Jack the Signalman

by Pieter du Plessis

Signalman Jack

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 renown when the local railway guard James Edwin Wide had a working baboon Jack the Signalman that assisted him in his daily tasks.

James Wide, better known amongst the locals and friends as Jumper Wide due to his habit to jump from one railway truck to the other and sometimes also swinging from truck to truck. Sadly one day while working as a guard whilst jumping from one truck he slipped on the canvas and lost his balance and fell underneath the moving train. As a result of this accident Jumper Wide lost both legs at the knees and in the process nearly also lost his life. As a result of this accident Jumper could no longer work as a guard for the Cape Railway Government and became unemployed for a while. He begged and pleaded for the authorities to employ him but to no avail. His determination and his perseverance forced him to make his own pegged-legs from a piece of wood that was strapped onto his lower half of his body. He then proceeded to make himself a trolley with an intricate hand apparatus that made himself a little more mobile.

Jack was again employed for the railway company as a signalman and one Saturday morning while visiting the Uitenhage market place, a popular meeting place of coffee dealers, merchants, transport drivers and hunters he noticed a oxwagon 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. Having pleaded with the owner and partially because of the sympathetic feeling towards the cripple man the owner reluctantly parted with his favourite pet and thus started one of the most amazingly friendships between animal and man.

As Jumper Wide’s cottage was about half a mile from the station, and found the walk and the moving of the trolley so difficult he started to train Jack to push him on the track. Jack learned quickly how to push his master to work in the morning and again at 5pm from work to his cottage. Jack would push the trolley uphill and when the trolley made up speed downhill he would jump on under 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 it will be used as fire wood. Jumper were warned by the previous owner that Jack were given every night a tot of good Cape brandy and should you for some reason fail to remember he would sulk the next day and refuse to have anything to do with you. No doubt Wide remembered this very well when on one occasion Jack refused to assist his master to get to work

At the signal-box at the station Jumper kept an important key that unlocked the points to enabled the locomotive drivers to reach the coalsheds. 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 and grab the key and went outside where he hold the key up for the driver to collect.

As the days, weeks and months progressed Wide and Jack’s friendship and understanding grew together. Jumper started to train Jack to change the signals on the various blasts from the locomotive drivers. When finally Wide were convinced that Jack could now be able to change the signals and also 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 marvelling the spectacle of a boon working at a station. The inevitable happened one day when a prominent lady on route to Port Elizabeth were horrified when she saw that the signals at the station were changed by a baboon. Fearing for her safety and fellow passengers the incident were reported to the authorities in Cape Town who at first could not believe her story. The system manager and a delegation that consisted of an inspectorate visited the station and Jumper Wide and Jack were dismissed from duty. Again Wide pleaded and fortunately or maybe a case of curiosity forced the system manager to test the ability of Jack. A locomotive driver were given secret instructions and all present waited to see if Jack will past this strenuous test. Each time that 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 make sure that the correct lever and signal were changed. Jack has passed his test with flying colours and were duly employed by the authorities and from that day became known as Jack the Signalman. Bot 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 rubbish and sweeping the kitchen floor and other smaller tasks. He turned out to be also a very good watchman and any intruder were greeted by a fierce guard who could frighten the wits out of every person.

During 1890 Jack got sick and contracted tuberculosis and died, Wide was inconsolable to the loss of his friend as they were inseparable. Jack’s skull is on display in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown and a photographic museum were established at the old Uitenhage station that can be visited on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays only.

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