Gillian Perry MBE

My career journey started in 1972. On leaving art college, where I spent the heady protest-filled days of the late ’60s, I was determined to be a successful fashion designer. After several years of working for knitwear manufacturing companies, I decided to go it alone and employ a team of freelance knitters around London to create my own designs. The undoubted highlight of this time was seeing my clothes afforded a whole window display in Miss Selfridge in Oxford Street, as well as being featured in the Sunday Times.

By 1977, I had sold the business and was married and living in Bournemouth, teaching English to foreign students, of whom there were many in the town. (It was rumoured that the Shah of Iran had his own secret police stationed in our seaside town to keep an eye on dissidents). I gave up teaching when we welcomed our amazing children, Joe, now a director of technology at Apple in California, and Tilly, who has built a wonderful company in London selling her own sewing patterns and was one of the first contestants on The Great British Sewing Bee.

In 1988, following several years immersed in voluntary human rights activities and becoming a notorious persona non grata to the Soviet authorities, the course of my life changed dramatically. I was invited to help bring the new Anne Frank touring exhibition to Bournemouth. It duly came, was visited by an astonishing 10,000 people, and then moved on to its next port of call. But I couldn’t let go of this amazing project, and that autumn put myself on a plane to Amsterdam to try to convince the Director of the Anne Frank House that they needed a Britsh based co-ordinator to continue the tour of the exhibition. It seemed to work, as I was appointed the British Representative of the Anne Frank House, and in 1990, I joined up with UK-based family and friends of the late Mr Otto Frank to set up the Anne Frank Trust, the British partner organisation of the Anne Frank House.

Over the ensuing 26 years of running the Trust, our team grew from one part-time employee who worked with me in my home, to 35 staff in a large office suite in north London and various locations around the country. One of the highlights of my years at the helm was undoubtedly attending the 1996 Academy Awards in Hollywood to witness the documentary on Anne Frank I had commissioned win an Oscar, and walking down the red carpet on that occasion with Miep Gies, the heroic helper of the Frank family in hiding. Also witnessing how our main annual fundraising event grew to be attended by 600 people a year, including Noam and Ruth Tamir, with speakers such as the then Duchess of Cornwall (now Queen) and former President De Klerk of South Africa. And most of all, seeing the impact our educational work to combat prejudice has had on tens of thousands of young people a year in some of the UK’s most challenged communities. Undoubtedly, the lowest point came in 2006, when I lost my husband Tony, who had been such a part of building the organisation, to cancer. At this difficult time in my life, work helped to get me through.

I retired in 2016, but still act as an adviser to the Anne Frank Trust and its American counterpart, the Anne Frank Center USA. I also travel around the UK, USA, and on international cruise ships giving lectures, my most popular being the other topic I am passionate about, the social history of English afternoon tea. A great topic as it happens, as I get to enjoy many a delicious afternoon tea.

Circle Square Member Q&A

What 3 words best describe you? Warm, funny, content

If you could offer your younger self one piece of advice, what would that be? Stop caring about what others think of you! Life’s too short. Just get on with it.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement? Founding and building the Anne Frank Trust UK, from my desk in my home study to an educational charity recognised and admired at the highest levels. Never being afraid to ask – they can only say no.

Which person (dead or alive) would you most like to invite to dinner? Audrey Hepburn. One of the first patrons of the Anne Frank Trust. I was fortunate to have met her once and we subsequently exchanged Christmas cards, but she died not long after and far too young. Her wartime experiences in Holland were different and yet, in some ways the same as Anne Frank’s.

How has age strengthened your advantage? Over the years I have gained more and more confidence to just go out there and do it. Now retired from full-time employment, I can choose what I do and when. And I never have to pick up my own suitcase from an airport conveyor belt.

What does Circle Square mean to you? A wonderful and warm network of fascinating people. Even if not attending all the in-person events, there are many things to benefit from.

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