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Choosing to Challenge: Islington Women and Education

International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8 is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.

The theme of IWD 2021 is ‘Choosing to Challenge’. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality, and can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.

We pay tribute to and celebrate inspirational Islington women who, over many centuries and across a variety of professions, have ‘Chosen to Challenge’. The contribution from Islington women in education has been immense. From Dame Alice Owen to Yvonne Conolly, each has accelerated women’s equality and helped towards creating a better and inclusive world.

[Part 2 of 5 of Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021)]


Dame Alice Owen (1547-1613)

Philanthropist

British (English) School; Dame Alice Owen (1547-1613)
(Image: Dame Alice Owen School)

Dame Alice Owen was the daughter of a rich Islington landowner, who inherited further wealth through the deaths of three husbands.

As a child, Dame Alice narrowly escaped death from an archer’s arrow and vowed to show her gratitude for her survival.

Her most lasting work was setting up a foundation in 1613 to provide almshouses for 10 poor women and a free school for 30 boys in Islington and Clerkenwell. The Dame Alice Owen Foundation continued after her death, establishing a girls’ school in 1886.

The Dame Alice Owen School is now a co-educational school in Hertfordshire and the foundation still supports educational projects in Islington.


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797)

Writer, teacher and advocate of women’s rights

Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_(c._1797) NPG
(Image: National Portrait Gallery)

Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest advocates of women’s rights, lived for several years at Newington Green, Islington.

Although she had little formal education, Mary needed to earn a living and she established a school for girls at Newington Green in 1784. She wrote her first book, Thoughts on the education of Daughters (1786) based on this experience. She became known across Europe for her radical and controversial views on gender equality. Her best known work is A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).

  • An Islington Heritage plaque to Mary Wollstonecraft can be seen outside Newington Green Primary School, and a  controversial sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, by artist Maggi Hambling, went on display in Newington Green Open Space in November 2020.

Matilda Sharpe (1830 – 1916)

Teacher, philanthropist and painter

Matilda SharpeMatilda Sharpe was born at 38 Canonbury Place, Islington, the second of six children of Samuel Sharpe, a successful banker, Egyptologist and biblical scholar, and Sarah Sharpe, an artist of considerable talent. In 1840 the family moved to nearby 32 Highbury Place, where she was to reside until her death 56 years later.

Matilda devoted much of her life to education, starting at Newington Green Chapel Sunday School, where she taught painting and languages to working-class students. In 1885, with support from Robert Spears, a Unitarian minister, Matilda and her sister Emily established Channing School in Highgate. A school for the daughters of Unitarian ministers, their key aim was to educate girls. They wished Channing to provide the best education possible at the lowest possible cost, enabling its pupils to go on to university or any of the professions open to women. Today, Matilda and Emily Sharpe’s motto, ‘Never forget: life is expecting much of you and me’, is still very much advocated by the school.

Matilda was also a talented painter and she exhibited at the Royal Academy. One of her oil paintings, a portrait of her father dated 1868, is held at the National Portrait Gallery.  Matilda painted views from her house and her back garden, as well as Highbury Fields.  As a writer, she wrote four books of moral maxims and poetical comments on modern times, emphasizing her love of learning and travel, her dislike of smoking, alcohol, and fripperies, and her support for education for all.

Matilda died aged 86, her sister Emily having predeceased her.

  • View Matilda Sharpe’s paintings at ART UK

[This biography is an abridged version of  Matilda Sharpe (1830-1916) written by Evelyn Thomas  / Islington U3A Local History Group, 2018]


Yvonne Conolly (1939-2021)

Teacher and first Black female headteacher in the United Kingdom

Yvonne Conolly (Evening Standard)
(Image: Evening Standard)

Cecile Yvonne Conolly CBE was a Jamaican teacher, who became the United Kingdom’s first female black headteacher in 1969, aged just 29-years-old.

Yvonne arrived in the UK from Jamaica in August 1963, as part of the Windrush generation.  She had trained for three years as a primary school teacher in Jamaica before taking the decision to come to Britain on one of the many ships that brought over thousands of workers from the Caribbean. As a relief teacher, Yvonne was very aware that there were racial tensions in a number of schools where she taught. This was to become even more evident to her as her teaching career progressed. Yvonne was appointed teacher at the George Eliot School in Swiss Cottage, north London. In January 1969, and much to her surprise, she was offered a promotion to become headteacher at Ring Cross Primary School on Eden Grove in Holloway, Islington. At just 29-years of age, Yvonne was the country’s first black female headteacher.

After being appointed to this position, Yvonne received racist abuse and required a bodyguard to accompany her to work. Her appointment to the post attracted much attention from the British media, and she was subjected to repeated attacks in some national newspapers. Yvonne did not let the reaction to her headship prevent her from delivering an effective education service to the children of her school, and much of her experience at Ring Cross was to inform her later career. Carrying the responsibility of being the first-ever female black headteacher in the country, it was the reason she gave for setting up the Caribbean Teachers Association. Yvonne spent nine years as headteacher at Ring Cross and, in 1978, she left to take up a position as a member of the multi-ethnic inspectorate created by the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority). Yvonne formally retired in 2001, after 40-years-of service in education, but remained chair of the Caribbean Teachers’ Association.

Yvonne Conolly (Islington Tribute)
(Image: Islington Tribune)

In October 2020 she was honoured for her services to education with the Honorary Fellow of Education award from the Naz Legacy Foundation. HRH Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, who announced her award, said that she had “character and determination” which helped her break barriers for black educators.

In the Queen’s Birthday Honours the same year, Yvonne was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for services to education. In receiving the award, she said: “I am delighted, and feel profoundly honoured to be receiving a CBE for the recognition of my work in education over many years. I am most grateful to my nominees and to the Honours Committee for this prestigious award which I am proud to share with my community.“

Yvonne died of  an incurable blood cancer she had been fighting for more than 10 years, on Wednesday, 27 January 2021, at the Whittington Hospital, Islington, aged 81 years.

[This biography is an abridged version of  Yvonne Conolly’s entry on Wikipedia, written and submitted by Islington Heritage Service in February 2021]


Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021) 

Back to Choosing to Challenge: Islington’s Inspirational Women (1547-2021) main page


Compiled by the Friends of Islington Museum / Islington Heritage Service (March 2021)

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