Three Guiding lights
Gladys Dillas got hooked on the Girl Guides when she was 6. Technically, she was not supposed to be at that first meeting — to join First Heron Bay Company you had to be 7 — but she stubbornly insisted on following her sisters, Gwen and Helen.
“They weren’t going to leave me behind,” the 89-year-old laughed. “They used to make me sit away from them, but by the time I was old enough to join I knew everything. I think I just felt a calling to be a Girl Guide.”
Eventually, Ms Dillas was joined by her Cedar Hill, Warwick neighbours: Janice Dill, her 88-year-old cousin; and Sharon Simons, 89.
Although they learnt useful skills such as knot tying and first aid, the women still giggle over the mischief they got up to.
“One time we went down to an island in St George’s with [Girl Guide captain Yvonne Blackett] and it poured with rain,” Ms Simons said.
“When you are a young child, you don’t mind. We were running from tent to tent in the pouring rain.”
They stowed the suitcases they carried for their overnight stay in tents, away from the rain; Mrs Blackett’s they put out in the elements.
“We were wicked,” Ms Dillas said. “I thinks she had to sleep in her clothes that night.”
Ms Dill — “a good girl” or “a mouthpiece” depending on whether you believe her recollection of herself as a child or Ms Dillas’s — ratted them out.
Mrs Blackett got her revenge by making them go into the sea in their pyjamas.
But it was all in good fun.
The Purvis Primary School teacher had a strong influence on the cousins, who stayed with her to become Rangers and then Land Rangers in their early 20s.
“Mrs Blackett taught us respect for others,” Ms Simons said. “She taught us about being thrifty and cleanliness. She also taught us self-respect and discipline.”
In the summer of 1953, Girl Guides worldwide travelled to London, England to see the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, herself a former Girl Guide.
Mrs Blackett asked local Girl Guiding authorities if her company could represent Bermuda. Her requests went ignored.
“It was because of segregation at that time,” Ms Simons said. “When we inquired about going, they didn’t approve of it.”
Mrs Blackett then bypassed the officials and wrote directly to London for permission. She got it.
“So we weren’t enrolled through Bermuda,” Ms Dillas said. “Mrs Blackett knew everything in life. When it came to segregation, it didn’t mean a thing to her. What she wanted she got. She fought for us.”
The women travelled to England with Mrs Blackett and the late Edith Godwin, another girl in their company, by way of New York. There, they spent a few days on Long Island with Mrs Blackett’s sister.
“It was my first trip away,” Ms Simons said. “It was my first time eating pizza and my first visit to Radio City Music Hall.”
They left for England on a converted war ship, The Georgic.
“When we went up, it was an open ship,” she said. “We had access to everything. When we came back to Bermuda on the Queen Elizabeth, everything was locked. It was the class of ship.”
In London, they camped with other Girl Guides on the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. It was very cold at night, so the Bermuda girls and a group of Canadians snuck away and slept in the straw in a nearby barn.
The night before the coronation, they moved to an old brewer’s hall.
“It was a huge hall,” Ms Simons said. “All you could smell when you got in there was beer. We bedded down. During the night, Girl Guides were coming from all over. There was one group from Jamaica who had to find their way in the dark.”
On June 2, Coronation Day, they were given a space on the sidewalk near Westminster Abbey, where the Queen was crowned.
“Mrs Blackett got so cold a policeman had to take off his coat and put it around her,” Ms Simons said.
They were fascinated by all the lords and ladies who came out for the event.
Ms Dillas fell in love with a guard’s hat and, unsuccessfully, tried to talk him out of it. “I asked him if I could have it,” she said. “I said, ‘I’ll pay you for it’. I love a hat. Everyone was singing.”
For Ms Simons, the best part was seeing the Queen go by in her golden coach.
“They had loud speakers, so you could hear what was going on,” she said. “After everything was finished, there were thousands and thousands of people in the street. Everyone was just walking towards the palace.”
People started chanting: “We want the Queen!” The Bermuda girls joined in.
“She appeared briefly on the balcony and gave a wave,” Ms Simons said.
After the coronation, the girls toured Europe, seeing snow for the first time in the Swiss Alps.
When they returned to Bermuda, Ms Dill worked in the post office for many years. Ms Simons became a teacher, and Ms Dillas a traffic warden.
“I used to ride a cycle,” she said. “I had the record for giving out the most tickets.”
She even gave Ms Simons a ticket, once. “I loved my job,” she said.
In 1955, Ms Dill became leader of the First Heron Bay Rangers and was later a Brownie trainer.
Mrs Blackett also led a Girl Guide company — at Cedar Hill — for 55 years. Sometimes she used the same “punishment” Mrs Blackett had used when her girls were naughty: a swim in their pyjamas.
“I just help to test the girls now, but my heart is there,” she said.
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