Ask the residents of Swansea who Swansea Jack is and you are likely to hear several different answers. One person will tell you that any man born in the town is a Swansea Jack. Another might explain that coalminers around Swansea used to eat their lunch from a tin called a jack and that is how the miners became known as Swansea Jacks. Followers of Swansea City Football Club will boast of being in ‘Jack’s Army’, the loyal band that supports the team.
Swans fans have followed their clubs fortunes through defeat, relegation, bankruptcy and renewal. In May 2011, 40,000 Jacks cheered as their team beat Reading 4-2 at Wembley and returned to the Premier league after 30 years away from top flight football.
Others will tell you of the days of sail when sailors were known as Jack Tars because of the tar used on their clothing to protect against foul weather encountered at sea. Swansea Jacks were highly respected sailors because of their skill and willingness to endure tough voyages without complaining. All the explanations are conceivable and may be true but there is another Jack that has an equal right to the title of Swansea Jack. The Swansea Jack in question is a black retriever.
In May 1979, Roger Evans and Swansea City Football Team released a record entitled Swansea City. On the ‘B’ side Roger sang the ballad of Swansea Jack, relating the story of the dog’s heroic rescues.
Jack was born in 1930 by the River Tawe and lived near Swansea docks with his master William Thomas. By the 1930s Swansea was in decline and parts of the docks were derelict, a magnet for adventurous youngsters with nothing to do with their time. Deep water and hidden obstructions waiting to snare anyone foolish enough to swim there made the docks a dangerous playground. Parents warned their children to stay away but the cautions and graphic threats simply made the docks more exciting. In June 1931, Jack was walking with his master when they heard a shriek. A boy had fallen from the quay and was struggling to stay afloat in the polluted water. Jack responded to the boys cries by jumping into the filthy dock and pulling him to safety. There were no other witnesses to confirm the unlikely reaction of the dog. The boy, who was twelve and afraid of admitting to his mother where he had been playing, went home. William dismissed the incident as unimportant, said nothing and the strange rescue went unreported.
A few weeks later, as William and Jack were passing the dock, another swimmer was in difficulty. Again Jack reacted by plunging into the water and pulling the victim to the side. This time several people had seen what had happened. The rescue made Jack a local hero. His picture appeared in the newspapers and Swansea Council awarded him an engraved silver collar.
Jack was awarded two bronze medals (the canine VC) by the National Canine Defence League and is the only dog to have received the honour twice.
Despite being famous, William and Jack still walked around the docks and Jack continued to rescue people from the water. In all, Jack is said to have saved 27 individuals from drowning. As the number of rescues grew, the national papers took up the story. The London Star gave Jack a ‘Bravest Dog of the Year’ award in 1936. The Daily Mirror printed glowing tributes to the courageous canine. The Lord Mayor of London presented Jack with a silver cup. Celebrities wanted to be photographed with the heroic rescue dog. Jack toured the land visiting dog shows including Crufts where he was named ‘The Bravest Dog.’
Jack appeared at charity events, raising thousands of pounds for good causes. Sadly, malice or an unlucky twist of fate was about to end Jack’s good fortune. Not everyone appreciated Jack’s success. Jealous individuals claimed he was a fraud of a dog that liked swimming with people but had never rescued anybody. In 1937, Jack ate rat poison. Where the poison came from or who administered it was never discovered. The National Canine Defence League offered a reward for information but no one came forward.
Jack suffered a slow and painful decline and died on the 2nd October 1937. He was seven years old. William Thomas was heartbroken and buried Jack in the back garden of his house in Roger Street, Treboeth. The South Wales Evening Post ran the story of Jack’s death and a debate started; how should the people of Swansea remember their canine hero? The council suggested a memorial and offered Victoria Park as a suitable site. A fund to pay for the monument was started and the money quickly collected. Jack’s body was removed from Roger Street and reburied, near St. Helen’s Rugby Ground, on the 21st October 1937. Mourners from across Swansea attended the ceremony.
Newfound Friends, whose patron is Olympic Swimmer Sharon Davies, was established in 1990 to raise money for children’s charities and train Newfoundland dogs to be the St. Bernards of the sea.
A year after Jack had been finally laid to rest a marble and bronze monument was erected on his grave. The legend of Swansea Jack, the dog who saved 27 lives, was almost complete but Jack had one last moment of fame to come. In 2000, the Newfound Friends of Bristol, specialist trainers of dogs in aquatic rescue techniques, named Swansea Jack ‘Dog of the Century.’