Spotlighting Sunderland’s links with donkey hero

Jack (middle) and one of his donkeys.
Jack (middle) and one of his donkeys.
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A new book focusing on the early life of a World War One hero known as The Man with the Donkey has uncovered strong links between his family and Wearside.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick served with the Australian Army at Gallipoli, using donkeys to ferry wounded soldiers from the frontline and saving over 300 lives.

Jack's sister Peggie.

Jack's sister Peggie.

Tragically, he was killed on May 19, 1915, but is today regarded as a national hero in Australia - the “bravest man never to win a Victoria Cross”.

“I’ve spent nine years researching his life,” said Jim Mulholland, author of John Simpson Kirkpatrick - The Untold Story of the Gallipoli Hero’s Early Life.

“It draws on recollections of descendants of his family, his Territorials service and correspondence with his mother and sister during his first sea voyage.”

John, known as Jack, was born to sailor Robert Kirkpatrick and Sarah Simpson on July 6, 1892, at South Eldon Street, Tyne Dock - part of South Shields.

Young Jack.

Young Jack.

Just four of the couple’s eight children - Jack, Peggie, Sarah and Annie - survived to adulthood. All were illegitimate - a huge family secret at the time.

“Robert was already married with three children. If he had married Sarah Simpson he would have risked being jailed for bigamy,” said Jim.

“He was a qualified Master Mariner, but worked as a chief mate aboard colliers in South Shields. Compared to others, the Kirkpatrick’s were quite comfortable.”

Jim, a member of South Shields Local History Group, tracked down descendants of Jack’s sisters to obtain previously untold stories and unpublished family photos.

Among the nuggets of information collected were details of the marriage of Jack’s sister Peggie to Wearside photographer William Thompson Balneaves in 1900.

“The couple met in the late 1890s, when William was apprenticed to a South Shields photographer, and married at St Michael’s and All Saints Church, “ said Jim.

“Initially the couple lived with William’s parents, at 7 Ann Street in Sunderland, where Peggie gave birth to her first child, Martha, in 1901.”

Over the decades William was responsible for most of the photographs of the Kirkpatrick family, including the only surviving one of Jack as a child.

The picture shows a smartly dressed boy with a carnation in his jacket and, once again, illustrates the relatively comfortable lifestyle of the Kirkpatricks.

“It was most probably taken at the christening of one of Will’s children, when Jack was between ten and 12-years-old,” said Jim.

Sadly, the Kirkpatrick family’s comfortable life came to an abrupt halt in 1905, when Robert suffered a stroke - putting an end to his working life.

Two weeks short of his 13th birthday Jack secured a job as a milkman, serving as the bread-winner of the Kirkpatrick household for many years.

In October 1909 however, following the death of his father, Jack decided to go to sea. By this time his sister Peggie and her family were living in Boldon.

A letter written by 17-year-old Jack to his mother from Genoa reveals that he had promised to return home with exotic pets as presents for his nephews.

“Tell Bob and George that I will not forget that parrot and monkey. I am sorry to hear that Martha is keeping so poorly, but she will soon get better.”

Jack returned to spend Christmas 1909 with his family. However, in February 1910 he left for Australia, where he worked as a cane cutter, as well as a miner.

When war broke out he signed up as a stretcher-bearer and, after struggling to carry a wounded soldier one day, enlisted the help of a nearby Army donkey.

He continued to use donkeys during more than a month on the frontline at Gallipoli, “ignoring the bullets flying through the air” as he tended the wounded.

“Private Simpson and his little beasts earned the admiration of everyone,” wrote Colonel John Monash at the time. Sadly, Jack’s bravery was to cost him his life.

“I realised that history books focused primarily on Kirkpatrick’s wartime exploits and ignored his early life - so that is why I wrote my own book,” said Jim.

l Jim’s book is published by Alkali Publishing. It is on sale at South Shields Central Library and via priced at £8.99.