British Library acquires archive of Camden's first Black headteacher

Archive black and white photo of black woman wearing chqeued blazer

Beryl Gilroy was headteacher of West Hampstead Primary School, formerly known as Beckford Primary School. - Credit: The Estate of Beryl Gilroy

The British Library has acquired the archive of Camden's first Black headteacher, the pioneering writer and ethno-psychotherapist Beryl Gilroy.

Beryl was born in Guyana (then British Guiana) and came to Britain in 1952. She became Camden's first Black headteacher in 1969 at West Hampstead's Beckford Primary School, now named West Hampstead Primary School due to former London mayor William Beckford's role in the slave trade.

She worked at the West Hampstead school for 13 years from 1969-82.

Before that Beryl was deputy head at Montem Primary School in Islington from 1968-69. She also worked as a part-time teacher at Tufnell Park Primary School.

Realising the books she read to her pupils did not reflect their lives or lived experiences, she wrote a number of acclaimed books for children.

In her autobiography, Black Teacher (1976), she wrote: "When I write I live and breathe the characters… But I’d rather be remembered as a good teacher and as a person who wrote books that made people identify themselves as they are and others as they are."

Her writing explores the lives of families, particularly of women and children, the impact of 20th century migration and the societal change that resulted.

Beryl's daughter, Darla-Jane Gilroy, said: "Beryl entered Britain at a moment when the stars aligned, not only did she witness the birth of multicultural Britain, but she was also a participant.

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"Through her resilience she became a role model for other women. As a gifted Froebel trained teacher, she embraced the challenges of the multicultural classroom making a significant contribution to British education.

"Through her pioneering counselling work, she explored the implications and effects of human diversity."

Comprising working drafts of fiction and non-fiction, letters from publishers and literary agents, and a selection of books, highlights of the archive include annotated written and typed drafts of In Praise of Love and Children, a rare fictional account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean, which remained unpublished for 37 years.

There is a handwritten manuscript that would become Sunlight on Sweet Water, a book of recollections about her Guyanese childhood in the 1930s-40s, and published by Peepal Tree Press in 1994.

Books she wrote in the 1970s for the Nippers series published by Macmillan, which reflected the reality of the multicultural school she taught in, are also among the archive.