The Man with the Donkey
Statue South Shields Tyne And Wear

The Man with the Donkey

Statue In South Shields, Tyne And Wear

A statue to John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his unlikely companion.

South Shields is famous for many people and things, from being the birthplace of Catherine Cookson and Eric Idle (Monty Python), to having a strong Yemeni population and links to the Romans, but did you know that it is also famous for a man and his donkey, and their incredible wartime exploits?

That man was born John Simpson Kirkpatrick on the 6th July in 1892 at Eldon Street in South Shields. One of eight children, his early life revolved around going to school and working with donkeys during the school holidays. Driven by a sense of adventure, aged 16, John trained to be a Gunner in the Territorial Force (now the Territorial Army) and aged 17 he joined the Merchant Navy. In 1910 he deserted his ship in Newcastle, New South Wales and travelled through Australia.

There, under the name John Simpson (his mother's maiden name), he enlisted in the fledgling Australian Army Medical Corps in 1914. The world was embroiled in the Great War, and John, like many others, felt the pull to serve. Little did he know, his battlefield wouldn't be the rolling plains of Europe but the harsh terrain of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Ottoman Turkey. John arrived at Gallipoli in April 1915 as part of the ANZAC forces - a combined Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The campaign was a brutal stalemate, with Allied troops pinned down on beaches under relentless fire from Ottoman defenders.

John's role as a stretcher-bearer placed him at the heart of the carnage. His job was to retrieve the wounded from the exposed beaches and transport them to makeshift medical stations. It was a harrowing task, made even more difficult by the lack of proper transport. One fateful day, amidst the chaos, John's eyes fell upon a sight that would change his approach to the war. He spotted a donkey wandering near the battlefield.

With his experience handling donkeys back in South Shields, John knew he could use the animal to carry wounded soldiers. The donkey, later affectionately nicknamed "Murphy" by the troops, proved to be a sturdy and adaptable companion. John would carefully load the wounded onto Murphy's back and navigate the treacherous terrain, bringing soldiers back to safety. In fact Murphy was one of at least five different donkeys used by John, but it is he who has become synonymous with John.

News of John's ingenuity and bravery spread like wildfire among the ANZAC troops. The sight of the unassuming man with his donkey became a beacon of hope on the desolate battlefield. John, unarmed and exposed to enemy fire, tirelessly made trip after trip, rescuing countless wounded soldiers. He was often seen singing and whistling as the bullets flew by, seemingly unconcerned by the chaos around him.

On May 19th, 1915, John fell victim to a Turkish sniper's bullet. His life, cut short at the young age of 23, left a void in the hearts of his comrades. But his legacy as "The Man with the Donkey" lived on.

Private Victor Laidlaw, with the 2nd Field Ambulance, wrote in his diary of Simpson's death:

“Another fatality I found out today - was a private in the 1st Field Ambulance, he had been working between the base and the firing line bringing down wounded on a donkey, he had done invaluable service to our cause. One day he was bringing down a man from the trenches and coming down an incline he was shot right through the heart, it is regretted on all sides as this chap was noticed by all, and everybody got to know him, one couldn't miss him as he used to always work with his donkey, cheerful and willing, this man goes to his death as a soldier.”

Despite his heroism, John's story remained largely unknown in his hometown of South Shields for a long time. Recognition for his bravery came first from Australia and New Zealand, where he is considered a national hero, having songs written about him and even appearing on a stamp (with Murphy). Murphy, the donkey, was posthumously awarded the Purple Cross for Animal Bravery in 1997.

Finally, in 1988, a bronze statue by sculptor Robert Olley was erected in John's honour on South Shields' Ocean Road. The statue depicts John walking alongside Murphy, a poignant reminder of the bond they shared amidst the horrors of war.

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54.99907, -1.43097

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54.998396, 54.998396

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Parking is available nearby at the Denmark Centre Car Park.

Contributed by Andrew Gardner

I love being outdoors, in nature, and experiencing the relaxation it brings. Wandering through the northern countryside seeing unexpected buildings, historic places and occasionally surprised wildlife is one of life's great pleasures.

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Andrew Gardner

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The Man with the Donkey was listed in Statue // Tyne And Wear // South Shields