Dry Drayton congregation behind secret mercy mission
The death of the king of Thailand has unearthed a secret Cambridgeshire mercy mission that successfully fought for the release of two pregnant drug smugglers.
Bhumibol Adulyadej reigned for 70 years until he died two weeks ago, aged 88. He was the world’s longest-serving monarch.
But little is known about the extraordinary campaign in the early 1990s by a Cambs church congregation to free two Nigerian women who were jailed for a combined 50 years in the south-east Asian kingdom for smuggling drugs.
The pair, Philomena and Cordelia, were pregnant when used by traffickers to take drugs into Thailand. They were sentenced to 25 years each in Klong Prem prison in Bangkok and their children were born in captivity.
Their plight was discovered by members of St Peter and St Paul’s Church in Dry Drayton, who began to raise money to buy them food and other essential goods.
They also began a campaign of letter-writing to the King of Thailand, repeatedly asking him to pardon the two women. One member went to see the king and plead for clemency.
One of the prime movers of the campaign was Dr David Gosling, who worked in Thailand and occasionally went to the huge Bangkok prison with members of the Anglican Church in the capital.
He set up a link between the Nigerian prisoners and their babies with the church in Dry Drayton, and their campaign for release of the women began with letters written in “high Thai”.
After three years, the children were released and allowed to go home to Nigeria to be looked after by the parents of the two women.
Then, after 14 years of letter- writing, the king showed compassion and finally agreed to release Philomena and Cordelia.
Dr Gosling said: “I was doing university work out there and worshipped at the Anglican Church, which was sanctioned by the king. This church had responsibility for all the prisoners who were not Roman Catholic.
“It was through this church that I became involved in the prison visiting. While there I encountered these two Nigerian woman and realised they had no support and no embassy in Thailand.
“I learned that it had been a first-time offence and yet their sentences were massive. But they had babies in prison.
“The parish in Dry Drayton made a point of getting those babies out of prison. One particular lady wrote regularly to ask for their release.”
Life in Klong Prem was certainly not easy for the two women.
The congregation of St Peter and St Paul’s recognised early on they would need money for food to supplement the basic rations they were given.
Each week, interested members of the congregation would raise around £300 to send to them. This was a lot of money in Thailand and helped the pair to buy clothes and, in the early days, to feed their babies.
One of the church-goers, Rosemary Gardiner, said: “The size of our congregation would be about 30.
“Some people in the village disapproved because they thought we were helping drug smugglers. Some wouldn’t contribute – not many, but some. But both women are eternally grateful for what we did.”
She added: “One of the ladies refused to admit her guilt, so because she wouldn’t sign a paper to say she was guilty, she was kept in jail. But eventually she signed.
“They were taken for a ride by the people who were smuggling the drugs.
“They were both Christian and one of them led a Christian group within the prison.
“They would just be coming out of jail about now if we hadn’t helped, but they might not have survived on the food they got without help. If you have no money and no embassy, you are stuck.”
The Nigerian duo did not see their children again until they were released in 2006, by which time the youngsters were 11.
Both women have been able to build a new life for themselves in Nigeria – Cordelia regularly phones a member of the congregation.
Mrs Gardiner added: “David was very good at finding people to do things. He did it not by twisting arms but by encouraging people. That’s what he did with these two ladies. David is at the origin of it all.”
Cordelia and Philomena have never been able to visit Dry Drayton to say thank you in person because of the difficulties of getting out of Nigeria with a criminal record.
Dr Gosling added: “One of the reasons we cannot provide pictures of the two ladies is because we are a bit worried about them being identified over the internet.
“But the good thing is they’re getting on with their lives and looking after their children back home.”
Dr Gosling is an academic of some standing. His latest book, “Frontier of Fear – Confronting the Taliban on Pakistan’s Border”, is a hard-hitting account of his time trying to educate women in the region. “I received a death threat for promoting women’s education,” he explained.
But he found the right people to take on the role of helping to free Cordelia and Philomena.
“Concern for people in prisons is a priority,” he said. “Quite a lot of prisoners die in prison – it can be quite grim.”