Call in the coppers

John Burkhill has turned tragedy into inspiration and become famous on the streets of Sheffield for his fundraising efforts

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It’s easy to spot John Burkhill among the shoppers on Sheffield’s pedestrianised Fargate. He’s standing near the bottom end of the street in a frizzy green wig, next to a large pram festooned with flags and decorated with soft toys and handwritten signs.

A well-known figure in Sheffield, 78-year-old Burkhill has spent years on his mission to raise one million pounds for Macmillan Cancer Support.

On regular walks through the city streets, Burkhill collects money in a charity bucket that sits in the pram. And when he’s not doing that, he’s fundraising by running races – with his pram.

“I do the Great North Run nearly every year,” he explains in a broad South Yorkshire accent. “And I’ve done the London marathon 22 times. Obviously with the pram I’ve got to start last, so usually Mo Farah has finished before I’ve even started.”

As we talk, passers-by drop money into the bucket. Some have been saving up their coppers all week, and hand him clear plastic bags full of change. Others stay and chat, including Burkhill’s friends Tina and Marjory, who know they’ll see him here on Fargate at 11am every Friday.

A trio of street drinkers huddle together, copper up and drop their change in as we pass

After Tina has delivered their own bag of coppers, she’s quick to tell me about the campaign to get Burkhill recognised with a star in Sheffield Town Hall’s walk of fame, which honours people connected to the city. “They will not put a star outside the Town Hall because he’s not internationally known,” she says, outraged. “But everyone in Sheffield believes that John should be recognised. If it’s good enough for Sean Bean, it’s good enough for John.

“John doesn’t think he does do anything special. He thinks it’s the people of Sheffield who give money to him who are special. But we’re not, we couldn’t donate money if he wasn’t here collecting it.”

“And look at those legs! He’s always in shorts, in snow, rain, whatever.”

Burkhill sets off on one of his regular walks through the city, following the former Sheffield Star race route, which has a special place in Burkhill’s heart as it was the first race he competed in. “It used to be watched by thousands,” explains Burkhill about the annual race, which was last held in 2000. He’s planning to revisit the route on Whit Tuesday, 50 years after that first race. “It’s only a short one – only 12 miles.”

John Burkhill and the pram

When Burkhill started racing, it was as a competitive race walker, but these days “time is immaterial,” he says. “When I finish a race it’s usually News at Ten that’s on.”

A man carrying a sleeping bag under his arm, who looks like he’s been sleeping rough, stops and chats to Burkhill. The man updates him on his health problems and Burkhill tells him to “take it easy”. Then we pass a Big Issue North vendor and they chat for a while too. “They’re good lads,” says Burkhill, adding that they often drop change into the bucket. “They all understand and support what we’re trying to do.”

We pass the junction where the old Sheffield Market used to stand and there’s sadness in Burkhill’s voice as he talks about the place where his daughter worked for 15 years. Karen was “as fit as a butcher’s dog” when she went into hospital in the early 1990s for a routine operation to have a polyp removed from her stomach. But following complications, the 29 year old passed away, followed a year later by his wife June, from cancer.

How did Burkhill manage to recover from such a shocking tragedy? “It was hard – very hard.” His two sons supported him through the grief.

As we walk, the pram rattles and jangles, a sound like cow bells and milk bottles knocking together. It’s a 1960s Silver Cross pram, heavy and hard to control. The axle is broken, so it veers to the right as he pushes it and every so often Burkhill lifts it up and sets it back on course. It was Karen’s pram and strapped to the front is Biggles, his wife’s teddy bear. “I know it sounds daft but when I’m pushing the pram, it’s like I’m with my wife and daughter.”

We pass a building site. A group of builders call him over and reach through the wire fence to drop change into the bucket. Cars sound their horns, trams ring their bells and a lorry driver calls his name while we’re waiting to cross the ring road.

“I was going up Barnsley Road once, which is very steep. It was snowing like hell. This car stopped and the driver shouted across to me and there was this little lass in the back, about six, maybe seven, and she says: ‘Mister green man, can I put some money in your bucket?’ I gave her a high five with my foam hand and then I walked on. Anyway, her dad chased after me and he was sobbing. And he says she’s got leukaemia. And I went back to the car and gave her another high five and her face was a picture. And no matter what now, no matter if it’s raining or snowing or what, that face never leaves me.”

The owner of the Hungry Wolf café on Infirmary Road comes out with cups of coffee and chats about how business is going. Three men appear from Sam’s Barbers just up the road. They have a carrier bag full of change ready, which takes Burkhill a good five minutes to empty into his bucket.

What does Burkhill do when he’s not walking and raising money? He looks stumped. “Well, I like watching football.”

He’s a Sheffield Wednesday fan – although he’s quick to point out he gets as much support from United supporters as he does from fellow Wednesdayites – and he likes watching athletics, but he doesn’t have much time for anything else. “I’m doing this all the time.

“I just wish they could cure this cancer and I’d like to see Macmillan and all these hospices run by government and not be funded by charities and volunteers.”

His other ambition beside raising that million for Macmillan is to do 1,000 races. He’s at around 980. He speaks fondly of the late Jane Tomlinson, the amateur athlete who, despite having incurable breast cancer, raised £1.85 million for charity through taking part in various races and challenges. Now Burkhill tries to enter every race her husband organises and is hoping to hit the 1,000-mark on one of them. “Jane was a great friend of mine.”

We walk on, following the route of the Sheffield tram. The men in the car wash give us a wave and a trio of street drinkers on the corner huddle together as we approach, copper up, and drop their change in as we pass.

One of Burkhill’s proudest moments was carrying the Olympic torch through the city, although he wasn’t allowed to take his pram. He followed this up with a 1,000 mile walk around the city, visiting every postcode district, to thank people for voting for him to take part in the event.

He tells me of another proud achievement: when he pushed his wife around the Sheffield marathon in her wheelchair, just weeks before she died. “It was one of the hottest days in the year. At every water station the police officers came out and shook her hand. And when we came into the stadium at the end, the crowd all stood up as one.” His voice wavers. “I know one day that I’ll see her again. I know that.”

We reach the busy Hillsborough shopping centre. Burkhill is careful not to stand outside when the local Big Issue North vendor is there, in case it interferes with his sales. So he pushes the pram inside the centre and we stop there.

Burkhill’s friend Geoff approaches on his mobility scooter. “He’s a total hero for everybody,” says Geoff, who lost his legs to diabetes. “He’s part of my daily life. He gives me a better outlook on life.”

What has he learnt doing what he does. “It’s taught me how wonderful people can be. I don’t know if it was a mad idea when I started. I thought, I’ll make a quarter of a million quid for Macmillan – that’s what I set out to do. When I reached that, I thought, well, I’ll carry on.”

He doesn’t know how much he’s made and only wants Macmillan to tell him when he reaches the million-pound mark.

“You make a penny, and that’s a penny more that Macmillan didn’t have before. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

Distance No Object: Sheffield’s Man With The Pram by John Burkhill is out now (RMC Media, £9.99)

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