Gladys Aylward

Gladys May Aylward

Missionary to China
Born (1902-02-24)24 February 1902
Edmonton, London
Died 3 January 1970(1970-01-03) (aged 67)
Resting place New Taipei, Taiwan
Residence Taiwan
Nationality British
Other names 艾偉德
Citizenship Chinese
Education Silver Street School, Edmonton, London
Occupation Christian missionary
Organization Gladys Aylward Orphanage
Known for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness based on her life
Home town London
Religion Evangelical Protestant

Gladys May Aylward (24 February 1902 – 3 January 1970) was a British evangelical Christian missionary to China, whose story was told in the book The Small Woman, by Alan Burgess, published in 1957, and made into the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman, in 1958. The movie was produced by Twentieth Century Fox, and filmed entirely in North Wales and England.[1]

Early life

Aylward was born to a working-class family in Edmonton, North London, in 1902. Her parents were Thomas John Aylward and Rosina Florence Aylward (née Whiskin). Her siblings were Laurence and Violet.[2] She worked as a domestic worker (housemaid) at an early age but always had an ambition to go overseas as a missionary and studied with great determination to be fitted for the role, only to be turned down because her academic background was inadequate, and the China Inland Mission to which she applied was convinced that it was not possible to learn the language at her age.

In 1932, having worked for Sir Francis Younghusband,[3] she spent her life savings on a train passage to Yangcheng, Shanxi Province, China. The perilous trip took her across Siberia with the Trans-Siberian Railway. She was detained by the Russians, but managed to evade them with local help and got a lift from Japanese ship. She travelled across Japan with the help of the British Consul and took another ship to China.

Work in China

On her arrival in Yangcheng, Aylward worked with an older missionary, Jeannie Lawson, to found The Inn of the Eight Happinesses.[4] There, she and Mrs. Lawson not only provided hospitality for travelers, but would also share stories about a man named Jesus, in hopes to share the Gospel. For a time she served as an assistant to the Chinese government as a "foot inspector" by touring the countryside to enforce the new law against footbinding young Chinese girls. She met with much success in a field that had produced much resistance, including sometimes violence against the inspectors.[3]

Aylward became a Chinese citizen in 1936 and was a revered figure among the people, taking in orphans and adopting several herself, intervening in a volatile prison riot and advocating prison reform, risking her life many times to help those in need.[5] In 1938, the region was invaded by Japanese forces, and Aylward led over 100 orphans to safety over the mountains, despite being wounded herself. She not only led the orphans to safety, but personally cared for them and led many of them to Christ. She never married, but spent her entire life devoting herself to Christ, and His work in the hearts of the people of China.

She had returned to Britain in 1948, where, after 10 years she sought to return to China. However, she was denied re-entry by the Communist government and instead settled in Taiwan, in 1958. There she founded the Gladys Aylward Orphanage, where she worked until her death in 1970.[6]

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

A film based on her life, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, was released in 1958. It drew from the book The Small Woman, by Alan Burgess. Although she found herself a figure of international interest, thanks to the popularity of the film, and television and media interviews, Aylward was mortified by her depiction in the film and the many liberties it took. The tall, Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman was inconsistent with Aylward's small stature, dark hair and North London accent. The struggles of Aylward and her family to effect her initial trip to China were disregarded in favour of a movie plot device of an employer "condescending to write to 'his old friend' Jeannie Lawson." Also, Aylward's dangerous, complicated travels across Russia and China were reduced to, "a few rude soldiers," after which, "Hollywood's train delivered her neatly to Tsientsin."[7] Many characters and place names were changed, even when these names had significant meaning, such as those of her adopted children and the name of the inn, named instead for the Chinese belief in the number 8 as being auspicious. For example, in real life she was given the Chinese name 艾偉德 (Ài Wěi Dé- a Chinese approximation to 'Aylward' – meaning 'Virtuous One'), however in the film she was given the name 真爱 Jen-Ai,( pronounced- Zhen-Ai, meaning "true love").[8] Colonel Linnan was portrayed as half-European, a change which she found insulting to his real Chinese lineage, and she felt her reputation was damaged by the Hollywood-embellished love scenes in the film. Not only had she never kissed a man, but the film's ending portrayed her character leaving the orphans to re-join the colonel elsewhere,[9] even though in reality she did not retire from working with orphans until she was 60 years old.[10]

Death and legacy

Aylward died on 3 January 1970, just short of her 68th birthday, and is buried in a small cemetery on the campus of Christ's College in Guandu, New Taipei, Taiwan. She was known to the Chinese as 艾偉德 (Ài Wěi Dé- a Chinese approximation to 'Aylward' – meaning 'Virtuous One'). " Shortly after her death, an Edmonton secondary school, formerly known as Weir Hall and Huxley, when it was an all boys school, before then becoming a mixed comprehensive, was renamed, "Gladys Aylward School," in her honor (now renamed Aylward Academy). There is a blue commemorative plaque on the house where Gladys lived near the school in Cheddington Rd London N18.

Numerous books, short stories and films have been developed about the life and work of Gladys Aylward (listed below).



Further sources



  • Aylward, Gladys, MS 291571: Letters and relics of Gladys Aylward, missionary to China, School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London 
  • Aylward, Gladys (1980), Gladys Aylward: The Little Woman, ISBN 978-0-8024-2986-5 
  • Burgess, A (1957), The Small Woman (New Impression ed.), Pan Books, ISBN 0-330-10196-X 
  • Hunter, C (1971), Gladys Aylward: Her Personal Story, Coverdale House Publishers, ISBN 0-902088-25-4 
  • Latham, R. O. (1952), Gladys Aylward, One of the Undefeated: The Story of Gladys Aylward, Edinburgh House Press  (ASIN B001DK2WV6)
  • Thompson, P (1971), London Sparrow: The Story of Gladys Aylward, Word Books, ISBN 0-85009-026-1 
  • Benge, Janet; Benge, Geoff (1998), Gladys Aylward: The Adventure of a Lifetime, ISBN 978-1-57658-019-6 
  • Purves, Carol (2005), Chinese Whispers: The Gladys Aylward Story, ISBN 978-1-903087-57-2 
  • Jackson, Dave; Jackson, Neta (1994), Flight of the Fugitives: Gladys Aylward, ISBN 978-1-55661-466-8 
  • Wellman, Sam (1998). Gladys Aylward: Missionary in China. Barbour. 


Gladys Alyward Biography, by Jane and Geoff Benge

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