After joining Britain’s war effort, young Norma Best made the most of her opportunities to train as a teacher, eventually becoming one of the first black headteachers in London

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It was 1944 and with WWII at its height, Britain issued an appeal to its colonies to lend a helping hand. Among those who answered the call was 22-year-old Norma Best, née Leacock, from British Honduras, present-day Belize. Fired by a sense of adventure as well as a desire to do the right thing, Norma volunteered for the women’s wing of the British Army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, later to become the Woman’s Royal Army Corps.

With five other ATS recruits, she sailed for Jamaica for initial training. The group then travelled to New Orleans in the US and, after receiving their uniforms, made their way to New York before boarding the Queen Mary to Britain. After military training at Guildford in Surrey, Norma looked forward to working as a driver just as her father had done during WWI. But she could not cope with the cold weather and so opted for administrative work instead. She served in Preston in Lancashire and was then posted to Derby and later London. It was here in May 1945 that she joined thousands of others on the Embankment enjoying the firework display to celebrate VE (Victory in Europe) Day.

The following year Norma took the opportunity of studying teaching at Durham University. Just after qualifying in 1947 – and despite the fact that a job had been offered to her at a school in Cambridge – the ATS informed her that she had to return to British Honduras.

Every cloud has a silver lining and once back home she met her future husband, who’d served in the Royal Navy. They subsequently married in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but settled in England in the late 1950s. They have two children: Chandra, born in 1955, and Yvette, born in 1961.

Norma worked as a teacher and in 1976 she was appointed head of Bridge Infant School in Brent, north London, the first black person in the borough to hold such a position.

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