Revealing family secrets of South Shields’ ‘man with the donkey’

John Simpson Kirkpatrick as a boy.
John Simpson Kirkpatrick as a boy.

Much has been written over the years about the exploits of South Shields-born First World War hero John Simpson Kirkpatrick.

As a stretcher bearer with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac), Kirkpatrick helped save the lives of an estimated 300 of his colleagues – carrying them to safety on Army donkeys.

The Untold Story of the Gallipoli Hero's Early Life

The Untold Story of the Gallipoli Hero's Early Life

Although people may be aware of his remarkable wartime heroics, readers may not be so familiar with his early days.

Now a new book, John Simpson Kirkpatrick – The Untold Story of the Gallipoli Hero’s Early Life, does just that, revealing Kirkpatrick’s family life – and the secret behind John’s decision to enlist.

The book has been written by Jim Mulholland, of South Shields Local History Group, who has spent the last nine years researching it.

Mr Mulholland began his research into the Gallipoli hero’s life following a conversation with a complete stranger at South Shields Central Library in 2006.

“I realised that the history books focused primarily on Kirkpatrick’s wartime exploits in the Australian Army and ignored his early life in his home town,” explained the historian.

The book draws upon the recollections of the descendants of Kirkpatrick’s family and friends along with all of the correspondence with his mother and sister during his first sea voyage in 1909.

As part of his research, Mr Mulholland tracked down the descendants of Jack’s three sisters, obtaining previously untold stories and unpublished family photographs.

After speaking to them, he was able to pice together the story of the Gallipoli hero’s life in South Shields, prior to his leaving on a ship bound for Australia in 1910, aged 17.

It contains some fascinating revelations, including, for the very first time, details of his parents’ secret past.

So sit back and let Mr Mullholland transform you back to the North-East of England, near the end of the 19th century.

“In the autumn of 1886, Robert and Sarah arrived at Tyne Dock from Leith, the port of Edinburgh, with their eldest daughter Maggie,” explains Mr Mullholland.

“They set up home at Mr and Mrs Kirkpatrick’s at Bede Street, where Jack’s sister Sarah (0ne of eight children, yet only four survived to adulthood – Jack, his older sisters Maggie and Sarah, and his kid sister Annie) was born in 1887.

“John (known as Jack) was born on July 6, 1892, at 10 South Eldon Street, Tyne Dock.

“Unbeknown to Jack and his siblings, they were all illegitimate since their parents never married.

“The reason being, Robert was already married with three children, and if he were to marry Sarah Simpson he risked being jailed for bigamy.

“The couples’ need for secrecy explains why Sarah’s name is absent from the 1891 and 1901 census returns taken in South Shields.”

Mr Mullholland goes on to explain that Robert Kirkpatrick was a qualified Master Mariner but was employed as a Chief Mate onboard colliers during his working career in Shields.

Compared to other people in the Tyne Dock area, the Kirkpatrick’s were quite comfortably off.

By 1900, the family were living in South Frederick Street, in the neighbouring Deans council ward, and Jack (aged eight) was attending Barnes Road Junior School.

In his final year he was awarded a book for “good attendance”, prior to enrolling at Mortimer Road Senior School in 1903.

During the school summer holidays the “boy Kirkpatrick” worked on the donkey rides at Herd Sand (now known as Littlehaven).

“He secured his job as a donkey boy through a school friend Henry George of Florence Street,” says Mr Mullholland.

“His father Joe hired out several donkeys each summer, belonging to a local farmer.

“Little did anyone know the important part donkeys would play in Jack’s short life.”

Sadly, the Kirkpatrick family’s relatively comfortable life-style came to an abrupt end when Jack’s father suffered a stroke in 1905, which put pay to his working life.

Two weeks short of his 13th birthday, Jack got a job as a milkman and became the bread-winner of the Kirkpatrick household.

As part of his continuing research,Mr Mulholland made contact with the granddaughter of Jack’s first employer, dairyman Fred Pattinson of Bertram Street.

It transpired that Jack attended Barnes Road School with Fred’s daughter Lillian, and he named his pet dog Lil, after her.

While working as a milkman, Jack enlisted as an artillery gunner with the 4th Durham Howitzer Battery, based at Bollingbroke Hall – giving him his first taste of military life.

• Next time: More fascinating revelations from the war hero’s past.

• John Simpson Kirkpatrick: The Untold Story of the Gallipoli Hero’s Early Life is published by Alkali Publishing. It is on sale at South Shields Central Library and online at Amazon.