Derek Birley

Sir Derek Birley (31 May 1926 – 14 May 2002) was a distinguished English educationalist and a prize-winning writer on the social history of sport, particularly, cricket.

Born in a mining community in West Yorkshire, Birley was educated, having won scholarships, at Hemsworth Grammar School, Hemsworth, West Yorkshire, and at Queen's College, Cambridge.

Birley wrote two cricket books: The Willow Wand (1979) and the classic A Social History of English Cricket (1999), (which won the Cricket Society's "Book of the Year Award" and the "William Hill Sports Book of the Year" in 1999).

The founding Rector of Ulster College (later Ulster Polytechnic), and later the founding Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster, When Birley retired from education in 1991, he had overseen two decades of massive increases in provision of higher education in Northern Ireland.

A fervent English patriot and anti-fascist, he enlisted in the Royal Artillery from school in 1944, hoping to contribute to active service in the South-East Asian front. He was quickly transferred to the Intelligence Corps to be trained in Russian and Chinese, and sent to the Russian sector in Berlin, where he served 1944–1947 as a Russian interpreter.

On his return to England, he was awarded an ex-serviceman's scholarship to Queen's College, Cambridge, to read English. In 1951, he was joint winner with J.G. Ballard of a short story competition held by Varsity, the Cambridge student newspaper.

After university he joined the teaching staff of Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield where he taught English between 1952 and 1955. He left the school to become an administrator in the Leeds Education Authority. He continued his career in education administration, rising to become Deputy Director of Education in Liverpool in 1964. He wrote a number of seminal books on management of education in this period. In this role he became involved in Anthony Crosland's consultations about higher education, from which the vision of polytechnics emerged. In 1970, he moved to Northern Ireland and took up post as Rector of what became the first Ulster Polytechnic, and the first polytechnic in the UK – against determined opposition from the then Unionist government – and, following a government merger of higher education, became the founding Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster.

He was passionately committed to enhancing access to higher education, whilst maintaining the highest of academic standards. In his 20 years in Ulster, student numbers soared, and the representation of catholic students and women reached parity from previous very low bases. 'He deplored anything that smacked of discrimination, whether based on gender, religion or social standing' . When he retired in 1991, he had overseen two decades of massive increases in provision of higher education in Northern Ireland, and equity of representation for Catholic and women students. He was knighted for services to education.

Besides writing and publishing extensively on education, his other passion was the social history of sport. In 1979, he wrote The Willow Wand, 'a strikingly original and robustly demythologising book, criticising the pastoral nostalgia of the genre'. This was voted by a distinguished poll in Wisden Cricketer in 2012 as the best cricket book of all time. He wrote a three-volume history of sport in Britain in the 1990s which 'is unlikely to be surpassed. The second book won the Aberdare Literary prize in 1995. In 1999, the classic A Social History of English Cricket won the Cricket Society's Book of the Year, and the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year. It was described as 'a masterpiece', and as 'A profoundly researched, easily and stylishly written book…with a view to a shelf-life of a good half-century, and as a work of reference a fair way beyond.'

He married Professor Norma Reid Birley in 1990.

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Preceded by
Robert Twigger
William Hill Sports Book of the Year winner
Succeeded by
Lance Armstrong
Preceded by
Rector of Ulster College
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster
Succeeded by
Trevor Arthur Smith, Baron Smith of Clifton
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