Jack The Baboon Signalman

Aug 26, 2019 0 comments

Jack The Baboon Signalman

During the later part of the 19th century, travellers entering Uitenhage railway station, near Port Elizabeth, in South Africa, frequently saw a baboon working the levers at the signal box. His name was Jack, and he was a lawfully employed signalman for the Cape Government Railways.

The story of this unusual employment begins with James Edwin Wide, who was a guard with the Cape Government Railways for ten years. His friends at the railway yard called him “Jumper” because of his reckless habit of jumping on and off moving trains and swinging from one railcar to another. Eventually his careless ways caught up to him. One day, James mistimed his jump and fell underneath a moving train. The heavy wheels crushed his legs, and although his coworkers were able to pull him to safety, James lost both his legs. Upon recovery, James fashioned two wooden legs for himself and after demonstrating that he could walk and was still useful, the railway company moved him to Uitenhage railway station and appointed him the signalman.

One day, while visiting the marketplace, James saw a chacma baboon leading a wagon pulled by some oxens. Impressed by the primate’s skills, James bought the baboon, named him Jack and took him home with the intention of making him his personal assistant. Soon, Jack was helping James in his household chores, such as sweeping floors and taking out the trash. James also taught Jack to push him to work and back in a small wooden trolley. At the railway yard, whenever the trains needed to load coal, James sent Jack with the key to the coal shed.

Jack The Baboon Signalman

Jack the signalman pushing his owner James Edwin Wide on a trolley.

Jack displayed unusual intelligence. In those days, when trains approached the Uitenhage train station, the train drivers would toot their whistle a specific number of times to indicate to the signalman which tracks to change. By watching his master work, Jack picked up the pattern and even learned to throw the switches. Jack became so proficient in his job that he could work all by himself without James watching over him.

News of the baboon finally reached the authorities. The story goes that a lady was watching out of the window and was horrified to see a baboon manning the switches and complained to the railway company. The company found the situation amusing and decided to test the baboon. Jack came out with flying colors. The superintended who conducted the test was so impressed that Jack was given an official employment number, and was paid 20 cents a day and half a bottle of beer weekly.

Jack worked for nine years until he died of tuberculosis in 1890. He reportedly never made an error.

Jack The Baboon Signalman

James Edwin Wide supervising Jack as he pulls a lever.


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