Beryl Gilroy

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Beryl Gilroy
Beryl Agatha Gilroy

30 August 1924
Died4 April 2001(2001-04-04) (aged 76)
OccupationWriter, teacher
Known forThe first black headteacher in London
ChildrenPaul Gilroy
Darla Gilroy
RelativesSally Louisa James (maternal grandmother)

Beryl Agatha Gilroy (née Answick; 30 August 1924 – 4 April 2001)[1] was a pioneering teacher and novelist, and "one of Britain's most significant post-war Caribbean migrants",[2] part of the so-called "Windrush generation".[3][4] Born in what was then British Guiana, she moved in the 1950s to the United Kingdom, where she became the first black headteacher in London. She was the mother of academic Paul Gilroy.

Early years[edit]

Beryl Gilroy was born in Skeldon, Berbice, Guyana.[5] She grew up in a large, extended family, largely under the influence of her maternal grandmother, Sally Louisa James (1868–1967), a herbalist, who managed the family small-holding, was a keen reader and imparted to the young Beryl stories of "Long Bubbies", Cabresses and Long Lady and a treasury of colloquial Guyanese proverbs.[5]

Gilroy did not enter full-time schooling until she was 12. From 1943 to 1945, she attended teacher training college in Georgetown, gaining a first-class diploma. She subsequently taught and lectured on a UNICEF nutrition programme.[2] In 1951, at the age of 27, she was selected to attend university in the United Kingdom. Between 1951 and 1953 she attended the University of London, pursuing a Diploma in Child Development.[6]

Teaching career[edit]

Although Gilroy was a qualified teacher, racism prevented her getting a post for some time, and she had to work as a washer, a factory clerk and maid. Eventually employed by the Inner London Education Authority,[6] she taught for a couple of years, married and spent the next 12 years at home bringing up and educating her children Darla and Paul, furthering her own higher education, reviewing and reading for a publisher.[6] In 1968 she returned to teaching and eventually became the first Black headteacher in London,[2][7][8] at Beckford School in West Hampstead.[9] Her experiences of those years are told in Black Teacher (1976).

Later she worked as a multi-cultural researcher at the Institute of Education, University of London,[10][11] and developed a pioneering practice in psychotherapy, working mainly with Black women and children. She was a co-founder in the early 1980s of the Camden Black Sisters group.[6] She gained a PhD in counselling psychology from an American university in 1987 while working at the Institute of Education.[1][11][12]


Gilroy's creative writing began in childhood, as a teacher for children and then in the 1960s when she began writing what was later published by Peepal Tree Press as In Praise of Love and Children. Between 1970 and 1975 she wrote the pioneering children's series Nippers, containing probably the first reflection of the Black British presence in UK writing for children.[6]

Her 1976 memoir about her experiences as the first black headteacher in London is described by Sandra Courtman as "an unconventional autobiography ... [Black Teacher] is Gilroy’s experiment with an intermediary form – somewhere between fiction and autobiography, with a distinct non-linear structure."[13] It was not until 1986 that Gilroy's first novel, the award-winning Frangipani House was published (Heinemann). It won a GLC Creative Writing Prize in 1982.[10] Set in an old person's home in Guyana, it reflects one of her professional concerns: the position of ethnic minority elders and her persistent emphasis on the drive for human freedom. Boy Sandwich (Heinemann) was published in 1989, followed by Stedman and Joanna: A Love in Bondage (Vantage, 1991), and a collection of poems, Echoes and Voices (Vantage, 1991). Then came Sunlight and Sweet Water, Gather the Faces, In Praise of Love and Children and Inkle and Yarico (all Peepal Tree, 1994). Her last novel, The Green Grass Tango (Peepal Tree) was published in 2001, sadly after Beryl Gilroy’s death in April of that year.

Gilroy's early work examined the impact of life in Britain on West Indian families and her later work explored issues of African and Caribbean diaspora and slavery.[11]

In 1998, a collection of her non-fiction writing, entitled Leaves in the Wind, came out from Mango Publishing. It included her lectures, notes, essays, dissertations and personal reviews.[14] In this book she stated that the purpose behind Black Teacher and much of her other writing was "to set the record straight. There had been Ted Braithwaite’s To Sir With Love [1959] and Don HindsJourney to an Illusion [1966] but the woman’s experiences had never been stated."[15] She also later noted: "In the tradition of Black women who write to come to terms with their trauma, or alternatively to understand the nature of their elemental oppression, I wrote to redefine myself and put the record straight."[16]

Death and legacy[edit]

Gilroy died of a heart attack at the age of 76 on 4 April 2001.[2] As noted by Roxann Bradshaw: "Two days later over one hundred Anglophone women writers from around the world gathered at Goldsmiths College in London, where Dr Gilroy had been scheduled to deliver a keynote address at the 4th annual Caribbean Women Writers Association conference. The news of her death was received with great sorrow for the passing of one of the first wave of Anglophone women writers, whose contribution to Caribbean women's literature is invaluable."[17]

Honours and recognition[edit]

She was honoured in 1990 by the Greater London Council for services to education, in 1995 received an honorary doctorate from the University of North London, and in 2000 was made an honorary fellow of the Institute of Education.[18]

In 1996 she was honoured by the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars.[19]

An orange skirt suit worn by Beryl Gilroy was included in an exhibition entitled Black British Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004.[7]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Green and Gold Readers for Guyana, Longman, Green & Co., 1967–71
  • Black Teacher, Cassell, 1976. Reprinted Bogle-L'Ouverture, 1994
  • Frangipani House, Heinemann, 1986
  • Boy Sandwich, Heinemann, 1989
  • Stedman and Joanna: A Love in Bondage, Vantage, 1991
  • Echoes and Voices (poetry), Vantage, 1991
  • Sunlight and Sweet Water, Peepal Tree Press, 1994
  • Gather the Faces, Peepal Tree Press, 1994
  • In Praise of Love and Children, Peepal Tree Press, 1994
  • Inkle and Yarico, Peepal Tree Press, 1994
  • Leaves in the Wind: Collected Writings, Mango Publishing, 1998
  • The Green Grass Tango, Peepal Tree Press, 2001


  1. ^ a b Bowman, Anna (28 May 2001). "Beryl Gilroy". The Independent. p. 6. Retrieved 4 October 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d Fraser, Peter D. (18 April 2001). "Beryl Gilroy: An innovative Caribbean writer, novelist of the black diaspora and London's first black head teacher". The Guardian. p. 20. Retrieved 4 October 2009.
  3. ^ Courtman, Sandra, "In Praise of Love and Children: Beryl Gilroy’s arrival story", Windrush Stories, British Library, 4 October 2018.
  4. ^ "Beryl Gilroy" at Peepal Tree Press.
  5. ^ a b Deosaran, Venessa, "Guyanese novelist Beryl Gilroy", Guyana Times International, 24 November 2011.
  6. ^ a b c d e Obano, Nisha, "Beryl Gilroy", Enciclopedia de Estudios Afroeuropeos.
  7. ^ a b Akbar, Arifa (5 October 2004). "From Windrush to Ms Dynamite: 50 years of black British style". The Independent. pp. 12–13. Retrieved 4 October 2009.
  8. ^ Zonneveldt, Mandi (1 May 2001). "First black to head a school". Herald Sun. p. 77.
  9. ^ Momoh, Emily, "More Black History Month News" Archived 28 January 2015 at the Wayback Machine. Black History Makers in Camden.
  10. ^ a b Busby, Margaret (ed.), Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent (1992), London: Vintage, 1993, p. 309.
  11. ^ a b c "Great Black British figures" (PDF). UNISON Black History Month 2006 Online Briefing. UNISON. 2006. Retrieved 4 October 2009.
  12. ^ Courtman, Sandra (2008). "Gilroy, Beryl Agatha (1924–2001)". In Carole Boyce Davies (ed.). Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. pp. 470–472. ISBN 978-1-85109-700-5.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link)
  13. ^ Courtman, Sandra, "Woman version: Beryl Gilroy's Black Teacher", Discovering Literature: 20th century, British Library, 4 October 2018.
  14. ^ Gilroy, Beryl, Leaves in the Wind: Collected Writings, Mango Publishing, 1998.
  15. ^ Gilroy, Leaves in the Wind, 1998, p. 9.
  16. ^ Gilroy, Leaves in the Wind, 1998, p. 209.
  17. ^ Bradshaw, Roxann, "Beryl Gilroy's 'Fact-Fiction': Through the Lens of the 'Quiet Old Lady'", Callaloo, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 381–400.
  18. ^ Fraser, Peter D., "Gilroy , Beryl Agatha (1924–2001)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, January 2005; online edition, January 2009; accessed 25 January 2015.
  19. ^ Courtman, "Gilroy, Beryl Agatha (1924–2001)", in Boyce Davies (ed.), Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora (2008), p. 470.

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