The True Story of Jumper and “Jack, The Signalman”
Courtesy of John Ward
When the Cape Government Railways opened the first railway line to Port Elizabeth from Cape Town during the later part of the 1800’s, the town Uitenhage was established. The railway station became world-renowned when the local railway guard James Edwin Wide had a working baboon – “Jack the Signalman” that assisted him in his daily tasks.
James Wide was known as “Jumper Wide,” due to his habit of jumping from one railway truck to another. Sadly one day, whilst jumping from one truck to another he slipped and fell underneath the moving train. As a result, Jumper Wide lost both legs at the knees.
Jumper could no longer work as a guard for the Cape Railway Government and became unemployed. He was forced to make his own peg-legs and strap it onto the lower half of his body. He then made a trolley with an intricate hand apparatus that allowed him more mobility.
James was again employed for the railway company as a signalman and one Saturday morning while visiting the market place, he noticed an ox-wagon being led into the market by a young baboon that acted as “voorloper” (Oxen leader). Jumper Wide pushed himself closer and introduced himself to the owner of the baboon and after some demonstrations Wide was convinced that this intelligent animal could serve him in a useful capacity. Its owner reluctantly parted with his favorite pet and thus began one of the most amazingly symbiotic friendships between animal and man.
Jumper Wide’s cottage was about half a mile from the station, and he found the walk and the moving of his trolley very difficult. He started to train Jack, the baboon, to push him on the railroad track. Jack learned quickly how to push Jumper to work in the morning and again at 5pm, from work to his cottage. Jack would push the trolley uphill and when the trolley gained speed downhill he would jump on with great excitement and get a free ride. Jack also learned how to lift the trolley on and off the track and also “manhandled” the old condemned railway sleepers as he tumbled them over and over from the dump yard to the kitchen door where they would be used as fire wood.
Jumper had been warned by the previous owner that Jack was to be given a lot of good Cape brandy every night and should he, for some reason, fail to remember, that Jack would sulk the next day and refuse to have anything to do with him. Jumper remembered this very well when on one occasion Jack refused to assist him to get to work
In the signal-box at the station, Jumper kept an important key that unlocked the points to enable the locomotive drivers to reach the coal-sheds. Whenever a locomotive driver needed to load coal he gave four blasts on his whistle and then Jumper Wide would totter out on his crutches and stumps and hold up the key. Jack watched this performance for a couple of days and then one day when the locomotive driver blasted the familiar four blasts, Jack rushed to the signal box, grabbed the key and went outside where he held the key up for the driver to collect.
The inevitable happened one day when a prominent and meddlesome lady on route to Port Elizabeth was horrified to see that the signals at the station were being changed by a baboon. Fearing for her safety, the woman reported the incident to the authorities in Cape Town who at first could not believe her story. An inspector visited the station and both Jumper Wide and Jack were dismissed from duty.
Again Wide pleaded, and fortunately the system manager decided to test the ability of Jack. A locomotive driver was given secret instructions and all present waited to see if Jack would pass this strenuous test. Each time the driver blasted a different signal, Jack would change the correct signal and points without fail. Jack even looked around in the direction of the oncoming train to confirm the correct lever and signal were changed. Jack had passed his test with flying colors and was duly re-employed by the authorities. From that day, he became known as Jack the Signalman. Not only did he get his monthly rations from the government but he also received an employment number!
Around Jumpers cottage, Jack also learned to perform other tasks such as removing trash, sweeping the kitchen floor and other small tasks. He also turned out to be a very good watchman and any intruder was greeted by a fierce fanged guard who could frighten the wits out of anyone.
In 1890, Jack contracted tuberculosis and died. Wide was inconsolable at the loss of his friend as they had become inseparable. Jack’s skull is on display in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa.
(Ed. Note: The moral of the story is . . . well, you really don’t want to know.)
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- March 2023 - February 28, 2023