Finding Sunderland’s own elephant man

Jimmy Sawyer leads children on an elephant ride.
Jimmy Sawyer leads children on an elephant ride.
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THE great-granddaughter of Sunderland’s own elephant man is hoping Wearside Echoes readers can help shed new light on his life.

THE great-granddaughter of Sunderland’s own elephant man is hoping Wearside Echoes readers can help shed new light on his life.

Jimmy Sawyer, the “keeper” of a mechanical elephant offering rides on Seaburn promenade, brought joy to thousands of young day-trippers during the 1950s.

But behind his friendly grin and 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 and the elephant,” said Naomi Iley, of Tunstall.

“Jimmy’s time spent working with the elephant is a really unique part of our family history, but sadly we don’t really know a lot about his years on the seafront.”

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

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

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

Mary, the daughter of a coal wagon brakeman, grew up in Hopper Street. It is thought she was living with her family at 13 Sands Street when she married Jimmy in 1922.

The couple’s first child, George, was born that same year, 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 a young age – all within months of each other in 1950.

“We know Jimmy moved to Maplewood Avenue in Southwick sometime after he married, but we don’t know when. Perhaps someone will be able to shed some light on this,” said Naomi.

“My great-grandad was on the committee of the Southwick Cricket Club and I’ve been told he was always smartly dressed. A suit and tie whenever he went anywhere.”

It is possible George followed in his father’s footsteps to go to sea during World War Two, as a Lieutenant Sawyer is mentioned in Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve records.

Jimmy played his own part in the deadly conflict too – returning to his job as a donkeyman in the merchant navy and transporting vital goods to and from Britain.

Just one tattered document still exists from his war years, showing Jimmy had completed a round trip to Montevideo in Uruguay in 1940, aboard the steam ship Empire Cabot.

The papers also reveal he was working for Hartlepool-based Sir R Ropner, started the journey from North Shields, had been a sailor for 30 years and stood just 5ft 2ins tall.

“Jimmy left the navy after the war and started working for Sunderland Council. From what I’ve heard, he got the job with the elephant through the council,” said Naomi.

“We don’t really know much about the elephant, but I believe it was put into storage over the winter months – though no clues as to where. Maybe someone might know.”

The petrol-powered elephant, possibly known as Rajah, was controlled by a lever behind its ear. It was mounted via a set of steps – and described as “very smelly.”

Little is known about the origins of the contraption, though it is likely to have been crafted either by inventer Frank Smith or Macades/Lunedise Engineering in the late 1940s.

The Echo photo shown here features Jimmy with the elephant in May 1950, although some Wearsiders – such as Sheila Smith – recall seeing Jimmy even earlier than that.

“Our family and several others used to gather on the beach opposite Seaburn Camp for a day out in the late 1940s. I can remember the elephant very clearly,” she said.

“To us children in those days the elephant was fascinating. We hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was so realistic and a ride on it was a real treat.

“There were queues for a ride opposite Seaburn Camp, on the beach side of the road. It was exciting and Jimmy Sawyer was a nice man who made everyone happy.”

It is not known exactly how many years Jimmy spent walking the elephant, although Naomi believes he may have left the job following the deaths of his children in 1950.

“We know that after the elephant Jimmy went on to work at JL Thompson’s shipyard, as a night watchman. He died in 1962, at the age of 67,” she said.

“I’d love to know more about his life and work with the elephant. I’ve only seen two pictures of that time – there must be more out there. Hopefully someone can help.”

l Do you have any memories of Jimmy, or the Seaburn elephant, you would like to share? Contact Sarah Stoner via email on