Feuding, fighting and twenty-two pound tumours: the lives of the “Doctors on Horseback”

“Dysentery has been more deadly than all the cavalry charges of history.” – James Thomas Flexner

“‘Now, John,’ he said, ‘ride for your life – that is, for your mistress’ life; there is a not a moment to lose. Give this note to Dr. White; give your horse a rest at the inn, and be back as soon as you can.'” – Anna Sewell, Black Beauty

“Dear Cecil: I recently acquired a satellite dish and have become a shameless junkie of old westerns. In half of these B movies of plains life, it seems there is always a woman giving birth. After they give her the obligatory wooden spoon to bite on, someone always yells to boil some water. What’s with the water?” Question from Ryan Bailey to Cecil Adams. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1109/when-a-woman-gives-birth-in-westerns-why-do-they-always-boil-water

“…Then a rider appeared over the crest of the slope. He was so tall that his legs almost touched the ground.

‘You’re Dr. McDowell?’

The newcomer nodded. In the gap between his coonskin cap and his fur collar nothing was visible but tiny, brilliant eyes and a huge nose blue with cold…” James Thomas Flexner,  A Backwoods Galahad in Doctors on Horseback

It began, as so many projects do, with an old book. This one was Doctors on Horseback, by James Thomas Flexner and it was published in the late 1930s. The book was a series of brief biographies of the founding fathers of medicine in the USA, some of whom also played prominent roles in politics in parallel with their medical careers. “The early doctors of America fought on two frontiers,” wrote Flexner, “riding the wilderness of a new continent, they explored the mysteries of the human body.”

Bloody litigation

And they fought on other fronts; with each other, with their patients and with their critics. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), a committed, almost evangelical supporter of blood-letting, fell into litigation with William Cobbett (the author of “Rural Rides” and many other social and political essays), when Cobbett suggested that the blood-letting favoured by Rush killed more patients than it cured. Rush was successful, winning 500 dollars in compensation and Cobbett, who had sailed to the USA as an escape from revolutionary France, left the country and returned to England.

Another famous physician, John Morgan (1735-1789), became director-general of hospitals under the American revolutionary army. His duties were onerous and he loaded himself up with more and more responsibility: “At last some more doctors arrived. Morgan did not even take a day’s holiday; driven by that abnormal energy which pulls men through impossible crises, he galloped to Fort Lee to ask General Greene about supplies for the Hackensack Hospital.”

And fell into long-standing dispute with a former classmate, William Shippen, who, according to Flexner, had been politicking behind the scenes in Philadelphia whilst Morgan was galloping about as a serving doctor on the battlefields as well as building hospitals and collecting and storing drugs and other materials for the wounded. Shippen was destined for success and honours whilst Morgan, who was destined to play the role of scapegoat in the mismanagement of medical matters, was dismissed from his post.

However, called before an investigating committee, the records, notes and affadavits Morgan had amassed resulted in his vindication. He vowed to be avenged on Shippen.  He went to great extremes to achieve this, constantly demanding that Shippen attend hearings. Shippen complained that Morgan “…cited me to attend through the deepest snow this winter, which he first broke for 200 miles, and was once dug out of a snow hill, and was once froze to his saddle…”


Morgan, who was a founder of the American Philosophical Society, was fascinated by the unusual.  One curious case he cited was that of the “horse with a snake in its eye…not only possessed of mere life but endowed with a very brisk locomotive faculty”, viewing it as a possible example of spontaneous generation. He was sure that it was “a real reptile ‘which from the vivacity and briskness of its motion exceeds any worm and equals that of any kind of serpent I have ever seen.'”

Dr Ephraim McDowell, like Morgan, was a medical student in Edinburgh for a time. In the company of two fellow Kentuckians he began a showy carriage tour of the Highlands in 1793, but “the instant they admitted they were from Kentucky, all formality was thrown aside and the delighted Scots haled them out  on horseback or in a coach and exhibited them….as gentlemen from the extreme backwoods…”

It is as a pioneer of the ovariotomy that McDowell is best remembered. In December 1809 he went to the bedside of one Jane Todd Crawford who was apparently getting towards the end of a tough pregnancy but could not be induced to give birth. McDowell quickly recognised that in fact she had a tumour and that the prognosis was bad. Mrs Crawford agreed to ride the sixty miles to McDowell’s home to undergo a pioneering operation. “The operation would be similar to spaying, and animals recovered from being spayed.”

“Fifteen pounds of dirty, gelatinous substance”

As an aside, spaying of animals had been carried out for many centuries: mares included. Peter Edwards, in “Horse and Man in Early Modern England” cites the example of the “waif mare, Stagg” of Brandsby in the 17th century. However, although there had been a huge amount of discussion regarding the possibility of performing a similar operation on women who were suffering from ovarian tumours, or cysts, until the case of Jane Crawford none had been carried out. Abdominal surgery of any kind was extremely dangerous. Post-operative peritonitis was the biggest fear. However, after Jane Crawford agreed to the agonising ride of sixty miles, in the middle of winter, with her “huge tumour pressed against the pommel of the saddle” (Flexner), a successful operation was performed. “We took out fifteen pounds of a dirty, gelatinous looking substance. After which we cut through the fallopian tube, and extracted the sac, which weighed seven pounds and one half.”

Jane Crawford made an excellent recovery from the operation and lived for over thirty years more. The success of the operation was probably partly due to McDowell’s insistence on cleanliness. However, controversy surrounded McDowell’s techniques and even as she lay on the wooden “operating table,” people were calling for the operation to be ended. Some wanted to hang the doctor.  Afterwards, McDowell’s reputation as a butcher who slit open the stomachs of women would follow him around, despite the success of his technique.

Musty saddle-bags

Medical journals of the early 20th century had poems such as this, honouring the country doctor on horseback who seems to favour the travelling herbalist more than the university trained medical man :

When the whooping cough was ragin’
And the measles were around;
Then he’d mount his rhubarb pony
And go trotting out of town.
With his saddle skirts a-floppin’,
And his leggins all in rags,
And roots and herbs a-stuffin
Out his pussy saddle-bags;

And when mam was down with fever
And we thought that she would die,
That old fellow wouldn’t leave her,
And he never shut an eye.
But he set there like a pilot
For to keep her from the snags,
And he brought her through the riffles
With his musty saddle-bags.”

(Quoted in Medicine in Richmond 1900 – 1975  by Charles M. Caravati, M.D.)

Flexner tells us that Dr. Daniel Drake, of Cincinnati, carried in his saddle bags: “a few instruments and some stock remedies: Glauber’s salts, Dover’s powder, strong paragorics, vermifuges, blisters, Peruvian bark for fevers, dragon’s blood, gamboge, and nux vomica. The ordinary charge was twenty-five cents a mile, one-half being deducted if the horse was fed.”

The only pain killer that McDowell could give Jane Crawford was opium, in pill form. However, things were about to change, for by the time of Jane’s operation, Sir Humphrey Davey’s  suggestion that laughing gas (nitrous oxide) might have a place in surgery was already a decade old. His suggestion took a long time to catch on, though. It was primarily used as a novelty in medical schools where students got off their heads on it (“drunk on the gas”). And, as Flexner relates, “there set out over the land a little horde of chemical lecturers…who depended principally on demonstrations of the drunkenness produced by laughing gas.”

Ether sprees

Flexner describes the arrival of one of these “Lyceum lecturers” in Jefferson, Georgia, home to Dr. Crawford W. Long, in the winter of 1841: “we can visualise his long black beard that terrified the yokels flowing from beneath a broad-brimmed black hat of the type now worn only by Senators. As he rode in his brightly painted cart behind an under-fed nag, he could not have realised that he was making history…”

After watching the results of the lecturer inhaling some of the gas, according to Flexner some of Long’s friends clustered around and joined in. They enjoyed the sensation so much that they begged Long to make some gas for them so they could do it all over again. He was familiar with the use of ether for the same purposes and “ether sprees” became a regular activity. When the young women of the town heard about it and wanted to see what happened, Long saw his chance: “I’ll inhale some if you all promise not to hold me responsible for anything I may do.” Long then went round the room in an ether-fuelled version of “Postman’s knock”.

Eventually Long used the ether for medical purposes when he removed two small growths from a friend’s neck after the patient had inhaled the ether from a towel. He went on to perform more successful operations using the gas. Long made the cardinal error of medical (and academic) practice: he did not publish what he was doing. His seniors warned that it was only a matter of time before one of his patients died. Just as with other doctors, he was castigated and “changed from a hero into an object of terror.” Long had lost the edge and it was others who would take the claim for the use of early anaesthetics in surgery and dentistry.

Whether riding in the country, or in a carriage in town, doctors depended on the horse to do their rounds right into the 20th century. Many a paper was probably written in the minds of the riders and Dr. Masen Good of London translated “Lucretius”  whilst journeying between patients in his carriage (“The Story of Medicine”, Vernon Coleman). Nostradamus and Paracelsus, both 16th physicians whose careers and lives took different paths, must have relied on horses and mules as they travelled about. Without the equids used by all these doctors, how would patients have faired? And yet, as always, we know so little about those animals and what they thought or felt. We’ll leave the last word to Black Beauty, then:

“The doctor came out with his riding-whip.

‘You need not take that, sir,’ said John; ‘Black Beauty will go till he drops. Take care of him, sir, if you can; I should not like any harm to come to him.’

I will not tell you about our way back. The doctor was a heavier man than John, and not so good a rider; however, I did my very best.”

Anna Sewell, Black Beauty.

Celia Fiennes: fine lady on a white horse?

The Fiennes Lady

The horseback journeys of Celia Fiennes – yes, of that Fiennes family – provide a significant source of information about 17th – 18th century British life. Between 1682 and 1712, Celia made several rides, some short, some very lengthy, throughout England. She also visited Flintshire in Wales and spent a brief amount of time in Scotland. She kept a journal of the places she visited and what she saw there and in 1888 this was published, through the efforts of one of her relatives, as “Through England on a Side Saddle in the time of William and Mary”.

A major edition of her work was issued in 1947 and Christopher Morris, the editor of that work and also a 1982 edition, commented: “The text printed in 1888 does her much less than justice and has made her seem unintelligent at times […]; she deserves a full transcription and an accurate statement of the few facts about her which are ascertainable.” The quotes in this article are taken from this edition.

The illustrated edition of Celia's journals by Christopher Morris

There’s no doubt that her spelling and punctuation, if found in an essay handed in to a modern secondary school teacher, would result in her being placed in a remedial class: “…thence to Winchester; in one mile off the town is Woolsey that was formerly the Bishops house, a large rambling building like a little town, this is on Maudline Hill whereon a considerable Faire is kept neare Michelmas, the traffique mostly hopps which that Country produceth good and cheese; its noted for a vast many of waines from severall parts especially from the West Country.”

Despite the missing apostrophes, which are balanced throughout her journals by many examples of extraneous ones, this passage will also serve to show Celia’s great observational skills and her genuine ability to create clear and vivid images in the mind of the reader.

Celia was a member of a powerful Parliamentarian family and she makes many references to relatives with whom she stayed in the south of England whilst on her tours. She relished the wealth of great houses and the ordered gardens that surrounded them.  Her northern rides, sometimes into country areas that were (and still are) remote and wild, are much more adventurous and would certainly have been unusual for a woman of her time and background. She rode, ostensibly to improve her health but also from a strong sense of curiosity to find out about the land in which she lived. Although in her own introduction she says that she thinks only her relatives will read this, her wish that her fellow countrymen and women will go out and explore their own land, rather than travelling abroad, suggests that she hoped for a wider readership. She has been described as an early “economic tourist” and certainly, as a Puritan with a strong work ethic and commercial sense, the things that fascinate her most of all are industry, mines, agriculture and any signs of successful business activity.

Newby Hall in Yorkshire, one of the great houses visited by Celia

Long before Jane Austen and her heroines who yearned to visit Bath and revel in its social scene, Celia was a real connoisseur of Britain’s spa towns, or “spaws”, as she writes it. She describes the smell and appearance of several of the spa waters she visited; and Celia bravely drank or was immersed into some of these, as appropriate.

Practical and earthy

At Harrogate, she describes her horse’s reaction to one of the healing springs, which smelled of rotting flesh or a lavatory:  “From thence we went over to Haragate which is just by the Spaw, two mile further over a Common that belongs to Knarsborough, its all marshy and wett and here in the compass of 2 miles is 4 very different springs of water: there is the Sulpher or Stincking spaw, not improperly term’d for the Smell being so very strong and offensive that I could not force my horse near the Well, there are two wells together with basons in them that the Spring rises up in, which is furr’d with a White Scumm over it…it comes from Brimstone mines for the taste and smell is much of Sulpher, tho’ it has an additional offenciveness like carrion or a jakes…”

Celia was not particularly interested in historical features such as Stonehenge (“Stoneage” as she writes it), the Vales of the White Horse or the Red Horse. She notes them in passing, but what interests her more is the richness of the soil of the Vale of Evesham and that it produces “corn and fruites and woods.” She does visit some notable historical sites such as the standing stones known as Long Meg and her daughters in what is now Cumbria, but there is a sense of duty about it and her practical mind is always to the fore, rather than any romantic stories of lovers turned to stone: “…however what the first design of placeing them there either as a marke of that sort of moorish ground or what else, the thing is not so wonderfull as that of Stonidge.”

Like Austen’s practical heroine Elinor Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility”,  signs of prosperity and industry in the landscape were what attracted Celia, not the picturesque or remote.  Coming from a Puritan background she has been described as “prim”, but her journeys, on which she was mostly accompanied by only one or two servants or guides, would have added to her independent and practical spirit and surely have broadened her experience. She enjoyed food and drink, especially the Nottingham ale; and at Castleton she describes the hill along the side of which the road winds back and forth: “…this is what they call the Devills Arse a Peake…”

Celia relished sampling regional food and drink throughout her journeys. Even at a time when beer or ale was the daily tipple, as water was so variable in quality, her descriptions of the ales, beers, cheeses and so on clearly indicate her pleasure in eating and drinking at the end of a day in the saddle. Similarly, she examines and describes the fabrics seen in local markets, such as that of Newcastle upon Tyne, in such detail and with such enjoyment that it suggests a keen interest in her appearance.

The perils of travelling

What of the horse, or horses which accompanied Celia on her travels? We learn very little of these. Her journeys are not of the type that became popular in the 19th or 20th centuries, such as Tschiffeley’s ride, when the horses were travelling companions and shared in and contributed to the experience. In Celia’s time, the use of the carriage or coach was widespread in and around London and the surrounding counties (carriage for town, coach for longer journeys) and there were, by this time, regular coach services between the larger cities, but the services were subject to frequent delays due to the weather or state of the roads (how familiar!). However, further out into the countryside, most people still rode and carried their goods on horseback. There was a coach at the coronation of Elizabeth I, but it was empty; no serving lady wanted to ride in it for they would rather ride on horseback. Serving women often travelled between employments on the back of pack ponies as “half a pack” and it seems to have been  a perilous way to travel. At least one fell asleep and was crushed to death.

Celia probably viewed horses in much the same way as we do a bus or a train. It’s only when it breaks down that we take notice. Celia noticed when her horse balked at the smell of the spring water in Harrogate, as we’ve seen; on another occasion in Oxford: “…I saw flax in the growth; the smell of the Woade is so strong and offencive you can scarce bear it at the Mill: I could not forse my horse neare it.” Every occasion when her stumbled and she fell, or nearly fell, is described. At Lancaster, for instance:  “…when I came into the town the stones were so slippery crossing some channells that my horse was quite down on his nose but did at length recover himself and so I was not thrown off or injured, which I desire to bless God for…”

At Alsford (Alresford) the road was slippery and: “forceing my horse out of the hollow way his feete failed, and he could no wayes recover himself and so I was shott off his neck upon the bank, but noe harm I bless God, and as soone as he could role himself up stood stock still by me, which I looked on as a great mercy – indeed mercy and truth allwayes have attended me..” Similarly in Cornwall, where her horse fell into a hole full of water, but,  “giving him a good strap he flounc’d up againe, tho’ he had gotten quite down his head and all, yet did retrieve his feete and gott cleer off the place with me on his back.”

One point of particular interest to horse riders is that farriers are mentioned more than once; the mark of a real rider who knows that no journey will be made on a horse unless its feet are in good condition. The roads being so stony in Cumberland, for instance, she is delighted to discover an excellent farrier who shoes so well that instead of the usual two or three days, the horseshoes stay on for six weeks – no mean achievement when on a journey such as hers.

 Working horses of the time

Celia also notes the working horses of Britain, but only with reference to their functions. There is no indication of an interest in welfare or conditions and rarely of breeds or types. In Flintshire, for instance, the coal “pitts” or mines are drained by wheels turned by horses; at  Windermere, the ways are such that there’s no room for carriages, but only vehicles “like little wheel-barrows that with a horse they convey their fewell and all things else; they also use horses on which they have a sort of pannyers some close come open that they strew full of hay turff and lime…” She does note the abundance of horses in the area, though. Similarly, at Shrewsbury the town is supplied by water from pipes through a “a Water house” but she comments that the water needs to be drawn up by horses and “it seemes not to be a good and easye way…”

One native British breed, now extinct, that does receive a mention is that of the Goonhillies of Cornwall, which Celia calls “Canelys” or “Canelles”. They were small in size but tripped along, according to Celia, unlike Celia’s horses whose shoes wore thin and came off. Fortunately, she found another good farrier. With her eye to efficiency, economy and commerce, Celia commented deprecatingly on the fact that the locals walked alongside their horses supporting the loads and felt that the roads were sufficiently good and broad that they could have used wheeled vehicles of some kind and thus carried three times as much. She also comments on the “waines” or waggons of Devonshire, which were loaded high up and pulled by sure-footed horses. In that county there were also horses with panniers where waggons could not pass. She also enjoys watching the carriers’ horses loaded with cloth on their way to the fulling mill. She writes very deprecatingly of Scottish carts with “wheels like a dungpott” but then she was not impressed at all by her visit north of the border. The country, the people and the subsistence way of farming were not something to which she could relate and the wild landscape was undoubtedly not to her taste.

Another glimpse of equestrian life is given by her description of the races at Penridge, location of one of Britain’s greatest horse fairs at that time. It is one of the many places on her journeys where “the miles are long”, a comment that will endear her to all travellers. At the races, despite the appearance of many of the local gentry, there was only one horse to run for the prize of a silver plate.

Celia’s legacy

Despite her apparent lack of interest in the horses that carried her, I think Celia would have made a superb travelling companion. She is observant, practical, determined, a negotiator and had excellent and often wealthy contacts, in the south of England at least, who could have offered a good bed for the night. She was also a brave rider. On the River Dee crossing in north Wales, she had two guides to take her safely over the treacherous tides and shifting sands: “that would swallow up a horse or carriages…it was at least a mile I went on the sands before I came to the middle of the channell which was pretty deep, and with such a current or tyde which was falling out to sea together with the wind the horses feete could scarce stand against it…”  She also had her horses ferried across the Mersey “in a sort of Hoy”.

I can see her as a modern day journalist, perhaps making journeys by train or car to the north to observe and comment upon those she saw as hardworking versus her concept of the undeserving poor; thrift and labour were met approvingly on her rides but any sign of idleness received short shrift. I think she’d make a very ascerbic columnist, but not a campaigning journalist, perhaps combining her interests in social issues with restaurant reviews. I do wonder whether she’d even consider riding on horseback, or be much more enamoured of the modern motorway and rail systems. For Celia wasn’t a historian, as such; she was recording what she saw as a new world, the world of the fashionable and successful and industrious. She liked the clockwork items of Henry Winstanley at Littlebury in Essex and comments favourably on the Queen’s water closet at Windsor, with its “seat of easement” and sluices – all mod. cons.!  We are wrong if we think of the industrial revolution as being a discrete event that took place in the 19th century. Celia’s times are bustling with industry and commerce and that’s what she records with interest.

To conclude, a little mystery. Was Celia the original “fine lady on  a white horse” in the nursery rhyme “Ride a-cock horse to Banbury Cross”? It has been argued that it was “A Fynes, or Fiennes lady” in the original version and Banbury is a town with strong Parliamentarian connections. Christopher Morris has commented that she often refers to the Market Cross of towns, rather than the Market House or hall. Certainly some of these old rhymes do carry a political or social commentary that has been lost since 19th and 20th century collectors converted them into children’s tales. I think the answer has to be “not proven” in this case, but it’s an intriguing thought!

The Celia Fiennes Waymark in Cheshire (image by Roger Howarth)

 Find out more

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celia_Fiennes; http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007xr5z (Great British Journeys, following in the hoofprints of Celia); http://www.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/sport_and_leisure/arts_development/public_art/public_art_trail/rural_districts/celia_fiennes.aspx?addlink=yes (The Celia Waymark in Cheshire);

“The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes, c1682 – c1712”, edited by Christopher Morris, published by Webb & Bower in 1982, with its excellent collection of cityscapes and plates of contemporary Baroque houses, gives a vivid impression of Celia’s journeys.

There seem to be quite a few other indifferently edited versions of Fiennes; I haven’t read the Cambridge University Press edition but it does seem to be the full text: http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item5759398/?site_locale=en_GB; http://orlando.cambridge.org/public/svPeople?person_id=fience

There’s also an online version: http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/text/contents_page.jsp?t_id=Fiennes

And about the possibility of Celia being the fine lady of the nursery rhyme: http://www.port.ac.uk/research/gbhgis/mediaresources/freearticles/filetodownload,23047,en.pdf; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ride_a_cock_horse_to_Banbury_Crosshttp://www.csudh.edu/dearhabermas/fiennesbk01.htm

Also of interest: http://www.horsetravelbooks.com/others/celia.htm, a 20th century journey by Elizabeth Barrett, published by Wimpole Books.

Simpson and his cuddy

Gallipoli, 25th April 1915. The newly arrived ANZAC troops are about to enter hell. From the moment they attempt a landing on the most inhospitable point of the coast, they are under relentless machine gun and rifle fire from Turkish gunners esconced on the cliffs above. Alan Moorehead, writing in his 1958 publication, “Gallipoli” commented: “…the Gaba Tepe region, where the Anzac troops were to land, was unmapped and almost wholly unknown. It is still the most savage part of the whole peninsula.” Landing to the north of their intended place, eventually over 20,000 men and their horses, mules and donkeys would take shelter in the place that has entered history as ANZAC Cove.

The ANZACs experienced casualties right from the start, many whilst attempting to row to the shore from their troop ships. The dead fell on the shore and in the rowboats; there are varying reports as to the scale of the casualties, but  in the first few hours of the first day alone, it seems that at least half of 1500 men from the first boats were dead or disabled.

The most unlikely and most revered hero of the whole ANZAC Gallipoli Campaign is the man, who, with his donkeys, saved the lives of dozens of soldiers during the first weeks of the campaign, before dying under machine gun fire on 19 May 1915. He was 22 years old. His name is still spoken with reverence in Australia;  the young man was John Simpson Kirkpatrick, better known as Jack Simpson, and he came from South Shields (Shields) in what is now Tyne and Wear, UK.

Simpson’s parents were Scottish and although his father came from Edinburgh, Simpson is a Border name and there is a village of Kirkpatrick Fleming in south west Scotland. It would make sense to me, given the strong cross-border links between Scotland and the north east of England, that Simpson’s parents might have had relatives or friends in the north east if they were Border people. Simpson, growing up in South Shields, was a resident of Tyneside; a Geordie.

Simpson and his first donkey, probably Duffy, with bandage halter (Australian War Memorials)

He was born in 1892 and, like many children of a large family at that time, his early years were impoverished by today’s standards. Birth rates were high, but so were mortality rates amongst working class people. Families found work where and how they could and one of Simpson’s jobs, according to his biographers, was leading the donkey rides on Shields sands. He’d probably have known them as “cuddies”, which is the word for a donkey that prevails in Northumberland, Durham, Tyneside and parts of Scotland.

So enduring is the legend that has grown around Simpson that it is hard sometimes to separate the facts; however, it seems that he had a genuine way with animals. One detail that will certainly ring true for modern day inhabitants of Tyneside is that his mother affectionately called him “Jackie-ma-lad”.

He joined the Merchant Navy and headed off to Australia; just another young man with his way to make in the world and desire to go to sea, as his father had done. At 17, The life of a stoker must have seemed like a dead end and he effectively deserted on arrival in Australia, to travel around the country, working at various jobs and dropping the Kirkpatrick from his name. He signed up to the army in 1914.

Many of Simpson’s biographers make reference to the fact that, tall strong lad that he was, he was an ideal stretcher-bearer.  That was his allotted task. “Stretcher bearer” suggests some degree of organisation and support but in fact conditions were so chaotic, and casualties so high, that the bearers often had to make a dash under fire to carry the wounded back over their shoulders. Shortly after Simpson’s arrival he found one of the donkeys that had arrived with the water bearers and, with a makeshift halter made from a bandage, took the animal to help him carry the wounded back.

He carried on performing this task, totally independent of any orders, with donkeys variously called Abdul, Murphy, Queen Elizabeth and Duffy, for twenty-four days before he was killed. Duffy is the donkey who has made it into legend as the donkey first found by Simpson. After Simpson’s death, the last of Simpson’s donkeys is said to have returned to the camp hospital on his own, carrying the last wounded soldier Simpson had put onto his back.

The bloke with the donk.

Simpson and his donkey had made it into legend and gained the admiration of the establishment whose rules he had refused to follow.  Australia’s greatest WWI General, then Colonel, John Monash, spoke warmly of him: “Private Simpson and his little beast earned the admiration of everyone at the upper end of the valley. They worked all day and night throughout the whole period since the landing, and the help rendered to the wounded was invaluable. Simpson knew no fear and moved unconcernedly amid shrapnel and rifle fire, steadily carrying out his self-imposed task day by day, and he frequently earned the applause of the personnel for his many fearless rescues of wounded men from areas subject to rifle and shrapnel fire.”

We get a vivid, and believable picture of the character of Jack in the the remembrances of his colleagues in the ambulance brigades, as quoted in Tom Curran’s book, “Not only a hero”: http://www.anzacday.org.au/spirit/hero/chp00.html;http://www.anzacday.org.au/spirit: “Andy described Jack as ‘a big man and very muscular, though aged only 22 and was selected at once as a stretcher bearer… he was too human to be a parade ground soldier, and strongly disliked discipline; though not lazy he shirked the drudgery of “forming fours”, and other irksome military tasks.’ Andy also said of Jack “that ‘he was very witty, and inclined to the lazy, very popular, liked a pot or two but did not drink to excess; careless of dress and was a handful to Sgt. Hookway, his Section Sergeant.'”

And from the same author I get a real sense of the quick flashes of exasperated irascibility and biting wit that were part of his character and in which I also recognise the character of my own Geordie and Border ancestors: “Jack was livid. ‘You stupid lookin’ sod!’, he yelled out – to Private Tom Yeomans – ‘the only chance the poor little bugger hez of gettin’ a bit of a rest and yee hev to ride him back half a mile up this hill.’ Jack could have knocked Yeomans off the donkey’s back, he was so angry (as Yeomans later recalled). ‘Sorry mate’, Yeomans said, ‘I didn’t realise.’ Jack’s anger disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, a summer storm. ‘That’s alreet mate’, he grinned, punching the soldier lightly on the shoulder, ‘Divint dee it again, eh!’

The Simpson Memorial at Shields, Tyneside

As with all legends, Jack Simpson’s story has been told, retold, deconstructed, reconstructed, denied; people question how many casualties he and his donkey could really have carried: the detail, the detail. He has been claimed by many, and by the Australians most of all, who know him as “the bloke with the donk”; “Simpson and his donkey”; “the man with the donkey.” His image has been put onto stamps and statues have been erected to him. He has been described as a humanitarian, a trade unionist and “a disaffected English deserter” who hated guns and who only wanted to return home when he signed up for the army in Perth, Australia.



Who are we to judge? We were not there; we did not witness it. Many historians have written of the utter confusion and mess of the Gallipoli Campaign. The only people with the right to comment, it could be argued, were the casualties saved by “the man with the donkey”. They are the people who experienced the work of this man and made his legend: they were the “diggers” of ANZAC cove and with their ghosts and their living relatives it should remain.

One of the many Australian memorials to the "Man with the donk".

Over the years there has been a fervent campaign to obtain a posthumous V.C. for Simpson. Many believe that the lack of a V.C. is a great wrong that should be redressed. In discussing this with my Australian husband, his views were clear; a V.C. would “mean the creation of an official myth. It should be left as it is, for those to whom it belongs.” And as a Geordie, knowing something of the background to Jack Simpson, the type of streets and houses he and his family would have lived in, even the donkeys on the beaches of Northumberland and Durham that were giving rides when I was a child, I agree with him.

Read more about Jack Simpson and his donkey on: http://www.anzacs.net/Simpson.htm; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Simpson_Kirkpatrick;http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/forging/australians/simpson.asp;http://www.convictcreations.com/history/simpson.htm; http:;//www.anzacday.org.au/spirit/hero/chp00.html; http://james-parsons.suite101.com/simpson-and-his-donkey-a91890; http://www.anzacday.org.au/spirit/hero/chp00.html; http://indymedia.org.au/2011/04/22/simpson-and-his-donkey-the-radical-truthhttp://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirkpatrick-john-simpson-6975; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=398BlpdZnzo