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date: 25 October 2021

Gilroy [née Answick], Beryl Agathafree

(1924–2001)

Gilroy [née Answick], Beryl Agathafree

(1924–2001)
  • Peter D. Fraser

Gilroy [née Answick], Beryl Agatha (1924–2001), teacher and author, was born on 30 August 1924 at Springlands, Berbice, British Guiana. She was brought up by her grandparents after she suffered a serious illness at the age of two. They decided that the local school was not good enough for her, so she did not enter formal education until she was twelve. In those pre-school years her grandfather taught her to read, her grandmother taught her about herbs and local medicine, and she was immersed in the folk culture of the area. Significantly for her later work this included stories of slavery. When she did attend school she made rapid progress, becoming a pupil-teacher, then attended the government training college in the capital, Georgetown, in 1943, graduating with a first-class teacher's certificate in 1945. While teaching, she became involved in the UNICEF school feeding programme in British Guiana from 1946 to 1951. In 1951 she left for England to further her studies, hoping to return to work for UNICEF in British Guiana.

In London, Beryl Answick studied for a diploma in child development psychology at London University. This period saw large-scale immigration from the British West Indies, though she was more a part of West Indian student society in London, at that time much influenced by radical anti-colonial politics. Among her contemporaries were the Guianese historian Elsa Goveia and the Jamaican academic and author Sylvia Wynter. In those circles she met Patrick Eric (Pat) Gilroy (d. 1975), a scientist, whom she married in 1954.

Deciding not to return to British Guiana, Beryl Gilroy taught in inner London education authority (ILEA) schools from 1953 to 1956; one of her contemporaries was a fellow Guianese, E. R. (Edward Ricardo) Braithwaite, author and diplomat. After the birth of her two children (the first in 1956) she taught part-time but continued her education by completing a degree in psychology at London University in 1962 in addition to a Froebel teacher's diploma (1960–62) and a teaching qualification in English as a second language (1963–5). She also found time to write textbooks for West Indian schools and various forms of journalism (both for adults and for children). At this time she became acquainted with a number of West Indian writers, the most important of whom, for his assistance to women writers in particular, was the Jamaican novelist Andrew Salkey. In the 1980s at a conference in his honour in London she protested vehemently at the omission of any reference to this attitude, highly unusual then among his West Indian contemporaries.

In 1968 Gilroy returned to full-time teaching, first as deputy head at Montem School and then in 1969 as head of Beckford School, north London. She was London's first black head teacher. At Beckford she had a school with children of many languages and cultures; she inspired both the children and staff. She enjoyed battling the progressive parents of the middle-class children and fending off ILEA school inspectors. She continued to write for children, completing several short books and two longer children's stories, In for a Penny (1978) and Carnival of Dreams (1980). She also completed a course in the psychology of adolescence at London University (1973–5).

After her husband's sudden death on 5 October 1975 Gilroy grieved deeply and, some friends felt, never really recovered. Receiving counselling for her grief deepened her interest in psychology and in counselling. In 1976 she published the autobiographical Black Teacher about her first years of teaching in London. This was one of the most interesting accounts of West Indian experience in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. She regretted that the publishers toned down her attacks on the racism she encountered, but the real story was her acceptance by parents and children as a good teacher. She took an MA in education at Sussex University in 1980.

Gilroy remained at Beckford until 1982, when she joined the Centre for Multicultural Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. There she was able to pursue her interest in cross-cultural counselling (in 1984 she started work for a PhD at Century University, USA, which she completed in 1987) and her writing for adults. She left the centre in 1990. From the late 1980s she focused on writing. In 1986 her first novel for adults, Frangipani House, appeared. It was followed by six novels, a collection of semi-autobiographical stories of her village, Sunlight on Sweet Water (1994), another collection of her writings, Leaves in the Wind (1998), and the republication of Black Teacher (1994). She was honoured by the Greater London council in 1990 for services to education, received an honorary doctorate from the University of North London in 1995, and was made an honorary fellow of the Institute of Education in 2000.

Gilroy's chief legacy was her fiction. Frangipani House was innovatory, dealing with the problems of ageing in Guyana, where normal family supports for the old had been destroyed by emigration, and by the materialism of those who remained—with public institutions crumbling away amid economic disasters. The problems of the old had not hitherto figured centrally in West Indian writing. The novel won several awards. In Boy Sandwich (1989) and two novels published in 1996, Gather the Faces and In Praise of Love and Children, all set mainly in contemporary London, Gilroy's control of her characters and desire to explore psycho-social processes perhaps worked against their success. She often accused critics of misunderstanding her writing. Switching to historical novels proved liberating. In Stedman and Joanna (1991) and Inkle and Yarico (1996), and an unpublished one almost finished at her death ('She Wore Silk', or 'Harriot'), the historical setting weakened her control of her characters and allowed them to live. That freedom was evident in her last, posthumously published, work, The Green Grass Tango (2001), about a retired Barbadian who had passed for white, become a widower, and found love and friendship among a mixed bag of dog lovers in a local park.

Gilroy died on 4 April 2001 at the Royal Free Hospital, Camden, London, of an aortic aneurysm, and was buried in Highgate cemetery on 12 April 2001. She was survived by her son, Paul, a distinguished sociologist, and her daughter, Darla-Jane, a fashion designer and lecturer.

Sources

  • B. Gilroy, Black teacher (1976)
  • B. Gilroy, Sunlight on sweet water (1994)
  • B. Gilroy, Leaves in the wind: collected writings, ed. J. Anim-Addo (1998)
  • The Independent (28 May 2001)
  • personal knowledge (2005)
  • private information (2005)
  • d. cert.

Archives

Sound

  • BL NSA, current affairs recordings

Likenesses

  • photograph, repro. in The Guardian (18 April 2001)
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent
  • photographs, repro. in Gilroy, Black teacher, jacket

Wealth at Death

£354,796: probate, 4 Oct 2001, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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British Library, National Sound Archive