Eighty years since Gladys Aylward went to China

19 October 2012


From Mr Colin Nevin

Sir, - One of the best-loved films from the 1950s was The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman as the intrepid parlourmaid Gladys Aylward from Edmonton, north London, who became a missionary in China.

It was 80 years ago, on 15 October 1932, that Gladys first set off from Liverpool Street station on the Trans-Siberian railway to make the arduous trip to a far-off country. She saved up her own fare after being rejected by the China Inland Mission for not being academic enough to learn the Chinese language. Undaunted, she went to help an elderly Scottish missionary, Jeannie Lawson, in China.

It was Jeannie's plan to open an inn for muleteers who traversed the isolated mountain treks that passed through the remote village of Yangcheng in Shanxi Province, where both women were regarded as "foreign devils". Jeannie died shortly after, and Gladys was left alone in a part of China where few Westerners ever visited. She learned the local dialect, and was later asked by the Mandarin of Yangcheng to help put a stop to the cruel custom of binding women's feet. Gladys was the perfect candidate, as her feet were unbound.

Later, when Japan and China went to war, Gladys's village came under enemy attack, and she single-handedly took 100 children over the Shanxi mountains for many days, with hardly any food, to eventual safety across the Yellow River. This, she later remarked, was the reason, she believed, why she came to China.

The film poignantly recalls the children's trek, and made Gladys a household name. A book, The Small Woman, by Alan Burgess, telling her story, became a best-seller. I don't think that there is any memorial to Gladys in the country of her birth, but wouldn't it be wonderful if an initiative was taken to erect a statue or plaque in her honour in Liverpool Street station to recall this diminutive heroine, in recognition of the impact she had on so very many lives the world over?

Gladys died in Taiwan in 1970, aged 67; but it would be a fitting tribute for her own country and home city to remember her in some tangible way.

45c Rathgill Park, Bangor
County Down
Northern Ireland BT19 7TQ

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