty” racist abuse, she had recalled in a wide-ranging interview with the New Journal last year.
But she had also said that before taking the top job at Ring Cross, she had enjoyed five happy years as a teacher at George Eliot School, Swiss Cottage.
Living in 12 Canfield Gardens, near Finchley Road tube, her first impressions of the country she would call home were of her street’s “tall distinctive red brick buildings” and how she was left “gawking in amazement at the high ceilings in the flat as this was an unusual feature in residential buildings in Jamaica”.
A pioneer of the Windrush generation, she had come to London with an expat teacher friend called Elizabeth Heybeard on what at the time was described as a “banana boat”.
“I was also aware of the tube trains passing at the back of the building. John Barnes the department store was smack opposite, and it was there that Elizabeth encouraged me to get a store card….. now the John Lewis Partnership Card.
“The flat was rented, and on the ground floor. I was given the smallest room for which I paid £6 per month /week. I think of this period of my life in London as one of much joy.”
On top of her teaching, she had taken a job as a baby sitter, cleaner and typist.
“I can now clearly remember a curious typing job with an eccentric archaeologist who translated a script from Hebrew to English at a furiously fast pace, with me barely able to keep up,” she said.
“I was also completely unprepared for the effect that Jewish religious holidays would have on children’s attendance at George Eliot, and on me. Nearly half my class would be absent on those days. I remember seeing the children and their families as they slowly walked along the road between St John’s Wood and Swiss Cottage at Passover, in what seemed a solemn procession.
“Parents were usually dressed in black on that occasion in those days. That led me to read about the Second World War with more rigour and intensity than I would otherwise have done.”
She added: “I have a special memory of the Swiss Cottage pub. It was there that the District Inspector of schools in Islington took me for lunch to celebrate my appointment to the headship of Ring Cross school. The daughter of the landlord then, Alison Pickup, was in my class at George Eliot.”
After accepting the job at Ring Cross in December 1968, Ms Conolly was subjected to repeated attacks in national newspapers and would receive hate mail at home.
She had said: “It was on that basis that I decided to create the Caribbean Teachers Association. I realised at the time there were not many black teachers in the system, and if there were, they weren’t being promoted. We sat down and looked at strategies, how you write an application, and do interviews.”
Ms Conolly, who lived in Finsbury Park, was in October awarded the 2020 Honorary Fellow of Education award at The Naz Legacy Foundation by Prince Charles, who described her as “a pioneer of the Windrush generation must be cherished by us all”, adding: “I cannot begin to imagine the character and determination she must have shown to lead the way for black educators 50 years ago.” She was made a CBE in the new year’s honours list.
Ms Conolly had backed las year’s campaign for Beckford Primary School to be named after its former headteacher Beryl Gilroy.
The school had agreed to change its name – after a major Jamaica sugar plantation slave owner William Beckford – following the Black Lives Matter protests.
But a vote of parents and pupils saw the West Hampstead School be chosen instead.
On the concept of changing buildings names, Ms Conolly had said: “I have a theory that you are never ever going to get rid of racism completely. We are not going to get rid of burglary, or fraud. Let’s not kid ourselves. Wherever human beings go, there will be some discrimination, prejudices and lack of empathy.
“I remember when one school inspector asked me whether they could touch my hair. And I remember people looking at me washing my hands, thinking the water would run brown. Were they being racist, or just ignorant?”
She said racism “used to be crass – ‘no dogs, no Irish, no blacks’”, adding: “Now it is very different, more subtle. That’s why institutions have to question themselves at every point. They need to think about how fair they are really being.”