NNWFHS Meetings & Events

Beryl Mary Kerby nee Streather - Deputy Headmistress

By John Burton

Beryl Mary Kerby nee Streather Beryl Mary Streather was born on 5th April 1925 in the family house at 21 Hinckley Road, Nuneaton. I don’t know whether there are any family stories about her as a little girl; perhaps Sheila, her younger sister, will recall some later this morning. But Beryl did tell me a little story about herself. I had asked her where a large house called ‘The Briars’ was, and the answer, simple, when you thought about it, was where Briars Close is, off Hinckley Road. She then said that between the wars the house was used as lodgings for single female teachers from Nuneaton Girls High School. One day, when she was about seven, she was enjoying jumping in and out of a puddle on the pavement in Hinckley Road. She was then furious when two of these spinster teachers told her off for jumping in the puddle. As a seven year old, she was happy for her parents to tell her off, could accept it if her teachers told her off, but could see no reason why teachers from another school should tell her off.

Eventually, as she was a clever girl, she did attend the High School, and in 1943 she went to Avery Hill Teacher Training College in Eltham, London. Or she would have done ‐ but the college was evacuated to Huddersfield and Beryl saw the delights of Yorkshire for a couple of years. In those days teachers covered many subjects but also specialised in one, in Beryl’s case Geography. 

In 1945 Beryl was appointed as a temporary teacher at Bedworth Central School, covering for the legendary Frank Yallop who was serving in the war. On his return Beryl had to move to Stockingford. Eventually she had a choice of staying there or moving to the new Alderman Smith School under Ernie Randle. She chose Alderman Smith and spent the remaining 30 years of her career there, retiring as deputy head in 1986.

Deputy Head is a thankless job and usually involves administrative tasks and frequently involves discipline. For this task Beryl developed what I can only describe as a stentorian voice, a very useful asset in any deputy head, and especially one where you had to deal with what Beryl used to describe, in tones partly disparaging but partly admiring, as ‘The Arley Lot’. As she said it, you glimpsed many painful confrontations in the past between Beryl and the naughty boys of Arley, though as ex‐mayor and ex‐pupil Tom Wilson confirms, there were plenty of naughty boys in Stockingford in need of correction.

In 1960 Beryl married Brian Kerby and they purchased her grandparents’ house, next door at 19 Hinckley Road. It was a great and lasting tragedy for Beryl that her beloved Brian died in 1963, only three years after their marriage. And it meant that for the next 49 years Beryl lived as a widow. She supported her parents and when her mother died she moved back to number 21 to look after her father, who by this time had retired from his job as first Head teacher at Higham Lane School.

It is impossible to discuss Beryl’s life without mentioning her father, a local man who won high honours in the First World War, was a keen sportsman and an inspiring teacher. He opened Higham Lane School in 1939 and remained there until 1959. After she retired, Beryl became a governor and it is a sign of the respect the school has for her that the news of Beryl’s death was on their website within hours and remains there now. One of the things Mr Streather said about the First World War before he died was “Why did we do it? Nobody wants to know about it.” Beryl determined to rectify that lack of knowledge. She took an interest in the Nuneaton 216 Company and forged friendships with several people with a similar interest ‐ people like Jim Sambrook, here today from Southampton ‐ and others which led to research and publications of great value.

Beryl also came under the influence, as did many of us, of Ted Veasey and she was attending his classes in Nuneaton as I was attending them in Bedworth. She also met at Ted’s classes Peter Lee and Alan Cook, both influential local historians.

When Beryl retired in 1986 she might have expected a comfortable retirement. It was not to be. Within a short time it became clear that NBBC wanted to demolish the old Chilvers Coton Free School, dating back to 1736, now that it was no longer needed by the Parks Department. In retrospect they were exciting times. Beryl became first chairman of The Nuneaton Society and, with support from The Bedworth Society and the George Eliot Fellowship and with huge support from Rob Hayward and Don Jacques, NBBC was persuaded to change their decision and the building was saved. A Building Conservation Trust was established to run it as a community Centre and Heritage Centre and Beryl had landed herself with a job which was to consume all her time and energy for the next 24 years.

So what is Beryl’s legacy? It is the lot of teachers to be remembered by people who know them at a critical time of their development, and all over Nuneaton and beyond, there are people who remember with affection and respect being taught by Beryl. And of course teachers never stop being teachers and Beryl was marvellous when she dressed as a strict Victorian school ma’am and gave lessons to junior school children at Coton. A friend told me that when she mentioned Beryl’s death at King Edward College there were several who remembered her, were taught by her or had visited the Coton Centre and met her there. This same friend pointed out Beryl’s influence in establishing an early example of interactive learning ‐ hands‐on history by letting the children dress up as Victorians and learn as they would have done.

Another friend gave me the key to this tribute. She said “I will never forget the smile on her face and the passion in her voice”. Simple words but they do sum up Beryl so well. I don’t think she knew how loved she was. I wish she knew that every day at the Coton Centre we remember her, talk about her, and try to continue with her vision for the building, which is her legacy.

I would add another quality which is that she was indomitable. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Three examples will suffice. In the early days of the Centre we acquired all the papers from Stanley’s brickworks. But they were damp, sometimes wet. The entire collection was taken to the Centre and laid out on tables, floors, desks until they had dried out and could be inspected by the CRO.

The second example was at Park Farm where Beryl had been conducting an archaeological dig. She asked me to take some photographs of the site, which ideally needed to be seen from above. Beryl made a few phone calls, I arrived with my camera and then, trundling up towards Bermuda appeared a fire engine with the platform which took me and two burly fire officers 50 feet up to take the photographs. It was a case of not who you know, but who you taught.

The third example was two years ago. Beryl’s health was failing but she was determined to spend Christmas in Scotland with her sister. I volunteered to escort her to Birmingham and put her on the train. It was a nightmare experience. The train was packed, the station was busy, we only had minutes and Beryl couldn’t hurry. But she got there ‐ indomitable to the end.

Beryl’s horizons were forcibly reduced last July when she broke her hip and she was in and out of hospital for some months, then she went to Long Lea which was good for her and where she was cherished and looked after. Beryl’s untidiness was legendary and she never mastered the computer despite several attempts. It was a touching scene only a few weeks before her death that she was asking for some of her papers from home which she was trying to sort out in her room. But within a little while the papers were all round her on the floor, just as they had been at Henley Close.

But we all loved her, and for me, it was a privilege to visit her and tell her what was happening at the Centre and try to reassure her that the Centre was running efficiently and would continue to do so. And it was a privilege to sit next to her after her penultimate stroke when she could not speak, and to hold her hand as she lay in the quiet room at Long Lea awaiting the end.

All things pass, but let us always remember the smile on Beryl’s face and the passion in her voice.

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