'Exceptional' heroes granted Islington's highest award, the 'Freedom of the Borough'

Kaya Comer-Schwartz; Alex Ewings, Sue Seifert Jennette Arnold OBE; Siobhan Harrington; Troy Gallagher

Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz (left); Alex Ewings (London Ambulance Service); Sue Seifert (friend of Yvonne Conolly); Jennette Arnold OBE; Siobhan Harrington; mayor of Islington Troy Gallagher - Credit: Islington Council

Ambulance workers, staff at the Whittington Hospital, politician Jennette Arnold and Britain’s first Black headteacher Yvonne Conolly have been awarded the highest honour Islington can bestow.

The four recipients were given the freedom of Islington in recognition of their contributions to life in the borough at a special ceremony at Islington Town Hall on Monday night (October 18).

The event was attended by key council figures including council leader Kaya Comer-Schwartz, chief executive Linzi Roberts-Egan and mayor Cllr Troy Gallagher, who said: “The title of Honorary Freeperson is the highest honour the council can bestow.

"It is reserved for people and organisations who are exceptional in their service to the public. I can say with complete certainty that each of these four recipients is indeed exceptional.”

The Whittington Health NHS Trust provides life-saving, personal, and co-ordinated care to half a million people across north London, including at the Whittington Hospital in Archway, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, staff from across the organisation mobilised to provide care to patients who needed it.

Freedom of the Borough - Siobhan Harrington, Whittington Health

Freedom of the Borough - Siobhan Harrington, Whittington Health - Credit: Islington Council

Many were redeployed from their usual roles to help care for patients with coronavirus, or to ensure vital services like cancer services and district nursing were maintained despite the huge pressures.

Nearly 2,000 people have been admitted to Whittington Hospital with Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, with staff making exceptional sacrifices to care for them.

The trust was represented by frontline workers and CEO Siobhan Harrington at the ceremony, while the London Ambulance Service was represented by assistant director of operations for north central London, Alex Ewings.

Freedom of the Borough - Islington Mayor, Cllr Comer-Schwartz and London Ambulance Service representatives

Freedom of the Borough - Islington Mayor, Cllr Comer-Schwartz and London Ambulance Service representatives - Credit: Islington Council

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Staff from Islington Ambulance Station and north central London have, similarly, played a huge role in helping the people of Islington stay safe and healthy during the pandemic.

They have worked tirelessly to save lives and respond to urgent and emergency calls in challenging circumstances.

Demand on the service has increased over the past 20 months, and some days it has been taking up to 8,000 999 calls a day compared to 5,500 on a typical ‘busy’ day previously. 

Meanwhile, Jennette Arnold first came to Islington as a child of the Windrush generation, and after qualifying as a nurse in Birmingham, she returned to the borough to work for the Royal College of Nursing.

Freedom of the Borough - Jennette Arnold OBE

Freedom of the Borough - Jennette Arnold OBE - Credit: Islington Council

An indefatigable campaigner, she protested against Government cuts to public services in the 1980s, and carried out work on behalf of trade unionists and the victims of female genital mutilation.

In 1994 she was elected an Islington councillor where she served for eight years, and was elected to the newly-formed London Assembly in 2000. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to London and Londoners in 2009.

And Yvonne Conolly was recognised posthumously for her contributions to education.

Freedom of the Borough - Sue Seifert (friend of Yvonne Conolly CBE)

Freedom of the Borough - Sue Seifert (friend of Yvonne Conolly CBE) - Credit: Islington Council

Yvonne Conolly CBE

Yvonne Conolly CBE - Credit: Islington Council

Having first qualified as a teacher in Jamaica, she arrived in Britain in 1963 with £36 in her pocket.

After working as a teacher and deputy headteacher in Swiss Cottage, Yvonne became the UK’s first Black female headteacher, at Ring Cross Primary School in Holloway, when she was just 29 years old.

When she died this year she was described as a “history maker” by the Department for Education.

Jennette Arnold told those present it was a "great honour" to receive the award.

"Some of my early childhood was spent in Islington and much later I returned to live and work here.

"A key part of my life has been in politics and I have represented the people of Islington in various roles over the last 27 years.

"It has felt like being part of a large family, which makes this award so much more special.

“For me Islington is this tapestry and I feel like I’m one of the threads like we all are, we are woven together and that’s what makes us strong.”

Cllr Comer-Schwartz, Jennette Arnold OBE and Troy Gallagher

Cllr Comer-Schwartz, Jennette Arnold OBE and Troy Gallagher - Credit: Islington Council

Ms Harrington added: “Being awarded Freedom of the Borough of Islington is a touching tribute that I know will mean a great deal to all of my colleagues and is another example of the incredible support we have received from our community at our most challenging of times so my thanks go to Islington Council and the people of Islington for this recognition, which we accept with deep pride.”

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