Roamer: Chuff Chart Lady’s remarkable love and friendship will endure for ever

Chuff Chart Lady Gladys Blackburne
Chuff Chart Lady Gladys Blackburne

Gladys Blackburne, known as the Chuff Chart Lady, died on April 26, 1993 aged 80.

Gladys Blackburne, known as the Chuff Chart Lady, died on April 26, 1993 aged 80.

“Her name will bring memories to many past pupils of Methodist College, Belfast, where she taught for many years,” retired R.U.C Detective Ben Forde told Roamer in a moving tribute to the former mathematics teacher, daughter of a Police Sergeant from Larne.

Her Chuff Charts were little calendars that she distributed around the security forces here after she retired from teaching.

Miss Blackburne’s tireless devotion to visiting and befriending prisoners and soldiers and “helping people from all sides caught up in the conflict” has been marked by a memorial dedication plaque, unveiled in The Remembrance Garden at Palace Barracks, Holywood, on June 13, 2015.

She regularly waited at Northern Ireland’s airports greeting apprehensive soldiers “often taking their first steps into an unknown conflict,” Ben Forde’s tribute continued “surely there was no better way to start a tour of duty than to be met by a friendly, smiling face, and being given a small calendar in a plastic wallet, with the words ‘Thank you to our security forces’ written on it.”

The little calendars were used by soldiers to mark off the days until they went home again.

“Hence Gladys became known to many soldiers as ‘The Chuff Chart Lady’” said veteran soldier Ray Heathfield at the unveiling of her memorial.

Ray was one of the memorial organisers, on behalf of the ‘OP Banner Veterans’ - Operation Banner was the operational name for British Armed Forces here.

Gladys’s Chuff Charts were cherished by members of the RUC too, and countless others who encountered this very remarkable lady.

A Lieutenant Colonel from the 2nd Battalion Light Infantry based at North Howard Street Belfast once paid her a moving commendation, saying “Take comfort that you are remembered and appreciated for all you did for us in intrudingly difficult circumstances for yourself. Look after yourself on the cold winter nights on your Florence Nightingale trips.”

A number of retired soldiers travelled from throughout the UK to attend the unveiling of her memorial.

Some of her many friends from Northern Ireland were there too, when Rev. Edward Gorringe “gave thanks for Gladys in prayer and for the work that she had done in bringing peace and comfort to many soldiers,” Ben Forde told Roamer.

Ray Heathfield outlined some of his own memories at the service.

“She would regularly turn up at one of the army camps, at any time of the day, and without an appointment, and ask to come in. I can personally remember her arriving at the front gate of Fort Whiterock in Belfast while I was on guard duty.

“I immediately recognised her and let her in. She walked in, complete with shopping trolley, and I asked her if she was frightened, as we were in full view of Turf Lodge estate. ‘O no dear, they won’t hurt me,’ she replied. She then disappeared into the camp.”

When Ray’s tour of duty ended in 1988 Gladys was at the airport “to say goodbye, and to thank us. And of course, to give us some gifts.”

He decided to organise a memorial for her when he “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 a Bible that she gave me.’ Some folk said they still carried them.”

Ray got hundreds of message about Gladys which became his inspiration to erect the permanent memorial. Many folk offered donations.

“We had 30 days to raise a £600 target,” said Ray.

The target was reached in three days.

Countless recipients of her Bibles and calendars told Ray their memories “some funny, some not so funny, but one stands out. A soldier was given a Bible by Gladys during his tour of duty here. When he left the army, he kept it safe, until his own son joined the army.

“His son was posted on an operational tour of Afghanistan, and carried the same Bible with him while on duty there. A wonderful example of the respect shown to Gladys.”

Her funeral service in 1993 was held at Finaghy Baptist Church, Belfast, which she had attended faithfully.

Hazel Knox MBE, chairman of the Sandes Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Centres, was one of the many who paid their respects. “Gladys 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, disobeying her only at death. At the point of the cortege departing from the church two army land rovers appeared, apparently by chance. 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!”

A collection Gladys Blackburne’s personal diaries, stories, letters and photos, along with tributes by army police, prisoners and many civilians have been preserved. These have been deposited with the N.I. Public Records Office, and Ben Forde, a close friend of Gladys’s for many years, is keen to add more artefacts and memories to the collection.

He can be contacted by email at ben.forde@btinternet.com