No story of history in the making has been more fabulous and endearing as that of one Englishwoman’s life, retold and forever admired by her granddaughter Sarah Oakey. When we first heard the story of Gladys Oakey, it was a rather magical chance encounter seeing her photos on a post in a period drama fan Facebook group. “It’s my grandmother’s birthday today,” Sarah had written on December 10th, “She told me stories from living through both world wars, remembering the day Titanic sank, traveling to Canada on the RMS Lusitania, being a pin-up on the Prince of Wales ship, her Grandad being friends with Elgar…. she shared so many stories with me which I’ll treasure and pass on to my children.” When Sarah shared Gladys’ life in detail exclusively for Marjorie, we felt genuine joy imagining the start of the 20th century through her beautiful eyes.
Gladys Edith Ilsley was born in 1904, the eldest of 3 daughters, just 3 years shy of the Queen Victoria’s reign. At 7 years old she remembered well the day when the newspapers came out with headlines of the Titanic’s sinking only the night before, and despite the devastation of a sea voyage disaster, her own family was to make their own resettlement across the Atlantic to Canada on the Lusitania– the very ship that would catastrophically be torpedoed in a turning point for World War I. It was during World War I that Gladys’ 3 2nd cousins enlisted in the army, one losing his life in Egypt and another at the Battle of the Somme, both in 1916. Although she was only 9 years old, her childhood was filled with unforgettable moments that would certainly give a glimpse of the unpredictable yet unique life that still awaited her. World War I was not even half of the story– especially as Gladys found herself back in England 8 months later when Canada proved to be disappointing to her family.
As her youth was divided between Birmingham and Worcester in the UK, she grew up to find herself working as a dresser in department stores, enjoying her high society clientele in beautiful garments from fur coats to wedding dresses in the latest fashion. Working there also launched her into a mini fashion career, modeling in parades and perfecting her walk for such occasions. “I have a photo of her when she was 19,” Sarah says, “She says she was wearing a Chanel dress.” Gladys was swept away at the charms of a young man in the Royal Marines, who played music aboard the Prince of Wales’ ship where according to her sweetheart, the “Blue Danube” was the most requested song by Prince Edward the 8th. Among his possessions he kept close a photo of Gladys, so lovey and pleasant in her appearance that propelled her to be the ship’s very own “pin-up”! Though their romance would not last, Gladys would eventually find happiness and lasting love with a farmer named Thomas Oakey in 1925.
Living in the countryside proved to Gladys that she was perfectly at home in the quiet and beauty of her home country. She and her husband settled down into a beautiful aging manor called Comhampton Farm where she would live for the rest of her life. Within a few years in the wake of the second World War, the home would find itself brimming in life not just with the new additions of Gladys and Thomas’ 2 children, but over 60 young evacuees from nearby Birmingham. The war would end, the house would grow quiet, but there was still more to be enjoyed out of the life that still awaited Gladys. Her third child (Sarah’s father), would be born in 1948, and she would live on to embrace 8 grandchildren, 10 great grandchildren, and 1 great great grandchild when she passed away at age 101, 22 years after the passing of her own husband.
In all her 101 years, Sarah Oakey fondly remembers a woman who was self confident and formidable, most of all loving. “She was so lovely to me, always on my side and made me feel very loved– and she used to speak frequently about how much she loved her Grandma when she was young.” The Gladys she will always remember lives on in the simple pleasures she noticed growing up with her, marveling at film stars like Omar Sheiff and Marlon Brando, to preferred drinks of Guinness or fruity wine. Games of draughts or other card games filled her time along with taxis with her family out to town for sandwiches or picking her favorite flowers like honeysuckle or blue bells or pink carnations. Besides her children, she kept a corgi named Tina and a colly named Digger who always greeted her grandchildren when they came to stay. She had never worn trousers in her life, nor learn to swim, or drive. She was a devoted woman to her religious faith and to her family, and most of all to her youngest grandchild Sarah, her “littlest one.” In 2004, a year before her passing, Sarah would find herself spending a quiet winter in England away from her home in St. Malo, France, at the time, visiting Gladys as much as she could in those months. Gladys would be admiring photos of the Royal Family, or sleeping soundly in her granddaughter’s arms, her face lighting up upon waking and seeing Sarah’s face.
“The older I get the more I reflect on her life and the things she shared with me and taught me,” Sarah explains. “Every year on her birthday I like to share her photos and stories on my social media page because I’m so proud of her and all she accomplished and how much she loved me, I know she’d be over the moon to know her stories are still being shared and loved.” From a woman so elegant, enchanting, and loving, her story reflects the undying spirit of the past that paves way for confident and hopeful women. For living through two World Wars and becoming a remarkable matriarch to all who loved her, the key to a full life according to Gladys is, simply put, to be proud of who you are and to accomplish whatever it is in life with dignity and elegance– and not without fun and indulgence on the way.
“She was my Grandma– and I’m prouder than words can say.”
Photos courtesy of Sarah Oakey