The Remarkable Story of Gladys Blackburne…

In Palace Barracks Memorial Gardens there lies a memorial stone inscribed as follows:

In Memory of Miss Gladys Blackburne

“The Chuff Chart Lady”

OP Banner

She would walk into any army camp or police station

Distributing her gifts and prayers

She was respected with affection

For her kindness and bravery

This stone is dedicated to her memory

By Veterans, Friends and Colleagues

“Blessed in the sight of the lord

Is the death of his saints”

Psalm 116 v15

Who was Gladys, how does she come to have a memorial stone at Palace Barracks and why is she called “The Chuff Chart Lady”? The last time I saw her was in Chichester Street, Belfast in the late eighties. “My goodness” I thought, “that’s Miss Blackburne”. A small old lady pulling her shopping trolley. She was waiting to cross the road and moved off decisively as the lights changed. I chuckled at her haste and thought to myself “My goodness, fancy seeing her after all this time.” It was some years later that I discovered what this little old retired lady had been up to.

Gladys worked for many years as a mathematics teacher at Methodist College Belfast. When she retired she became known, throughout the years of the troubles, as an official Prison Visitor, helping prisoners from all sections of the community. She also visited Army Posts and Police Stations and was tireless in her service to the injured soldiers in the Military Wing of Musgrave Park Hospital. One former soldier recalls: “She visited the military wing at Musgrave Park when I was there with a liver infection and some scrote had attacked her and punched her. She was still cheerful. She was a star.” On many occasions she met inbound flights at Aldergrove Airport, greeting soldiers often taking their first steps into an unknown conflict. She would present them with a small calendar in a plastic wallet, with the words “Thank you to our security forces” written on it. These small calendars were used by soldiers to mark off the days until they went home again, commonly known as “Chuff Charts”. Hence Gladys became known to many soldiers as “The Chuff Chart Lady”.

Gladys died on the 26th April 1993 aged 80 and her funeral service was held at Finaghy Baptist Church, Belfast. She had made it clear that she did not want any military recognition at her funeral, so anyone from that world attended in plain clothes. However, just as the service was about to begin, two tall handsome army officers in full uniform walked in. At the point of the cortege departing from the church two army land rovers appeared. One drove ahead of the hearse and the other behind, giving her an army escort to her last resting place in defiance of her expressed instructions, something they would not have dared to do during her life!

The Army veteran responsible for getting the memorial project off the ground explains: “The beginning of this journey started for me when I found a photograph of Gladys and posted it on Facebook, to see if anyone remembered her. The response was incredible. Many people said, “I’ve still got the pen, or calendar, or Bible she gave me.” Some said they still carry them. Over 164 comments on that photograph was the inspiration for me to help make a permanent memorial of Gladys a reality.” Within 30 days the £1,200 needed for the memorial was raised and the unveiling ceremony took place on 13th June 2015.

Some readers may have little regard for someone who devoted time to helping the Army in Northern Ireland. But Gladys was from a Protestant Unionist background, the daughter of an RUC sergeant. That is who she was. She was a religious person acting on her Christian convictions.

I was looking for some suitable words to close with and came across this piece by American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson which I like:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Indeed, hers was a life lived well.

(On a personal note, I am indebted to Miss Blackburne for getting me through “O” Level Maths.)

Photo from Ray Heathfields Just Giving page.