Port Elizabeth of Yore: Jack the Baboon

First and foremost I have an admission to make. The content of this blog is totally plagiarised. Not one word is mine. When I read the original in my brother’s excellent book on Port Elizabeth entitled: Port Elizabeth: Days of Yours and Mine Part 2, I stole it. Pure and simple. That was recompense for stealing all my photos to use in his book and for the fact that many of the facts and ideas were purlioned off my blogs on PE. So fair’s fair.

Approaching the signal box just outside the Uitenhage station from Port Elizabeth, train drivers would give a coded toot indicating which points needed changing over. Jack the Signalman would come out of hut and pull the appropriate lever to switch the train to the right track. Jack was employed by the Cape Government Railways as a signalman, complete with an employment number and a beer ration. This was the late 1800s and Jack was a Cape Baboon.

This endearing story had its genesis in 1877 near Kleinpoort in the Eastern Cape. James “Jumper” Wide was a railway guard who earned his moniker for his skill in jumping on and off moving trains and swinging from one rail wagon to another until the day he slipped. He landed under the moving train which chopped off his legs at the knee.

Undaunted he fashioned two wooden peg legs for himself and proved to the company that he was still useful. Jumping on and off wagons was obviously a non-starter, but they found employment for him as a signalman outside of Uitenhage. Life was still difficult even though he constructed a trolley to get himself to his cottage about a half mile away. However, salvation was at hand. One day at the marketplace he spied a baboon leading a team of oxen, acting as a voorlooper (leader) and had an inspiration that the baboon might be useful to him. After much convincing, its owner obviously took pity on Jumper and sold the baboon to him. His parting advice was to give the baboon his daily ration of Cape Brandy otherwise he became surly and uncooperative.

He named him Jack and soon Jack was helping him in his household chores – sweeping floors and taking out the rubbish. James also taught Jack to push him to work and back in a small wooden trolley. When there were downhill sections, Jack would jump excitedly on the trolley with Jumper and catch a free ride. He also learnt how to lift the trolley on and off the rails as well as how to move old sleepers to the cottage for firewood by flipping them end over end.

At the railway yard, whenever the trains needed to load coal, the train drivers would give four blasts on the whistle and Jack would be sent with the key to the coal shed. Although Jack was a mere baboon, he saw opportunities in this new world that he found himself in and he wished to upskill himself. These iron oxen were far more advanced than the slow plodding oxen that he grew up with and he was obviously eager to join the industrial revolution.

Jack observed how train drivers would whistle a different number of times to indicate which tracks needed switching. One day, probably with the encouragement of Jumper, Jack rushed over and pulled the correct lever. Eventually, Jumper could idly stand back and let Jack get on with it, confident that he never made a mistake.

That idyll was not to last long. Some uptight lady, a ‘Karen’ in modern parlance, had espied Jack operating the signal levers and was appalled. She complained to the authorities and an investigation was instigated. Listening to Jumper’s passionate defence of his friend and soulmate, Jack, they decided to test him. Jack didn’t put a foot wrong, so to speak, and he impressed the authorities mightily. He was put on the payroll, but, without union representation, he was only awarded with a wage of 20p per day and a half a bottle of beer weekly.

This mutually beneficial relationship continued for about nine years. Unfortunately, in the 1890s, Jack contracted TB and died. His skull has been preserved in the Albany Museum, Grahamstown.

No one knows where Jumper’s skull is. All we know is that it’s not where his lower legs are!

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