Prof. Sir Hilary Beckles is now 65 and the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. But his formative years were spent this side of the Atlantic. Hilary arrived in Acocks Green as a 13 year old from Barbados in 1969. His Windrush Generation parents had come over to the UK from Barbados some five years earlier and he came to join them and finish his education.
Hilary’s father was a master tailor before arriving in the UK. However, societal attitudes at the time meant he was unable to get a job as a tailor and instead found work at Tubes Investments, a Birmingham engineering company specialising in the manufacture of tubing for bikes, cars and aircraft – a job that he kept for 30 years until he retired. His love for making clothes would continue, however, only satisfied at weekends, when he would make clothes for the West Indian community, especially for brides and grooms. Meanwhile, Hilary’s mother worked as a cook in a couple of Birmingham’s hospitals until her retirement.
Hilary’s education in Birmingham started at Pitmaston Secondary School, but as a bright young man he wasn’t being particularly stretched and was clearly ahead of his peers, so an alternative was sought to enable Hilary to fulfil his potential. Between one of Hilary’s teachers and his mother, an interview was set up with the then Principal of Bournville College. After some begging and tears from his mother in the Principal’s office, Hilary became a Bournville College student at the age of 15.
“Bournville was where I thrived,” Hilary said. “I was given such freedom and encouragement.” Most of his fellow O-Level (GCSE) students were adult students and he describes learning as much about the world from conversations with his classmates as he did from his teachers. After completing his O-Levels, Hilary stayed to study Economics, Law, Geography and Economic Geography at A Level. Nearly 50 years on, Bournville College still teaches A Level courses.
Hilary said, with great affection, “I was rescued by Bournville College and there was not a better preparation for university life.”
He still remembers the name of his A Level Law teacher, Mrs Twyman, and she played a key role in helping him get to the University of Hull. Although Mrs Twyman thought he would make a great lawyer, Hilary was more interested in the philosophy of law, so chose to study philosophy at undergraduate level. But this only lasted for one term. In the second term, Hilary found his true passion when he changed course to study economic history.
It wasn’t all work and no play for Hilary. Alongside his studies, he devoured at least one book a week by visiting the local library and bookshop. He started his own library of books, many of which he still has many decades later, and he recounts how librarians got to know him and would put aside new books for him to read first.
If Hilary had not gone to university, he could have quite easily become a professional cricketer for Warwickshire County Cricket Club (WCCC). Whilst Captain of the Bournville Cricket team, he was also a youth team player for WCCC. As a 17 year old, Hilary was playing cricket against the likes of Ian Botham and David Gower, as a fast bowler and a good batsman.
One of Hilary’s overriding memories of his semi-professional cricket playing days at university was bowling out Geoffrey Boycott in a Yorkshire vs Humberside match. Something he got the pleasure of jogging Geoffrey’s memory about later in life, due to his involvement with West Indies cricket.
After graduation, Hilary was offered a scholarship to do his doctorate in record time. At the age of just 24, he graduated with a PhD and was head-hunted in 1979 by the University of the West Indies to lecture in the economic history of the Caribbean. He received a personal professorship in 1993, which was the university's youngest appointment to the position. In 2007, Hilary was made a Knight of St. Andrew, the highest honour possible in the Order of Barbados.
The College has extended an open invitation for Hilary to visit the new Bournville College site and speak to our students the next time he is in Birmingham visiting family, something he has kindly agreed to. We look forward to meeting one our most fascinating alumni in person soon.
Want to follow in Sir Hilary's footsteps? Check out our range of A Level courses.