West Hampstead Primary School's new name cuts links to slave history

Mural to be painted on site of former head Beryl Gilroy

Thursday, 23rd September 2021 — By Tom Foot

old beckford school (29.7 x 21 cm) (1)

Camden Mayor Sabrina Francis delivers a speech at the renaming party

BECKFORD Primary School has been renamed “West Hampstead Primary School” after its governors agreed to strip the building of its links to a plantation owner who used thousands of slaves.

Many people were unaware of the history of William Beckford, who amassed a fortune from sugar plantations in Jamaica before becoming a Tory MP, before revelations in the New Journal last year.

A Town Hall review of council-owned buildings, set up in the wake of anti-racist demonstrations triggered by the death of George Floyd opened the door for a vote by parents, teachers and pupils.

At a renaming fair on Saturday, head Sam Drake said: “As a school, we didn’t choose to be renamed. We didn’t have to change our school. We are a great school. But we realised the Beckford name did not sit comfortably with our values. We had a vote. We chose this all together.

“We are a diverse and multicultural community and our new name is reflective of that. It doesn’t matter what name we are. Our motto is ‘together we achieve’ – that is the most important. This is a school that welcomes and includes everyone.”

Headteacher Sam Drake with council leader Georgia Gould

He listed a long line of previous headteachers including Beryl Gilroy, Phillip Oakley, Dennis Hoffman and Sam Smith.

Some had hoped the school would be renamed after Ms Gilroy – one of the country’s first black headteachers – who ran Beckford from 1968-1982 and became an education expert and author described by the British Library archive as “the most extensively published Caribbean writers of her time”.

Oscar-winning actor Emma Thompson was among hundreds who had signed a petition calling for the school to be named after Ms Gilroy.

And Ms Gilroy’s daughter Darla had told the New Journal how the school had to change its name to send a “strong message” to future generations of pupils. Half of the staff voted for the school to be renamed after Ms Gilroy, but parents and pupils voted for “West Hampstead Primary School”.

William Beckford portrait by Josha Reynolds

A large mural of Ms Gilroy will be unveiled on the side of the building next month. Speaking at the event, Mayor of Camden Sabrina Francis said: “It’s nice to see a school and organisation acknowledge their history and go through the process of change, in an open and democratic way. But I must say that as the first black woman to be mayor of Camden, I can’t honestly say I wasn’t a little disappointed that you didn’t give Beryl Gilroy the ultimate honour.”

She added: “But I am delighted that you are committed to honouring her trailblazing legacy in your classes and that there will be a mural.”

The late Beryl Gilroy

The school was originally called Broomsleigh Street School. It changed to Beckford in 1929 in a move that has stumped West Hampstead historians who, having searched through archives, say they cannot understand why this was agreed.

William Beckford’s wife had a home in what is now West End Lane in the 19th century.

Saturday’s fun-packed school event featured a raffle, face-painting, free food and water sponge stocks where children got a chance to soak teachers and governors. An exhibition of pupil art and school history was also put on display.

Maddy Raman, chair of governors, Fortune Green councillor Richard Olszewski, Sam Drake, the school’s headteacher, Mayor of Camden Sabrina Francis and Town Hall leader Georgia Gould

Chair of governors Maddy Rahman said: “We have changed the name but I hope we will remain the same school community.”

Cllr Richard Olszewski, Camden Council’s finance chief who is also a Fortune Green ward councillor, said: “The important thing is parents recognised the name needed to change.”

Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq did not attend the event but sent a message saying she was “pleased to welcome this name change” which she believes is “fitting for the school”.

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