Hairy Mary’s Hemp Armor

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In November 1899, a hemp-armoured locomotive was plying the tracks in Natal, South Africa, pulling military trains during the Second Boer War. Unlike other wartime steam engines that were covered in metal armour, the “Havelock” was covered in thick hemp Royal Navy anchor rope leading the troops to dub it the “Hairy Mary”. In total, 3.65km of 6″ hemp rope was installed by sailors from the HMS Terrible for protection from Boer guerrilla attacks. However, the train was still vulnerable to derailment and the Boers managed to do so in an ambush while a young Winston Churchill, working as a war correspondent, was accompanying troops on a scouting mission.

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Several cars were destroyed in the attack and dozens of men were injured and killed. The engineer panicked, but Churchill convinced him to pull himself together and attempt to save the train. With help from soldiers directed by Churchill (working under a hail of gunfire) the engineer managed to rock the locomotive free and the Hairy Mary limped back to friendly lines with dozens of injured men. However, Churchill was captured and spent nearly a month as a prisoner in Pretoria.

His bold escape and the ensuing fame helped Churchill win his first seat in Parliament, in the 1900 UK election (for full details on Churchill’s stranger-than-fiction South African adventure, see “Hero of the Empire”, by Candice Mallard.) As for the Hairy Mary, it resumed commercial service after the war ended in 1902 but was consigned to working branch lines as more powerful engines were introduced. By 1905, it was considered obsolete and sent to the scrapyard.

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