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Women in History: Beryl Agatha Gilroy (née Answick): Novelist, Teacher & First Black Headteacher in London

Novelist, Beryl Agatha Gilroy
Novelist, Beryl Agatha Gilroy

Dr. Beryl Agatha Gilroy (née Answick) was a novelist and teacher, and “one of Britain’s most significant post-war Caribbean migrants”. Born on August  30th, 1924 in Guyana (then British Guiana), she moved in the 1950s to the United Kingdom, where she became the first black head teacher to be appointed in the borough of Camden in London at Beckford Primary.

Beryl  was born in Skeldon, Berbice, Guyana. She grew up in a large, extended family, largely under the influence of her maternal grandmother, Sally Louisa James (1868–1967), a herbalist, manager of the family small-holding, keen reader, imparter to the young Beryl of the stories of “Long Bubbies”, Cabresses and Long Lady and a treasury of colloquial proverbs.

Dr. Gilroy did not enter full-time schooling until she was twelve. 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 program.  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.

Although Dr. 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. She taught for a couple of years, married and spent the next twelve years at home bringing up and educating her children, furthering her own higher education, reviewing and reading for a publisher. In 1968 she returned to teaching and eventually became the first Black headteacher in London. Her experiences of those years are told in Black Teacher (1976).

Later she worked as a researcher at the Institute of Education, University of London, and developed a pioneering practice in psychotherapy, working mainly with Black women and children. She gained a PhD in counseling psychology from an American university in 1987 while working at the Institute of Education. In 2000 she was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the Institute “in recognition of her services to education”.

Novelist, poet and esteemed headteacher Beryl Gilroy
Novelist, poet and esteemed headteacher Beryl Gilroy

Dr. 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, which contain probably the first reflection of the Black British presence in UK writing for children.

It was not until 1986 that her first novel, the award-winning Frangipani House was published (Heinemann). It won a GLC Creative Writing Prize in 1982. 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 (Peepal Tree, 1994), 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’s death.

Dr. 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. 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.

Dr. Gilroy  died of a heart attack at the age of 76 on 4 April 2001. As noted by Roxann Bradshaw: “Two days later over one hundred Anglopjone women writers from around the world gathered at Goldsmith College in London, where she 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.” An orange skirt suit worn by Beryl  was included in an exhibition entitled Black British Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004.  Today, Dr. Gilroy ‘s pioneering story, her numerous novels and children’s books, and her legacy as one of Britain’s first Black headteachers live on..

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