Railway station, Uitenhage

The saying that, “a monkey could do my job” never made more factual sense to any man than it did to one James Wilde. Wilde was a signalman in South Africa’s Uitenhage Station and owned a baboon as a pet. For 9 years in the late 19th century, his job of railroad signalman was literally done by this chacma baboon called Jack.


Jack’s intriguing ministry started in 1877 after his master, James Wilde, lost the use of his legs in a tragic accident. Prior to the accident, Wide had worked for Cape Government Railways as a guard. During his tenure as a railway guard, Wide developed a knack for jumping between and onto moving trains, which earned him the wholly unimaginative nickname, “Jumper”.


Jumper had a habit of leaping from one railway car to the next, even on moving trains. One fateful day in 1877, he leaped once too often, falling underneath a moving train. Jumper survived, but the train severed both his legs at the knee.

Jumper was devastated. Not only had he lost his legs, but he would be of no use to the railroad. After recovering from his injuries, Wide carved himself a pair of peg legs and begged his superiors at the railway company to give him a job. Wide’s please didn’t fall on deaf ears and he was given the job of signalman, which basically put him in charge of conveying information to conductors via the various signals placed on the tracks, among other similar duties. He made himself a trolley that he could travel on to and from work, but his work was still too tedious.


During a visit to a market in the town, Jumper spotted a baboon leading an ox wagon, and was impressed with his intelligence. The owner was reluctant to give up his well-trained pet, but took pity on Jumper, and accepted money for him. Jumper was now Jack’s owner and thus began the most unusual friendship in the railroad’s history.


The two lived in a cottage a half mile from the railroad depot. Each morning Jack would push Jumper to work on the trolley. He would push it up a hill and once on top, Jack would jump on the trolley and ride it down the other side. Once at work, Jack would operate the signals that instructed train engineers on what tracks to take.

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Wilde soon allowed Jack to perform this duty fulltime as long as the whistle tooted four times. Jack later learned to switch levers to control the section of a track and make trains pass on them. He did this by learning the audio cues associated with the order of the tracks. Jack learned the wider nature of his job, and in the end needed no instructions.

The working relationship between Jumper and Jack worked well and the two forged a strong friendship. Those who saw the baboon marveled at how well Jack performed his job.

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Unfortunately for the two, a prominent lady en route to Port Elizabeth observed Jack working and was horrified at the prospects of a baboon running the signals. She notified the railroad authorities who were unaware Jumper’s assistant was an ape. At first, they did not believe her wild story until the system manager and several authorities visited the station. Jumper and Jack were immediately fired.

Wilde, however, begged the employers to subject Jack to a test. Jack was offered a complex test of switching the levers according to intermixed audio signals. Jack passed so perfectly that they were both back in employment. Jack even became an official employee and was offered a salary of 20 cents every day, a bottle of beer every Saturday and daily rations.

At Jumper’s cottage Jack learned to perform other tasks such as removing rubbish and sweeping the kitchen floor. He also turned out to be a very good watchman. Intruders were greeted by a fierce guard who gnashed his teeth and snarled ferociously to frighten away unwelcome visitors.

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Sadly, in 1890 Jack contracted tuberculosis and died. Jumper was inconsolable to the loss of his friend who had watched over the crippled man for so long. Jack’s skull is on display in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown and a photographic museum was established at the Old Railway Station in Uitenhage.

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