Gladys Aylward

Going the extra mile – bringing God’s love to China

Other themes:

generosity, faith

The Problem

Listen to this. What advice would you give to the girl in this story?

The local free newspaper was on the mat when Vicky came in from school so she began to turn over the pages as she walked into the lounge. Dad, home early from work on a Friday, was asleep in the chair. Mum would be in soon with the shopping.

The paper was all ads, garden centres, restaurants, nothing that interested her. But – what was this? Suddenly she was absorbed in an article about an orphanage in a country in Eastern Europe, a country that seemed to lack every luxury and even a few necessities. A big truck was going to the orphanage from the town the next week. Readers were asked to make up packages of sweets or cheap toys to give to the children. It would be the first sweets the children would have had in a long time. Soap and toothpaste were also wanted.

“Look at this, Dad. Couldn’t we give something? I was thinking about the money I got from Uncle Bob for weeding his garden, I could get a lot of sweets with that. And you could –“

“Hey, wait a minute, Vicky,” said Dad, stretching. “Don’t get carried away. I’m not going out and buying stuff just like that. Anyway we all put money in that charity tin last week. And you had that day at school when you needn’t wear school uniform if you took 50p, and the money went to Africa, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, but those things weren’t my ideas, I sort of did it because it was expected. But this is my idea. I want to do it.”

“No, Vicky, just forget it. You’ve done your bit. Let others do theirs. And just think what you could buy yourself with the money. You worked hard. You deserve something nice.”

Vicky sighed. Yeah, she could think of lots of things she’d like to get for herself. But was it fair when she had so much and they had so little?

Now think:

Has Vicky done her bit? Shouldn’t she just enjoy her hard earned money and forget about the orphanage?

(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)

The Story

Keep Vicky’s idea in mind, that she wanted to do something that she’d thought of, not her parents or her school, while I read you this true story. It’s about feet – oh, and a bloodstained axe.

Am I bowing low enough? she wondered. After all, he was the High and Mighty Mandarin of Yangcheng, the ruler of that entire district of China.

And she was just Gladys Aylward, an ordinary girl who’d become a missionary, who ran an inn in the town so she could tell the travellers stories of Jesus after the evening meal. She hadn’t expected to be called into the presence of the Mandarin. What could he want? He began to speak. Gladys straightened up and listened intently.

“You know, I presume, about our ancient custom of footbinding? Baby girls have their feet tightly bound in bandages to keep them small and dainty. Now the Government has given an order. This is to stop. I imagine you know of a number of foreign women with unbound feet. Please find one who will tour the villages, making sure the new rule is known. The pay is small, but I will provide guards and a mule.”

Gladys thought hard. A woman? To travel to lonely mountain villages on a mule? Who would want such a job?

But she did not speak these thoughts – the Mandarin would not listen to excuses or objections. He was the High and Mighty Mandarin of Yangcheng.

Several weeks later she was called into his presence again. He was not pleased with Gladys’s news. “What? You have found no one? Then,” said the Mandarin, gazing at Gladys, “you must do it. Start tomorrow.”

And that was it. Later Gladys began to see the funny side of it. How incredible! From being a simple maid in a London household to being the Mandarin’s personally appointed Inspector of Feet. What a grand title! She wiggled her toes inside her size threes and laughed and laughed.

And she really enjoyed the job. It wasn’t just the mountain scenery as the mule clambered up over the jagged ridges, the paths edged with wild roses, the wheat blowing in the terraced fields; it wasn’t just the welcome they received from the village women pleased that the law had been changed; it was also the delight on the faces of the babies and young girls as the crippling bandages came off. Gladys would straighten the toes which were bent right back under the foot and massage them.

Then she would gather the villagers together in the square and tell them the same stories she told in the inn – Jesus stopping for water at a village well, the parable of the Sower, stories of a hard country life like their own.

One day between mule tours, she had a message from the prison governor in Yangcheng. “Come at once. A riot has broken out.” So why call on me? was the question in her mind as she hurried through the streets.

The governor met her outside the entrance. “It is too dangerous for me to go in there,” he said, “but you have a God who protects you. You keep telling us that. So you will be all right.”

The gate was unlocked and Gladys was pushed in. She gaped at the awful sight. There were large cages round a paved courtyard. The prisoners had broken out of the cages and were attacking each other like wild animals. One was running around with a bloodstained axe, swinging it wildly.

Then they noticed her. The man with the axe started towards her. “Give me the axe!” Gladys cried out. She didn’t know what to say, there’d hardly been time to think or pray. The man stopped, gazed at her, then…calmly handed her the axe.

It was as if the prisoners all came to their senses at that moment. They stood still, their heads hung in horror and same. She saw how thin and uncared for they were. They had been treated like animals for so long, that they’d started acting like them. She talked to them. They told her they had nothing to do but sit in the cages.

The governor was thrilled she’d stopped the riot, not so thrilled when she told him sternly, “You must change the way you run the prison. You are being unfair. These men may be prisoners but they are human beings. They need things to do. They need to rebuild their lives.” And she arranged for some of the prisoners to learn weaving, some to grind grain, some to breed rabbits.

Twice now Gladys had been pushed into making life better, fairer for people, first the young girls, then the prisoners.

So, later, when war broke out with Japan, and Yangcheng was bombed, and people began fleeing, she could have said, “I’ve done my bit. I must think of myself now.” But she didn’t. She collected up all the homeless children she could find and led them to safety over the mountains. There was no Mandarin or prison governor to push her into doing it. She wanted to do it. It was a long, long journey, most of the time on foot, through dangerous territory. But they made it.

Gladys carried on caring for those who hadn’t got a fair deal in life, right up till she died in 1970. For her it was just following Jesus – hadn’t he cared for those who hadn’t had a fair deal – the lepers, the widows, the sick, the disabled? It wasn’t easy for Gladys, in fact as you’ve heard, it was often dangerous, but when her Lord had gone all the way to the cross out of love, how could she ever say, “I’ve done my bit now”?

Time of Reflection

Think now: do you know anyone who’s not had a fair deal in life? It may be someone you know personally, or you may have read about people in need, or seen them on TV. Is there anything you can do to make their lives better?

Just a moment of silence while we think about this.

Bible Bits

Listen to what the Bible says:

Jesus said “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

“Help to carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will obey the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

“The Lord Jesus himself said, ‘There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.’” (Acts 20:35)


Father God, I have so much to eat and drink, I have so much fun and enjoyment. Give me eyes to see people in need so I can make things a bit fairer by sharing what I have. Help me to do it because I want to, not because I have to. Amen

Variations on a theme

Pupils could bring in stories cut from newspapers and magazines to show the variety of needs in the world. Contrasts could be made with the abundance we have. The assembly could lead into a charity support idea, but to fit in with the stories here, the initiative should come from the children.

Or pupils could perform the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), or invent short plays based on the “more happiness in giving” verse above.

Quiz Questions

  1. What had been Gladys’s job back in England?
  2. Why had the Mandarin called Gladys into his presence?
  3. What size shoe did she take?
  4. What sort of Bible story did she tell the village people?
  5. Why did the Governor ask her to stop the riot?
  6. One of the prisoners handed her something – what?
  7. What was wrong with the way the prison was being run?
  8. How did Gladys help the prisoners rebuild their lives?
  9. Why was it necessary to take the children away from Yangcheng?
  10. Why did she do so much for needy people?

Elizabeth Fry

Freedom from fears – caring for the prisoners in Newgate

Other themes:

courage, faith

The Problem

Listen to this and see what you think.

Katy was having second thoughts. She hadn’t realised how it would look from up here. It was a long, long way down. Why on earth had she signed up for this? Oh, she knew why really – she’d wanted to try abseiling for ages, her friends had all done it and thought it was great.

But suddenly it seemed stupid, pointless. Why couldn’t she use the stairs? Why go down the wall?

Steve, the instructor, could see the hesitation, no – more than hesitation: this was fear. “You don’t have to do it, you know,” he said quietly. “I assure you you’re perfectly safe. But it’s up to you.”

Katy longed to say, “Yes, I’ll do it.” And she knew she’d regret it if she turned away now.

But – it was a long, long way down.

Now think:

What should she do? What would you do? Have you ever been in a situation like this, where your fear could stop you doing something you really want to?

(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)

The Story

Our true story begins about two hundred years ago, in London. A fashionable city, but also a dangerous one. A city of wide thoroughfares, but also of dark alleys, very dark alleys. There were areas where no one wandered alone, areas where anything could happen – and usually did.

But only one spot in London was known as “Hell above ground”. It was the worst place of all. Our story is about a woman who went there. Alone.

Sshh…listen…there’s her carriage now…

The horse-drawn carriage shudders its way over the rough ground. Perhaps the woman inside is shuddering too. But that would be from the deathly cold, not from fear. Oh yes, part of her is afraid – for she knows she may be attacked, even killed. But deep down she has peace. For she has, with God’s help, faced her fears many times before this and God has never let her down. And she knows God has sent her to this place, this “Hell above ground”. He will protect her.

Through the window she sees a road-sweeping boy scuttling out of the way of the horse. Then she sees – it. Her destination. Newgate Prison, looking like a hideous black castle. Only a few streets from St Paul’s Cathedral, but another world, a darker world.

The carriage stops and she gets down. Pulling her grey shawl more tightly around her, she mounts the stpes to a heavy shoulder-height door topped with iron spikes, through which a shadowy figure peers at her.

She is recognised. The door swings open, slams shut behind her. She is inside. Inside the dreaded Newgate Prison. This is the lodge, the way in, and for the very fortunate, the way out. But she must go further than this. She gazes at the handcuffs and cruel leg irons hanging on the wall while the guard unbolts a massive inner door. Another guard slides from the shadows and without a word leads her down a long dark passage. She has been in Newgate several times before, but never to “Hell above ground”.

Anyone who’d known her as a child would be surprised to see her here, for she had been the timid one, the one who was so afraid of the dark, who jumped at loud noises. She had ten brothers and sisters, all bright and boisterous; only Betsy, as she was called then, was full of fears.

But as she grew up she realised there was someone who could help her overcome her fears. God. She was glad, for she didn’t want to spend all her life being afraid. Her family were Quakers, Christians who had their own kind of church, called a Meeting House. But Betsy wanted to take it more seriously than her family seemed to.

So she married a strict Quaker, Joseph Fry, and moved to London. But life was unexpectedly dull. She wanted to do something for God. But what? Back home in Norfolk she’d done things – visiting sick people and cooking for them, starting a little school for the poor local children. Bedraggled and often smelly they were, but she loved them – “Betsy’s Imps” they were known as – and they loved her and the wonderful Bible stories she read to them. Surely in a big city there was something like that she could do.

Then a visitor came to the Fry home and told her about Newgate Prison, how the conditions were so terrible, how, because their mothers were prisoners, there were children there, babies even, unfed, unclothed. Betsy, or Elizabeth as she was called now, got together a group of Quaker friends and began knitting baby clothes. At last – something to do!

On that first visit she went to the Women’s Infirmary, the prison hospital. She was horrified. There were no beds. A few of the women and children had some dirty straw, but most were lying on the cold, bare boards. She saw no sign of medicines, no place to wash properly.

She was overwhelmed by their need – and, when she gave them the clothes, overwhelmed by their gratitude too. Somebody cared – they’d forgotten that. Yes, Elizabeth told them, God cares, and I care too. She knew they were prisoners, but knew too the innocent were mixed in with the guilty, knew that people were arrested for anything. Why, you could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, or a shirt from a washing line.

She visited the infirmary again and again. And she learnt that elsewhere in the prison were hundreds of other women, living in even worse conditions, living in a place called by the jailers, “Hell above ground”.

And now, she is here. The jailers in this section are astonished to see her, to hear her request. To go in there – alone? Into “Hell above ground”?

“Oh, madam, you don’t understand.”

“I understand,” she says. “Now please open the door.”

She can hear them already: mad laughter that threatens never to stop, shrieks of agony, a hundred other voices, shouting, arguing, singing.

The jailers open the door. And she walks in. The sight is incredible. Two women are fighting on the floor, tearing at each other’s hair. A child is slumped in a corner, dressed only in filth. A young woman, clearly starving, rocks a baby, trying to stop its sobs. The mad laughter is still going on. But then everyone seems mad, mad with despair.

Then they notice her and there is total silence. Even the laughing stops.

And Elizabeth knows this is the moment of most danger. They could so easily rush at her, tear at her clothes, her hair, in jealousy or in rage.

But they don’t. They see something in her eyes, something they barely recognise. Can it be love?

She moves over to the filthy child and smiles.

And the child smiles back.

Before long she has gathered the women together, told them that she wants to do something for them, for their children. To start a school. Right there in the prison. Yes, yes, they say.

So Elizabeth returns with books and helpers, and the school – for thirty children – begins. The mothers crowd round, wanting to learn too. So more helpers are brought in, the women taught not just to read, but also to sew, so that if and when they are released they will have an honest way of getting money.

The schooldays begin and end with Elizabeth reading Bible stories. The prisoners love them as much as the Imps did.

The prison authorities, even Parliament, are astonished at the change in “Hell above ground”. In face Elizabeth Fry became so well known that tourists would arrive at the prison asking to see her reading the Bible.

It was just the beginning. She helped improve conditions in other prisons, not just in England, but in France and Germany and other countries too, and on the convict ships that took thousands of women prisoners to Australia. Wherever she saw a need, she did something. She set up libraries for the bored men in coastguard stations. She founded the first professional group of nurses – the “Fry nurses” as they were known. And lots more.

All because she would not allow her fears to take over her life. When she felt afraid of doing something, if it was a good and right thing to do, then she prayed for courage and got on an did it – and felt less afraid the next time.

For God was with her. And didn’t he do wonderful things through her?

Time of Reflection

Some fears are good to have – God does not want us taking silly risks or playing dangerous games. But some fears can stop us enjoying life to the full or stop us doing something for other people. What are you afraid of? God can help us if we ask. He wants u to enjoy life, not be afraid of it.

Just take a moment to think about this.

Bible Bits

David, often in lonely dark places looking after his sheep, could say,

“Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4)

And God himself said:

“Do not be afraid! I am with you…I will make you strong and help you.” (Isaiah 41:10)


In the Bible, Father, many of the heroes were afraid at times – Moses, Gideon, even your son, Jesus. Yet you stood by them and helped them face their fears and overcome them. Help us when we’re afraid, to know that you’re there, ready to give us courage and strength. Amen

Variations on a Theme

Perhaps there is an adult known to the children who can talk about a time when they were afraid and God helped.

Or you could tell the story of Moses’ call at the burning bush, how God understood his anxiety and boosted his confidence.

Quiz Questions

  1. How many brothers and sisters did Elizabeth Fry have?
  2. How was she different?
  3. She started a little school in Norfolk – what were her pupils known as?
  4. Why was she unhappy at first in London?
  5. What did she do when she heard about Newgate?
  6. What was bad about the Women’s Infirmary?
  7. Why were the jailers to the women’s prison unwilling to open the door?
  8. Why was she not more afraid?
  9. Why did tourists want to visit Newgate?
  10. She improved conditions on the convict ships bound for – where?