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Barbara Simpkin: A Full Life
Written by Anne Oliver part of our Illustrious Women series.
St Sylvesters Elgin.
Until the early 1990s I had never been inside a Catholic church. On a sunny May day I was sitting on a lawn lamenting the death of a dear friend who was on holiday very far away. Talk turned to churches, funerals and faith. I was suddenly, by a virtual bombshell or a gift from Heaven determined to become a Catholic. I had attended many different religious services over the years and often left with a feeling of slight disappointment. In a flash I knew Catholicism was for me. The following day the local weekly newspaper arrived with what seemed like a wakeup call for me. A small square on a black ground immediately grabbed my attention, it said “Do you want to find out more about the Catholic Faith” and left a phone number. I was soon in touch with the Sisters of Mercy at Greyfriars Convent who gave me details.of a new weekly RCIA meeting. With my husband in tow as a supporter I knocked on their door on the following evening. Sr Mary Oliver welcomed us and we joined a large group of people. A woman was speaking at the lectern. I was enthralled, I learned later that Barbara Simpkin was the inspiring speaker. I was looking forward to getting to know her.
Over the weeks we were always welcomed by the attendees. I was enjoying the talks and I was anxious to learn more. Barbara took me on and was a great friend and adviser to us both until the day she died. I discovered that she had had a simple, yet spectacular life.
Barbara Grant Johnson. as she was born was the granddaughter of Major Grant of Glen Grant Distillery, Rothes. A family dispute meant that he disinherited his daughter Hilda and her baby daughter Barbara in 1913.
By 1919 they were living in the north of England where they both converted to Catholicism. Barbara at 19 and was writing articles for the Catholic Gazette. Her mother died in 1935 by which time Barbara had taken on many Catholic supporting roles. She was a friend of Frank Duff who founded The Legion of Mary and the Catholic Evidence Guild. She was a volunteer for both groups and was also secretary for the annual Pilgrimage to Walsingham
Following stringent training Barbara regularly stood on a soapbox in London’s Speakers Corner proclaiming her faith. War was looming and she was keen to do what she could. She Joined London Civil Defence Corps and was one of the first women ambulance drivers.
Barbara decided to learn Russian at Cambridge Summer School Russian Group. She also set up a support group for priests of the Russian Mission.
In 1940 Barbara met army officer Richard Simpkin. They married soon after in 1941. Like many young wives of the time, she did not see him again for four years. During those difficult days she enrolled at Colwyn Bay Wireless School. She was one of very few women who learned Morse Code and studied Technical Electricity. With her many unusual skills she was happy to be transferred to Bush House, home of the World Service in 1945.
Richard finally returned home at the end of the war having spent several years as a prisoner of war. Barbara immediately resigned from her job writing at the time:
“It is we women who run a home on whatever the Government leaves in our husband’s back pocket. Knowing what is going on in politics and having a say in them should be as important and routine a job as cleaning or stocking the larder.’
By 1953 when they had three children and Richard had been promoted to Major Richard was posted to Germany. The family quickly settled in and Barbara immersed herself in regimental life and local charities. They returned to the UK in 1957 and two years later Richard was posted to Hong Kong. Barbara threw herself into Wives Club duties and she also provided pastoral care for the soldiers and their wives. Refugees, who were living in appalling conditions had their situation improved when she took an active part in making things better for them.
At the end of 1961 Barbara contracted tuberculosis and spent six months in a British sanatorium. Despite being minus a lung she returned to her life of voluntary work. She became a founder member of Appeal for Amnesty, the forerunner of Amnesty International in 1961. She was also an early volunteer in the office at Mitre Court, London. Her work there was cut short by Richard’s promotion to Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Tank Regiment and posted back to Germany in 1963. Once more Barbara was fully involved with the care of the families. She was president of the Wives Club, eventually abolishing it as it was outmoded.
A rare honour came her way in 1965 when the Regimental Colonel included her in his formal thanks, saying she had “lifted the spirits of the Regiment.”
By the time she was fifty four years old Barbara had been linked to the Army for a quarter of a century. She decided that the time was right to start travelling alone, with her first journey was to Israel and Jordan in 1967. She then resumed her support for the Prisoners Aid Society and started to work at shelter in 1970 when she ran the Fatherless Families Department. A year later Richard retired from the Army and Barbara left Shelter. The Director Rev Francis Park said in a farewell speech, “That you have done so much in such an inobtrusive way is all the more reason that I should express in a more formal way my appreciation of all you have done.”
Barbara returned to her Moray roots with her husband in 1978. They settled in Elgin and she was then able to concentrate on her Catholic faith more fully. She became involved with St Sylvester’s Church and with Pluscarden Abbey. She professed as a Benedictine Oblate in 1983. Following Richard’s death in 1986 Barbara was able to visit Russia. Military personnel were not allowed at that time. For the rest of her life she devoted herself to the ministry of the sick and dying. She was also able to use her public speaking talents, well-honed at Speakers Corner sixty years before, at the Parish RCIA meetings where she spoke with a passion about the beliefs of the Church. She was a loyal supporter of myself and my husband, explaining things I was not sure about and writing many helpful letters before we became full members of the Church.
By the mid 90s Barbara’s health was beginning to fail. On Christmas day 1995 she put a note on her door saying that she was well but very tired and needed to sleep. She died on 27th December 1995 and was buried beside Richard at Pluscarden Abbey.
We were worried about her over that Christmas and Steve, my husband, went to see how she was on the evening of the 27th. These are his words:
We were concerned about her wellbeing so after cease work on the 27th I called round to see how she was keeping. The door was opened by the Abbot of Pluscarden Abbey who had just paid her a pastoral visit. She was sat quietly in her chair by the fire, obviously at peace. Her last words to me were, “I have just had my viaticum and am ready for the journey: I well remember her ethereal Other worldly appearance and her smiling happy face as we said our farewell. She died peacefully in her bed a few hours later.
A good friend and confidante to many. May she rest in peace.
In 2002, seven years after her death the Education arm of Aberdeen Diocese published 2In Search of God, a resource for Parish RCIA Programmes., by Barbara Simpkin.
Written by Anne Oliver