Jane Simpson (1886-1985) – she went by “Jeannie” – grew up in the town of Darwen, Lancashire, England. An educated woman, she was certainly familiar with the large public library there financed by Andrew Carnegie, the Scotsman-turned American/steelworker bazillionaire-turned philanthropist; it opened in Darwen about a year before Jeannie’s 1910 marriage to James Bleakley (1883-1959), another native of Darwen. James was also well educated, and won an appointment administering the schools, and teaching math and physics, on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), off the southern tip of India. The couple moved to Colombo, Ceylon early in their marriage, with their infant son John (b. 1912); three other children – Robert (b. 1914), Joyce (b. 1919), and Deryk (b. 1923) – were born to them there.
When John and Robert were in their early teens, they were sent back to Manchester, not far from Darwen, for an English education. Jeannie joined them there in 1926 to check on their welfare and to enjoy an extended holiday with old friends and family. One of those old friends, a woman named Marion Spence Rothwell (1882- ), was at the time landlady for two Mormon missionaries. Both women became interested in the Church, and, perhaps with the encouragement of each other, they were both baptized, Marion on August 8 and Jeannie on November 5, 1926. Marion became “an ardent Church worker” in Manchester, while Jeannie soon returned to Ceylon, the only known member of the Church in that place. A testimony borne in a letter soon after she returned says,
I am appreciative of the chances I have had of hearing the teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Although it seemed almost impossible to me at first, too good to be true, I remember that I knew inwardly that it was true. After opportunities of intimacy and conversation with zealous workers, I was obliged to accept the Gospel and obey its teachings. Latter-day Saint literature has filled me with a love for Jesus Christ and with understanding of His willing sacrifice. Before, I did not realize how His crucifixion alone could benefit mankind, when so many others suffered a similar death at that period.
Early in May, 1927, an unflattering article concerning Mormonism appeared in one of the English newspapers, and was soon picked up and reprinted by many more, both in Great Britain and abroad, including the Ceylon Times. I think, but do not know for certain, that this article is one I have seen in both British and Australian newspapers, announcing the imminent invasion of Europe by a vastly exaggerated number of Mormon missionaries (a number many times the total number of missionaries then serving worldwide), along with distorted or entirely false details of missionary goals, including the intent to spirit young girls to Utah where they would be absorbed into Mormon harems. Whether it was this specific article or another generally like it, Jeannie was aghast at finding it in the pages of the most prominent English-language newspaper on Ceylon, just as she was trying to share the gospel with her family and with “professors, lecturers, astronomers, and other men and women of rank and station” among Ceylon’s British inhabitants.
Soon after the article’s publication, Jeannie received a new issue of the Millennial Star with information that clearly refuted the charges of that article. She sent her copy of the Star to the editor of the Ceylon Times, accompanied by a letter of her own briefly explaining some of the tenets of Mormonism and the goals of missionary work … and wonder of wonders, the editor of the Times published Jeannie’s letter in full, along with extracts from the Star addressing the current controversy. Jeannie’s letter is almost certainly the first material ever published on Ceylon concerning Mormonism from the point of view of a Church member.
Jeannie did not have an easy time convincing her own family of the truth of the Gospel. Her oldest son John, in England, was baptized in 1932; her daughter Joyce, who returned to England in 1937 to attend university (she was a gifted pianist and dancer), was baptized in 1939. Jeannie’s husband and two younger sons did not become members.
World War II hit the family especially hard. Jeannie and her family moved back to England. Son John served as a medical doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps; following the war, he settled in Bangor, Northern Ireland, and raised a family there. Jeannie’s other two sons did not make it through the war: Robert died in Malaysia in 1942; Deryk died in South Africa in 1943. Joyce met an American serviceman in the London mission home during the war and married him, then moved to his hometown, Logan, Utah, after the war. In 1959, Jeannie’s husband James was drowned in an accident at sea west of the Bay of Biscay; his body was never recovered. Jeannie moved to Ireland to live near her son John.
In 1961, Jeannie and John went to the London Temple and received their own endowments. They did proxy work for Jeannie’s husband and her two deceased sons, and were sealed together as a family.
Jeannie, and her children John and Joyce, remained stalwart members of the Church throughout their lives. Jeannie died at Bangor in 1985, at age 99. John died there in 1992. Joyce died in Logan in 2009.
LDS missionaries touched lightly at Ceylon in 1853; the Church’s next official contacts on that island did not occur until the 1970s. Midway in that long period of official absence, Jane (Jeannie) Simpson Bleakley lived and taught the gospel, a lone member of the Church on an island filled with many millions of people.
Note: If any university-connected readers have access to the “South Asian Microform Project and Center for Research Libraries,” you could make an easy contribution to international Mormon history by requesting the Ceylon Times, which published Sister Bleakley’s letter and related materials. That’s the only source I’ve been able to locate for this newspaper, so far. Contact me – AEParshall [at] aol [dot] com – for details.