The Hartlepool sailor who left sea to become an ‘elephant keeper’

Jimmy Sawyer pictured leading Rajah the mechanical elephant along the prom at Seaburn, Sunderland, in 1950. Do you have any memories of him?
Jimmy Sawyer pictured leading Rajah the mechanical elephant along the prom at Seaburn, Sunderland, in 1950. Do you have any memories of him?
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The great-granddaughter of a Hartlepool sailor who left the sea to become an “elephant keeper” is hoping Memory Lane readers can help shed new light on his life.

Jimmy Sawyer, caretaker of a mechanical elephant offering seaside rides in the post-war years, brought joy to thousands of day-trippers for almost a decade.

“I’m trying to put together the pieces of my great-grandfather’s life, and would love to hear people’s memories of him.”

Naomi Iley, great-granddaughter of Jimmy Sawyer.

But behind his jovial kindness lay a story of heartache and tragedy. In just one year he lost three of his six children – but kept on smiling for the crowds.

“I’m trying to put together the pieces of my great-grandfather’s life, and would love to hear people’s memories of him,” said dental nurse Naomi Iley.

James Edward George Sawyer – Jimmy to his friends – was born on St Mary’s Island, Gambia, in around 1895. Tragically, he lost both parents as a young boy.

At 16, however, he found work as a merchant sailor, making the journey to Aberdeen in Scotland. From there, he worked his way down the coast to the North East.

“He rented lodgings at a family home in Sunderland in the 1920s and met my great-grandmother, Mary Ann Forsyth, when he was on leave from his ship,” said Naomi.

The couple’s first child, George, was born in 1922, followed by Isabella in 1925, Margaret in 1931, Mary in 1934, James in 1938 and finally Thomas in 1938.

Sadly, Isabella died when just a toddler in 1927. Her siblings George, Margaret and Mary also passed away at young ages – within months of each other in 1950.

“When war broke out Jimmy returned to his job as a donkeyman in the merchant navy and worked for the Hartlepool-based Ropner Shipping Company,” said Naomi.

“Just one tattered document still exists from his war years, showing he completed a round trip to Montevideo in Uruguay aboard the steam ship Empire Cabot.”

SS Empire Cabot had been built by William Gray & Co of Hartlepool in 1941, for the Ministry of War Transport, and spent the war years travelling the globe.

Transporting vital goods between America and Britain were among her many duties, as well as a trip to Gibraltar to deliver 19 spitfire aircraft in August 1942.

“Jimmy’s papers show he was working on Cabot for Sir Robert Ropner, of Hartlepool. He had apparently been a sailor for 30 years by that time,” said Naomi.

Once peace was declared, Jimmy left Hartlepool for Sunderland - where he started working for the council and became “keeper” of mechanical elephant Rajah.

“We’re not sure exactly how long Jimmy spent with Rajah; possibly he left after the deaths of his children. But he was an iconic figure for years,” said Naomi.

“He later worked at JL Thompson’s shipyard, as a night watchman, and died in 1962. I’d love to know more about his life, war duties and work with the elephant.”

Do you have any memories of Jimmy”? Email sarah.stoner@jpress.co.uk