Monday, 12 February 2018

145 Gladys Aylward

145 Gladys Aylward
One might expect that the people who Sir Ranulph Fiennes include in his book “My Heroes” would all be macho-SAS types.  After all, the author, the oldest man to conquer Everest, is described as “the world’s greatest explorer”, and has crossed the Antarctic continent unsupported.  But surprisingly his eleven heroes include a woman who had worked in Swansea as a parlour maid before the actions that made her famous.  She is Gladys Aylward, the diminutive missionary to China, portrayed in the 1958 film “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”, which was filmed around Beddgelert in Snowdonia.
Born in 1902 in Edmonton, London, where a school has been re-named after her, Gladys Aylward was small and lacked the advantages of being clever or pretty.  After leaving school aged 14, she did shop work before becoming a parlour maid in Swansea.  She would attend meetings at Snelling’s Gospel Mission, which had been founded by Oscar Snelling in 1865, and after whose death in 1916 was continued in Orchard Street under his son Basil, celebrating its Diamond Jubilee in 1925.  Gladys described herself as a “rescue sister”, going each night to the Strand, which then was a “no go” dockland area of drunkenness, crime, fighting and brothels, where she sought to rescue women from prostitution.  Beneath yellow gas lamps she would speak to women and girls about Christ Jesus, persuading some to move out of pubs into a hostel and to attend the Gospel Mission. 
However she felt that God was leading her to serve in China, and that might have been confirmed by hearing of the 50 years’ service there of Dr Griffith John, to whom there is a blue plaque outside Ebenezer Church, near the railway station.  She returned to London, but the China Inland Mission rejected her application, feeling she could not cope with the complexities of the Chinese language, and was too old at 28.  
While doing domestic work for explorer Sir Frances Younghusband, who had travelled extensively in the Far East, Gladys Aylward saved up the cost of the train fare to China.  Without the backing of any missionary society she set out from London in 1932, and crossed Siberia alone on the long overland journey, to assist an elderly missionary who ran an inn for drivers of mule caravans.  Once the tradition of binding Chinese women's feet had been outlawed, she was appointed a “foot inspector” to unbind the feet of girls and young women, which gave her opportunities to share the message of the Bible.  Gladys Aylward became a Chinese citizen in 1936, and during the war with Japan looked after many orphaned children.  When bombardment escalated she courageously led 100 orphaned children from Tsechow over the mountain and across the Yellow River to safety.
But as poet John Donne said, “No man is an island”, and our actions can have unforeseen consequences on others.  Gladys had passed information to the Chinese, and this brought repercussions on a Welsh missionary and his mission.  Rev. David Davies, whose son Murray lives in Bishopston, had warned Gladys that her covert activities could jeopardise the mission’s safety.  After she had led the children to safety, he was imprisoned by the Japanese on suspicion of involvement in espionage.  Having endured two horrendous years which left him emaciated and unwell, he joined his family in a concentration camp until the war ended.  Nonetheless David Davies held no bitterness against Gladys Aylward or his captors. 
A 1957 biography called “The Small Woman” (she was 4 feet 10 inches tall) inspired the film the following year starring Ingrid Bergman, though Gladys was deeply upset by its inaccuracies.  Gladys Aylward, whose Chinese name meant ‘The Virtuous One', died in 1970 at the orphanage she was running in Taiwan, aged 67. 
She was the subject of a “This is your life” TV programme, though surely to be among Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s heroes must be a supreme accolade.  

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