Whittington Hospital staff and Britain’s first Black headteacher among those awarded the Freedom of Islington

London Ambulance Service representatives pick up their award. Photograph: Islington Council

Ambulance workers and staff at the Whittington Hospital and Britain’s first Black headteacher Yvonne Conolly are among those given the Freedom of Islington – the highest honour the borough can award.

They have been praised for “their major and unique contribution made to the life of the borough”, together with former Islington councillor Jennette Arnold.

Islington Mayor Troy Gallagher praised recipients for the “exemplary public service” they have all shown at a special ceremony.

He said the Whittington Hospital has “shown leadership and courage”.

“It is part of the fabric of this great borough, never failing or faltering once,” he added.

Deputy leader Cllr Diarmaid Ward said: “The Whittington has done so much for our borough, never more so than in the last 18 months when doctors and nurses have put themselves in harm’s way in caring for people with Covid.”

Council leader Kaya Comer-Schwartz said the London Ambulance Service “are our unsung heroes of our emergency services – they are there when we need them most and that has been shown over the last 18 months”.

Yvonne Conolly, who died this year aged 81. Photograph: Islington Council

Yvonne Conolly was just 29 when she became Britain’s first Black headteacher in 1969, just six years after arriving in the UK as part of the Windrush Generation.

Cllr Comer-Schwartz said after working in other schools across London, Conolly “truly found her home in Islington”, where she became head of Ring Cross Primary in Holloway.

The trailblazer faced “a huge amount of racism and and had to have security to go to work”, said Cllr Comer-Schwartz.

Conolly went on to become an Ofsted inspector and joined the Home Secretary’s advisory panel on race relations.  She died earlier this year, aged 81.

Cllr Flora Williamson (Lab, Tollington) said: “Yvonne Conolly raised us all up, whether we know it or not.  Not only did she educate generations of us, our friends, our neighbours and our colleagues, but she also paved the way for others – as a leader, a mentor and a champion of Black educators.”

Cllr Comer-Schwartz praised Jennette Arnold as a “true hero of our borough”.

Arnold served as an Islington councillor for eight years and was deputy mayor, and became a Labour London Assembly member before standing down this year.

“From women’s rights to the Olympics, so many of the best things that have happened in London over the last decade are partly due to Jennette,” said the council leader.

Cllr Caroline Russell (Green, Highbury East) added her tribute to the recipents and said during the silence of lockdown that the only sound was ambulance sirens.

“You knew that the ambulance service was turning up to help someone,” she added. “We were so grateful.”

Jennette Arnold said she was ‘honoured’ to receive the award. Photograph: Islington Council

She said Jennette Arnold “speaks truth to power”.

Cllr Bashir lbrahim (Lab, Highbury West) said Arnold also campaigned for justice for the murdered private detective Daniel Morgan and against “the wrongful inclusion of so many innocent Black people on the Metropolitan Police’s Gangs Matrix”.

Cllr Rakhia Ismail (Con,  Holloway) said the ambulance service “is there for you”.

She praised Jennette Arnold, who encouraged her political ambition.

“Your legacy lives long,” she told her.

Addressing the council, Jennette Arnold said: “I am truly honoured.”

She recalled sleeping at the Whittington during the hospital’s upgrade when she was a nurse, adding: “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.”

This year’s recipients follow in the footsteps former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, Arsenal Ladies and the London Fire Brigade, for its work at the Grenfell Tower fire in west London.

Cllr Comer-Schwartz said if any of those honoured want to move their sheep “up the Holloway Road, we will be fine with it”.

According to tradition, recipients of the freedom in the neighbouring City of London can drive their sheep across London Bridge.