A Missionary in China
Gladys May Aylward Born: 1902 Edmonton, Middlesex Died: Taipei, Taiwan 1 Jan. 1970.

Gladys Aylward was born into a working class family at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her father was a postman, and her family regularly attended the local Anglican Church. In common with most children of her class, Gladys received little more in the way of education than being taught to read, write and do simple sums. She left school at the age of fourteen, like everyone else, and started her working life as a shop-girl. She was fond of children and found employment in the West End of London as a nursemaid. It was easy to change jobs in those days and she held several positions in domestic service in different houses over the next fifteen years. An early interest in the stage gave way to practicality and a growing attachment to the Christian youth movement.

In 1929 at the age of 27 she joined the China Inland Mission with the aim of training to become a missionary in the distant and mysterious Far East, but although this Mission had been set up specifically to train young people with limited educational backgrounds, she failed to reach the necessary standard despite her undeniable enthusiasm.

Gladys was not, however one to give up easily. She began her evangelising career among the "fallen women" of Swansea of whom there were plenty to keep her busy. Swansea was a major international port in the early years of the twentieth century providing the comforts of pubs and brothels for sailors from across the world. Her efforts did not meet with much success and she returned to London ill and discouraged but by no means finished. At a Primitive Methodist meeting in Wood Green, she heard about Jeannie Lawson, an independent missionary who had settled in northern China. Gladys decided to join her. With just enough money saved from her work as parlour maid, she bought a ticket at London's Liverpool Street station and boarded the train for the Far East. After a long and often uncomfortable journey across Europe and the Asian steppes she arrived at Tientsin, a major trading port of the Chinese Empire. From there she travelled to Yengchang in Shanxi province, the home of the elderly Scotswoman.

She and Jeannie Lawson together ran an inn for muleteers, the long-distance truck drivers of their day who carried an assortment of goods on the backs of their mules. The aim of the ladies was to make a little money while evangelising their guests who, being travellers, would spread the Christian Word among their customers.

When Jeannie died a year later, the local Mandarin (regional governor) appointed Gladys, Inspector of Feet. In spite of a new law the ancient practice of binding the feet of young girls so that the toes were bent underneath the foot to make a 'lotus' shape was still common in rural areas. The Inspector's job entailed travelling around the countryside visiting women in their homes and offered Gladys an ideal opportunity to spread the Gospel. Her lack of cultural or colour prejudice, a strong sense of humour combined with her simple interpretation of the Christian message and natural story-telling ability made her a much- loved character, known as Ai Weh-te (the virtuous one).

The inn (known in the 1959 film as the Inn of the Sixth Happiness) gradually, almost accidentally, became a place of refuge for orphaned and abandoned children. The growing Japanese occupation of China begun in 1931 brought even more danger to life in a country already prey to the depredations of rival warlords, and contending Nationalist and Communist forces. In 1940 Gladys led more than one hundred children over the mountains and across the Yellow River to safety despite her own failing health. She continued to work on the mainland and in Hong Kong, caring for her adopted orphans and spreading the Gospel until her return to England in 1949 to preach and lecture.

Gladys returned to her beloved China in 1953, but was no longer welcome in a post-war China which had turned irrevocably Communist under the leadership of Mao Tse Tung. On the off shore island of Formosa (Taiwan) his great rival, Chiang Kai Shek had set up a nationalist government in 1949 and it was here that Gladys chose to make a final home for herself and her adopted children. She continued her Christian mission in Formosa until her death making occasional visits to Britain and even Llanelli (see below). She died in January, 1970, and is buried in the gardens of Christ's College in Taipei.[1]

Gladys Aylward and Llanelli

The indefatigable missionary visited Llanelli on at least three occasions. In a warm July, 1963 she preached at Zion Chapel. Her message was a tough one:

We have failed to spread the news of Christ's love yet we have time to blow a few people up and try to get on to the moon.
She condemned the morals of the day and said directly to the congregation:

Shame on you, your country is full of divorce courts, illegitimate children and unmarried mothers.
She spoke at some length, in fact one-and-a-half hours, to a packed and apparently enthusiastic congregation, although it is reported that some people left before the end - due to the heat! [2]

On 17 March, 1966 she attended the wedding of her old friends' grand-daughter, Jean Rees, at Bryn Chapel, Bryn declaring "It's wonderful!" [3] Gladys made a second visit to Bryn chapel, on Sunday, 31st July, 1966 when she was the main attraction – as preacher. The size of the congregation required extra seating in the aisles, and standing room only in the porch. She brought with her "one of her 22 Chinese 'children'... four-year old Gordon Aylward" who relieved the solemnity of the occasion by running "his 'dinky' toys up and down the pulpit".[4]

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Notes and Citations
Gladys Aylward at Bryn Chapel courtesy of LCH Member Janet Richards
[1] The Small Woman by Alan Burgess, published in 1957.
[2] Llanelli Star Saturday, 3 August 1963 (Zion Chapel Visit, Tuesday 30 July 1963)
[3] Llanelli Star Saturday, 19 March 1966 (Bryn Chapel Wedding Thursday 17 March 1966)
[4] Llanelli Star Saturday, 6 August 1966 (Bryn Chapel Visit Sunday 31 July 1966)