This is the Story of Jack the Signalman and Jumper Wide.
The Cape Government Railways finally opened the railway line from
Cape Town to Port Elizabeth during the latter part of the 1800s
when the town Uitenhage was established. This railway station, just
outside the friendly city became famous when railway guard James
Edwin Wide allowed his baboon, known as Jack the Signalman assist
him in his daily tasks.
James Wide was better known amongst the locals and friends as
Jumper Wide due to his habit of jumping from one railway truck to
the other and occasionally even swinging from the rolling stock.
Sadly one day while leaping across the gap, he slipped on the
canvas, lost his balance and fell underneath the moving train. As
a result of this misfortune, Jumper Wide lost both legs at the
knees in this accident that came close to killing him. As a result,
Jumper could no longer be considered as able-bodied and work as
a guard for the Cape Railway Government. He was summarily dismissed
and rendered unemployed.
He begged and pleaded for the authorities to give him work, but to
no avail. His determination and his perseverance drove him to make
his own pegged-legs from a piece of wood which he strapped onto his
He then proceeded to construct a trolley with an intricate hand
apparatus that gave him mobility.
His initiative did the trick Jumper was reconsidered and
re-employed by the railway company as a signalman.
Then one Saturday morning while visiting the Uitenhage market place
(a popular meeting place of wheelers, dealers, merchants, transport
drivers and hunters), he noticed an oxwagon being led along by a
young baboon that acted as “voorloper” or ox leader. Jumper Wide
pushed himself closer and introduced himself to the owner of the
baboon and a few demonstrations convinced Wide that this curious
and intelligent animal could assist him in his job. He then made a
deal with the owner who reluctantly parted with his pet and thus
started one of the most amazing friendships between animal and man.
Now, Jumper Wide’s cottage was about half a mile from the station
and he found the process of moving the trolley so difficult he
began by training Jack to push him down the track.
Jack learned his new job very quickly. He was the motive power
behind his new master’s journey to the box in the morning and back
again at the end of the working day. Up the hill he would labour
and when the trolley picked up speed, he’d hop on and enjoy the
great excitement of a free ride. Jack also learned how to remove
the trolley from the track and also manhandle the old condemned
railway sleepers as he tumbled them end over end from the dump yard
to the kitchen door where they would be used as fire wood. Jumper
was warned by the previous owner that Jack required a tot of good
Cape Smoke every night and should for any reason he fail to get
his nightcap, would sulk the next day and refuse to work and even
acknowledge your presence. No doubt Wide recalled this little
condition when on one occasion Jack refused to assist his master to
get to work.
At the signal-box at the station Jumper kept the master key that
unlocked the points to enable locomotive drivers to reach the coal
sheds. Whenever a driver needed to load, he gave four blasts on his
whistle after which Jumper Wide would totter out on his stumps and
hold up the key. Jack watched this process for a few days and then
one day when the locomotive driver blasted the familiar signal,
Jack cantered to the signal box, grabbed the key and went outside
to hold up the key for the driver to collect.
As the days, weeks and months progressed Wide and Jack’s friendship
and symbiotic relationship bonded the two together.
Jumper started to train Jack to change the signals on the various
blasts from the locomotive drivers. When finally Wide was convinced
that Jack could now change the signals and also attend to various
other tasks, he put the baboon to test.
Each time one of the drivers would give a signal Jack would change
the signal without once making an error.
Much to the amazement of locals and passengers who stood in awe at
the spectacle of a baboon competently working the heavy machinery.
The inevitable happened one day when a lady of means en route to
Port Elizabeth was horrified to find the signals at the station
were changed by a baboon. Fearing for her own safety as well as her
fellow passengers, the incident was reported to the authorities in
Cape Town who thought it was all a joke. The system manager along
with an official delegation were forced to visit the station and
Jumper Wide and Jack were immediately dismissed from duty.
For the second time Wide pleaded for his livelihood and fortunately
the railway manager in a rare moment of justice and wisdom, decided
to gauge the ability of Jack. A locomotive driver was given secret
instructions and the judge and his jury waited to see whether Jack
would demonstrate the skill and intelligence to pass these series
of tests. Each time the driver blasted a coded whistle Jack would
make the correct signal and points changes without fail. Jack even
checked and surveyed the line in both directions to confirm the
oncoming trains were running correctly. Jack passed his test with
flying colours and both were duly re-employed by the authorities.
From that day on, he became known as Jack the Signalman.
But not only did he get his monthly rations (I wonder if it
included that bottle of Cape Smoke?), from the government but he
also received an official railway company employment number.
But Jack was not only a working animal. Around Jumper’s cottage he
also learned to perform other duties such as removing rubbish,
sweeping the kitchen floor and other domestic and house-keeping
tasks. He also turned out to be a very good watchman and any
intruder with malicious intent was greeted by a guard who was not
to be trifled with.
Unfortunately, all good things just as surely came to an end.
During the winter of 1890 Jack contracted tuberculosis and died
shortly thereafter. Wide was reportedly inconsolable from the loss
of his friend and co-worker.
Today, one can still find Jack around. His skull is preserved on
display in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.
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Barry Blomkamp Nd. Bsc (UL)
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