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Swansea Jack: Lifesaving hero dog from the 1930s lives again in new book

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A dog who was famous for saving 27 people from drowning lives again in a new book by two lifelong Swansea friends.

Swansea Jack was a black retriever who lived near Swansea docks in the 1930s. He became famous – and twice won the canine equivalent of the Victoria Cross – for saving 27 people from the River Tawe and Swansea docks in his lifetime.

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At the time he starred in numerous national and local newspaper stories, appeared at Crufts, and was given a bravery award by The Daily Mirror, but in recent decades his legacy has been largely forgotten. The Swansea pub that was named after him has long since closed, and while there is a memorial to him on Swansea promenade, many people do not know the story behind it.

Now two Swansea friends who went to school in the part of the city where Jack grew up are working to keep his memory alive. Writer Berni Hellier and illustrator Gayle Simmonds have published a new book, The True Tail of Swansea Jack, which will introduce a new generation to this remarkable Swansea character.

No children’s book has ever before been published about Swansea Jack. Berni and Gayle recognised that it was a story worth telling, and one that would appeal to children – especially as it’s possible to visit the places featured in the story.

The book came about after Berni, who has previously published several books for children and adults, started researching a book about the River Tawe and became fascinated by Jack’s story.

“I was struck by the fact that he’d done all these things – saving lives, going to Crufts, winning all these medals – and people didn’t know his story. It was a crying shame,” says Berni.

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“I decided to research and write a book about him and asked Gayle to illustrate it. At first she said no! She’s a graphic designer and runs a successful design company but had lost confidence as an illustrator, even though many people had asked her to illustrate their books. Luckily, I managed to talk her round.”

Gayle and her dogs

Berni and Gayle went to school together in Treboeth and spent time in Llewelyn Park, where Jack spent his early years. Berni still lives in the area, and when she started researching Jack’s life story she discovered that she lives close to the cottage where he lived as a puppy.

Later Jack was rehomed after he made a nuisance of himself chasing ducks in Llewelyn Park. He was adopted by William Thomas, who lived at Padley’s Yard near Swansea Docks – and it was there that Jack’s lifesaving adventures began.

As well as saving 27 people from Swansea’s river and docks, Jack saved two dogs and twice won a special award from the National Canine Defence League – now the Dogs Trust – for his bravery. He is still the only dog in history to have received this award, which is known as the Canine Victoria Cross, twice.

Both Gayle and Berni have dogs of their own: Berni has a fox red Labrador and a collie cross and Gayle has a German Shepherd and two collie crosses. These dogs helped inspire their interest in Swansea Jack, and – combined with photographs of Jack himself – helped to shape Gayle’s depictions of him.

Bernie and her dogs

“One of the reasons I was initially reluctant to illustrate a book about Jack is that there is so much to say about him, I didn’t feel it was possible to do justice to his story in just one book,” says Gayle.

“We’ve solved that now: I’ve started a publishing company, Swansea Jack Publishing, which will publish further books on Jack in the future – and we’re already working on those.

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“Our first book only tells part of Jack’s life – there’s much more to come. It’s based heavily on facts, and we really enjoyed researching Jack’s story because so much was written about him at the time. We hope young readers and their parents will enjoy learning about Jack and his amazing life as much as we did.”

The True Tail of Swansea Jack includes fun games and puzzles for young readers and is available direct from www.swanseajack.co.uk priced £9.95.

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