by Ray Duffill
It was a long bank holiday weekend of birthday celebrations for Hedon resident Gladys Lewis – but this was no ordinary party.
Friends and family queued for 30 minutes to get into the Hedon British Legion Club on Monday, May 29, to mark Gladys’s 100th birthday. For many, it was standing room only as they heard Gladys’s former boss at BP Chemicals, Kevin Appleton, give a glowing introduction to her and her remarkable life. Then Gladys herself stepped forward to cut her own birthday cake.
Born Gladys Beckett on May 29, 1923, she was the second of five children growing up in Park Row Cottages in Sproatley. After school in the village, aged 14, Gladys went to a secretarial college and worked as a secretary before joining the WAAF (the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, which was established in 1939) and training in Morecambe. During the war, Sergeant Gladys Beckett worked in secret for the war effort at the top-secret home of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.
Having signed the official secrets act, Gladys has said very little about her time and role there until recently, and even now only responds to direct questions. Gladys worked in Hut 3 at the base where she would type up the decoded messages so that copies could be sent to those that needed them in the different theatres of war. Hut 3 and 6 were where Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force were decrypted, translated and analysed for vital intelligence during the conflict.
Gladys recalls that her section once received a message from Monty (Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery) thanking them for their role in conveying vital information. Gladys’s link with the armed forces continued after the war and she was active in the women’s section of the Royal British Legion serving as the president of the East Yorkshire branch and chairman of the Hedon Branch.
Only a couple of years ago, Gladys let Hedon Museum use her WAAF uniform and service medals for a display there. She currently appears in a display there as one of Hedon’s significant women contributing to the wellbeing of the town and its people. After the war, Gladys returned to Sproatley and continued working as a secretary with various employers including 18 years at Bilton School and at BP Chemicals where she worked until retirement.
Gladys met her future husband Harold Lewis while at BP and in 1970 the newly married couple moved to Hedon, where she has lived ever since. Another birthday buffet was organised at St Augustine’s Church on Sunday, which coincided with a baptism in the church – and Rev Sue Pulko was delighted to set up a meeting between one of the oldest members of the congregation and its newest.
Three-year-old Santiago Stuart met Gladys after his baptism and even sang Happy Birthday to her from the pulpit. As well as the church and British Legion Club, Gladys’s birthday was also marked at a function at the Hedon Pop-in on Wednesday morning. On Gladys’s birthday, new Hedon mayor Di Storr and her consort Tracy Wright met Gladys in her home to wish her all the best and present cards and flowers.
Gladys showed them a special collection of birthday cards all hand-made by children at the Head On In Kids Club, based at Inmans Primary School. Surrounded by cards and flowers – including a birthday card from the King – Gladys said how lucky she was to have so many friends and well-wishers. However, when the mayor asked about things that may have changed for the worse in the past 100 years, Gladys replied without hesitation – mobile phones, and the fact they kill the art of conversation.
This is not a problem experienced by Gladys, who kept everyone entertained with countless stories, anecdotes and memories.