Jack the Signalman: The Extraordinary Tale of a Baboon on the Railways

James Edwin Wide was indeed the owner and handler of a baboon named Jack, who was employed by the South African Railways in the late 19th century. This unusual and fascinating story gained some notoriety during that time.

James Edwin Wide, a signalman for the South African Railways, discovered an orphaned baby baboon in 1881. He decided to take him in and named him Jack. Over time, Wide trained Jack to perform various tasks and duties around the railway station in Uitenhage, South Africa.

Jack became a well-known figure among railway workers and passengers. He was taught to help carry and fetch items, such as tools and bolts, during maintenance and construction work. Jack’s tasks also included operating signal switches, which he reportedly did with great skill and precision.

The baboon’s employment with the South African Railways captured the public’s imagination and attracted considerable attention from the media. Jack was featured in newspapers and even received a mention in a parliamentary report in 1890.

However, Jack’s career with the railways was not without controversy. Some workers raised concerns about safety and hygiene, leading to an official investigation into the employment of non-human workers. Ultimately, the government deemed it inappropriate to employ animals in such roles, and Jack’s employment was terminated.

After leaving the railways, Jack reportedly continued to live with James Edwin Wide and became somewhat of a local celebrity. While the specific details of Jack’s later life are unclear, his story remains an intriguing part of South African history, highlighting the peculiar bond between man and primate and the unique role Jack played in the railways during that time.

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