JWL O’Hara (1863-1899) and Tsavo

John William Lawrence O’Hara was the great-grandchild of Lawrence O’Hara and my great-grandfather.

Perhaps more interestingly he is better known as the Mr O’Hara who is the subject of the chapter, A Widow’s Story in The Man-Eaters Of Tsavo by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson. He was killed in the middle of the night by a “man-eating” lion in Tsavo during the construction of the Uganda Railway.

The book has been in continuous print since its publication in 1907, and has been the subject of numerous other books, two films, the 3D film Bwana Devil, in 1952 and later The Ghost and the Darkness in 1996.

John William Lawrence O’Hara (JWL) was born in 1863 in Black Town, Madras, India to a second generation Anglo-Indian family which had established itself in Madras in the early 1800’s.

In 1886, he married Margaret Stokes Hill who’s family, like his fathers’ was strongly influenced by Methodism. She died in 1889 leaving a son of two years, at which time he worked as an accountant at the Public Works Department (a government department that was responsible for buildings, roads, irrigation and railways).

He remarried to Cecelia Mary Monk (who’s family had also been in Madras since the end of the 18th century) and in 1895 they had a further son, and he was working as a Preventive Officer (related to Customs work), at the Madras Harbour Board Trust.

His third child Margaret Mary was born in January 1897 which coincided with their arrival in Mombasa. One can only assume that the prospects in Madras were less than the possibilities of Africa and JWL was one of the first Custom’s Officials at Mombasa1, arriving most likely in 1896/1897, and was then subsequently transferred to Voi in Tsavo District to construct a road to Taveta which lies in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, as part of the construction of the Uganda Railway.

The reasons for the construction of the railway2 are both controversial and convoluted3, and the means of achieving it perhaps even more so. For good reasons, the Railway has been termed The Lunatic Express4, the starting point at Mombasa was poorly served to bring in the vast quantities of steel to lay 600 miles of track5, local labour was deemed neither sufficient or available so would be done by (in the end) over 36,000 Indentured labourers from India and the expertise was provided by the British and Anglo-Indian population who had been the backbone of the Indian Railway system.

With his wife and two children he was camped at Ndii, 12 miles from Voi and 83 miles from Mombasa. During the night in March 1899, a lion dragged him from his wife’s side, and though she instantly raised the alarm and rescue was prompt, O’Hara was lifted to his camp cot stone-dead.

The lion was later killed by a poisoned arrow by a local from the Wa Taita people.

Margaret Mary and the children returned to Madras at point later.


  1. Preston, R.O. (1947) The Genesis of Kenya Colony: Reminiscences of an Early Uganda Railway Construction Pioneer. Nairobi, Colonial Print Works ↩︎
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uganda_Railway ↩︎
  3. The British Government had avoided colonising East Africa for several decades, the short lived Imperial British East Africa Company proposed the building of a railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. This was stymied by the reluctance of the British Government to become embroiled in further expansion for a range of reasons I will write about elsewhere. Nevertheless, the argument that it would enable troops to be moved as speed to secure the source of the Nile to protect the British interests in Egypt and the Suez Canal and the less convincing argument that it would make the local slave trade uneconomic. ↩︎
  4.  So named for the mental state it drove the labourers who built it to.  ↩︎
  5. In addition to the steel track, railways would have wooden sleepers, but this was not possible and they were both were not locally available and would in any case have been consumed by termites ↩︎