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Birthplace
Guyana
Residence
Identities
Guyana, United Kingdom
DOB
1924
Gender
Female

Beryl Gilroy

Born in what was then British Guiana, Beryl Gilroy moved to the UK in the1950s, part of the Windrush generation. She was the author of six novels, two autobiographical books, and she was a pioneering teacher and psychotherapist, becoming London’s first black headteacher.

Beryl Agatha Gilroy (nee Alnwich) was born on 30 August, 1924 in Skeldon village, in Berbice County in British Guiana. 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. Her grandmother also took the view that the child would learn more by being taken all over the county with her, and being given space for wonder and enquiry, than in the regimented system of primary schooling. As a result Beryl Gilroy did not enter full time schooling until she was twelve. It is clear that much of her grandmother’s influence persisted in Beryl Gilroy’s own philosophy of education (she educated her own children at home) that stressed freedom for discovery within a framework of basic skills. She recalls the importance of the gift her grandfather gave her of a dictionary after suffering the humiliation of laughter over some childish misuse of a word. Her grandmother also taught that people should avoid ‘spirit poorness’ (victimhood) and this philosophy permeates all Beryl Gilroy’s writing. The experiences of this Berbician childhood are told, above all, in Sunlight on Sweet Water (Peepal Tree, 1994). 

More formal education followed and Beryl Gilroy, awarded a British Guiana Teacher’s Certificate with first class honours, worked as a school teacher in Guyana until 1951 when at the age of 27 she was selected to attend university in the United Kingdom. Between 1951-53 she attended the University of London pursuing a Diploma in Child Development. Although a qualified teacher, racism prevented her getting a post for some time, and she had to work as a washer-up at Lyons, a factory clerk and lady’s maid. She taught for a couple of years, married (one of the earliest inter-racial marriages in the postwar period) and spent the next twelve years at home bringing up/educating her children, furthering her own higher education, reviewing and reading for a publisher. In 1968 she returned to teaching and eventually became probably the first Black headteacher in the UK. Her experiences of those years are told in Black Teacher (1976). Later she worked as a researcher at the University of London and developed a pioneering practice in psychotherapy, working mainly with Black women and children.

Her own 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 as In Praise of Love and Children, sent to numerous publishers at that time but not accepted as ‘too psychological’. However, between 1970-75 she wrote the pioneering children’s series Nippers which contain probably the first reflection of the Black British presence in UK writing for children. But as a home-based person in North London suburbia, cut off from the networks of the male dominated London Caribbean writing fraternity and later from groups such as CAM (Caribbean Artists Movement), 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 (also Heinemann) was published in 1989, followed by Steadman 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 Gilroy’s death in April of that year.

Beryl Gilroy was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of London and an Honorary Fellowship by the Institute of Education for her writing and pioneering work as a psychotherapist.

Beryl's death caused a silence on Peepal Tree's phone line that has been a painful absence. She rang us regularly, to encourage, sometimes to berate, to talk about the often delayed publishing of her books in progress, and sometimes just to talk. She was like a mother to us and we miss her badly.

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