Jack The Signalman

Wycombewanderer, Going Postal

Back in the late 1800s the railways were at full expansion, British know how and industrial might was being exported to the four corners of the globe, throughout the Empire every country wanted a piece of the action, from India, Australia, the Americas and even the African continent and it’s here that Jack was to make his mark.

Obviously steam trains were noisy and dirty often covered in clouds of steam and smoke and so you couldn’t just shout at the driver what to do, at first lanterns and hand signals were used but with time signalling became the norm across the globe although in different parts different signals were adopted at first they were operated mechanically from a signal box with accommodation for the signalman attached.

You can still see these places around the UK, although they tend to be inhabited by lib dem voters who want to maintain their own privacy and and space whilst denying you yours, but I digress.

So with these new signalling boxes came a need for thousands upon thousands of qualified men and bearing in mind you got to stay at home, it wasn’t as arduous as mining or even shovelling coal on board the train these were sought after positions and so we come to heart of this piece.

Wycombewanderer, Going Postal

One of the signalmen on the Port Elizabeth to Cape Town railway was a man named James Wilde. Wilde was known by the nickname ‘jumper’ because he had a habit of jumping from one carriage to the next whilst the trains were passing. In a totally unforeseen and some might claim unpreventable turn of events he slipped and fell one day beneath a train severing his legs just above the knees. On returning to work he found that not having legs was somewhat limiting to the performance of his otherwise satisfactory employment, a job he didn’t wish to give up, so to the best of his abilities he hobbled around on a pair of peg legs.

Wycombewanderer, Going Postal

Then one day at the local market he saw a baboon that had been trained to lead an ox and cart and thought monkey see monkey do; well baboon see baboon can run a signals operation; baboons as we know now aren’t so different from humans, they can count and they can tell the time roughly which is more than most of the Labour front bench can manage.

The original owner of the baboon at this point informed Jumper that the baboon would refuse to work unless it was given brandy to drink, i guess to null it’s natural instincts to fuck off back to the jungle. First up Jack, as he was now called, was taught to understand and then respond to certain commands by hand signals given by Jumper, after that Jumper taught Jack to respond to the number of whistles the train was giving as it approached the signals and Jack was pretty much running the show after that, even learning himself that the train, when it stopped needed the key to the coal bunker to replenish it and to take the keys from the office to the driver by himself.

Wycombewanderer, Going Postal

During this time the owners of the company were aware that Jumper had an assistant but not Jacks simian heritage, but he didn’t cost them anything, Jumper paid for the brandy, and things were working fine. That was until one day a woman passenger saw Jack operating the signals and dobbed the pair into the company and the owners launched an investigation into this monkey business. Jumper was naturally concerned about his future employment and presumably Jack about his future supply of booze, so Jumper pleaded with the company to come and see the operation which they did and put Jack through a test. So impressed with Jack were the managers that they took Jack on as an official employee with a daily salary and weekly allocation of beer and for nine years the pair continued without incident, despite Jack being constantly drunk and a monkey, until Jack eventually died from tuberculosis in 1890, his skull is now displayed in a local museum.

© Wycombewanderer 2018

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