A remarkable friendship formed over letters penned for 52 years

Portadown woman Sylvia Gilpin with South African pen pal Phyllis Baxen (centre) and sisters, from left, Dr Jean Baxen, Lorna Baxen and Wendy Baxen when she visited them in South Africa in December.
Portadown woman Sylvia Gilpin with South African pen pal Phyllis Baxen (centre) and sisters, from left, Dr Jean Baxen, Lorna Baxen and Wendy Baxen when she visited them in South Africa in December.

When Portadown girl Sylvia Gilpin (nee Wiggins) and her South African pen pal Phyllis Baxen first exchanged letters 52 years ago, they were both at the tender age of eight – birthdays just a month apart.

The year was 1968 when Apartheid in South Africa (1948-91) was in its full sickening throes and the violent Northern Ireland Troubles (1968-98) were just five years into the future.

Apartheid affected Phyllis profoundly. Being of ‘mixed ancestry’, she was classed as ‘black’ and suffered full segregation in education, transport, her township – every aspect of life.

Such was the system that she had to walk to school – four miles away – and back home in the afternoon.

But she prospered, and today is a respected midwife with an American charity in South Africa, covering the entire country.

Meanwhile, Sylvia – like the rest of Portadown – had to endure the Troubles, with its murder, bombing town centres apart, the regularly atrocities. Normal life in both countries was impossible.

They were put in contact with one another thanks to a missionary project at Portadown Elim Church where mother-of-two (also grandmother-of-six) Sylvia was – and still is – a devoted member.

Ron Gill, an English missionary who operated in South Africa, asked if any girls would like a pen pal in South Africa, Sylvia volunteered and the lifelong friendship between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres began.

It was ‘air mail’ in those days and has developed to email and Facebook with very regular contacts – the two women have given one another a taste of life 6,000 miles away.

Said Sylvia, a lecturer in business retail and management at the Southern Regional College, “We first met in 1977 – a year after I married Paul – and we have poignant, even funny, memories when we look back on that visit. Phyllis landed at Dublin airport, we were late in arriving and found her on the bus bound for Portadown.

“She was couldn’t believe that white people had been so courteous in helping her find the bus, and astounded that a white man had given up his seat for her.

“It had been snowing in Portadown and she rolled over in it and she’d never seen it before and we could hardly get her stopped. And when I walked into a local shop – Austen McMahon’s of High Street - I couldn’t find her, as she thought these were whites-only shops and was waiting outside. We still laugh about it.”

The friends also got together in South Africa to celebrate their 50th and 60th birthdays (the latter in December past) although there are still the after-effects of Apartheid, just as the Troubles in Northern Ireland have their aftermath.

“We love each other’s countries,” said Sylvia. “Phyllis has been all over Ireland and I have visited the main town in South Africa – Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Johannesburg… We have even gone on safari, and I have met her entire family. It’s been such an enriching experience, especially meeting her mum Wazie.”

Phyllis is regarded by Sylvia’s husband Paul, their son and daughter Mark and Emma and grandchildren as honorary family member, with all deeply involved in the Elim Church.

Said Sylvia, “On a visit to South Africa six years ago, I was honoured to meet missionary Ron Gull who introduced us all those years ago, and his wife Betty, both of whom have since died. They did us such an honour putting us in contact all those years ago.