Beryl Gilroy (c) The Estate of Beryl Gilroy

The British Library has acquired the archive of Beryl Agatha Gilroy (1924-2001), a pioneering writer, teacher and ethno-psychotherapist who was born in Guyana (then British Guiana) and immigrated to Britain in 1952. Gilroy’s work explores the lives of families, particularly of women and children, the impact of 20th century migration and societal change that came as a result.

Comprising working drafts of fiction and non-fiction, letters from publishers and literary agents, a selection of books and ‘born-digital’ drafts, highlights of the archive include:

  • Annotated autograph and typescript 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of Love and Children, a rare fictional account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean, which remained unpublished for 37 years
  • An early handwritten, autobiographical 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
  • Working drafts for three unpublished works including a historical novel set during the 1780 Gordon Riots based on the life of a woman known as ‘Black Harriot’ who is thought to be depicted in William Hogarth’s painting The Rake’s Progress
  • A selection of children’s books Gilroy wrote in the 1970s for the Nippers series published by Macmillan, which reflected the reality of the multicultural school she taught in
  • Drafts of Gilroy’s non-fiction writing where she reflects upon the dynamics of family relationships and experiences she encountered through her work as a counsellor

Becoming the first black head teacher in London in 1969, Gilroy wrote a number of acclaimed books for children after realising that the ones she read to her pupils did not reflect their lives or lived experiences. In her innovative autobiography, Black Teacher (1976), Gilroy 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.’

As a creative response to the archive, the Library has collaborated with Liverpool born Nigerian-German artist and filmmaker Amber Akaunu to create a zine, The Blueprint, and a short film to celebrate black women who help educate, nurture and develop children. Akaunu’s work is featured in the free Treasures Gallery display, Celebrating Beryl Gilroy (17 March to 26 June 2022), alongside highlights from the archive.

Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library, said: ‘We are thrilled to have acquired Beryl Gilroy’s exceptional and wide-ranging archive for the British Library’s contemporary collections. Gilroy is an important figure in so many areas – as a writer, a teacher, and a therapist – and her exceptional archive is a rich resource evidencing her life’s work. As part of celebrating Gilroy in our new Treasures Gallery display, we have particularly enjoyed collaborating with the artist and filmmaker Amber Akaunu who has responded creatively to the archive. The Library’s collections are for everyone, be it for research, inspiration or enjoyment, and Amber’s work is a fantastic example of the exciting possibilities Gilroy’s archive contains.’

Darla-Jane Gilroy, Reader and Associate Dean of Knowledge Exchange at the Central Saint Martins University of the Arts London and daughter of Beryl Gilroy, said: ‘Beryl Gilroy 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. 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. I am delighted that her literary archive has been acquired by the British Library and will be made available to inspire a new generation of trailblazers to forge a more equitable and socially just world.’

Amber Akaunu, artist and filmmaker, said: ‘Spending time with Gilroy’s archive was a luxury that visitors of the British Library will now also get to experience. The contents of the archive are honest, deeply reflective, and unique to the experiences of Dr. Beryl Gilroy. I created my film and zine response with these same attributes in mind, and centered around the idea that Black women, and their archive, are the blueprint to which we build from.’

The acquisition of the Beryl Gilroy archive expands the Library’s existing collections of Caribbean and Black British literary archives, including those of Andrew Salkey, Andrea Levy, James Berry and Wasafiri magazine. It will be available for research on completion of cataloguing in autumn 2022.