Lost at Sea: James McDonald of Whitehead (1901-1924)

Who was James McDonald?

My Great Grandfather had two older brothers who seemingly disappeared after Ireland’s 1911 census.  Their names were Robert and James McDonald.  I was finally able to break through this brick wall when an elderly family member indicated that the McDonald brothers may have served in Great Britain’s merchant navy.  With this new information, I was able to learn what happened to these two young men.

I shared the story of Robert McDonald in my last post which was called The Lost Brother: Robert McDonald (1899-1918).  In this blog post we will be taking a look at the life of the second of these two brothers, James McDonald.

James McDonald was born in Belfast, Ireland on September 4, 1901.  James was the fourth of seven children born to a van driver named Robert McDonald and his wife Maggie.  The family was living at 17 Glasgow Street, located in the north of Belfast.  This was a blue collar neighborhood whose men worked in shipyards, railways and as general laborers.

In the 1901 census most of these families identified themselves as either Presbyterian or belonging to the Church of Ireland.  There were also a few such as Mary O’Hanlon and Patrick Haughey who recorded their religion as being Roman Catholic.



Birth registration of James McDonald

A Snapshot In Time

By the time of the 1911 census, eight year old James was living with his family on Windsor Avenue, in the town of Whitehead.  As a ‘scholar’, James attended school along with his older brother Robert and younger brother John.  Their oldest sibling was 14 year old Elizabeth who was working as a shirt maker.  Samuel, the youngest McDonald at the time, was only 3 years old.  Another sibling would later be added to the McDonald family when Herbert was born in 1912.

School would have ended for James around 14 or 15 years of age at which time he would have entered the workforce.  Perhaps it was one of these early work experiences that introduced James to the possibility of a life at sea.  He may also have been influenced by his older brother Robert who had joined the merchant navy by 1918.  Whatever the reason, James would also join the merchant navy and learn the trade of being a merchant sailor.

A Life at Sea

Thanks to Find My Past and their database of merchant navy seaman records, I was able to fill in some of the gaps of what happened to James after he joined the merchant navy.  As a British sailor of this period, James had his picture taken and physical appearance recorded, along with the name and address of his father, Robert McDonald.  We know that James was 5 feet 5 inches tall, and that he had light brown hair and grey eyes.  He had attained the rank of ordinary seaman and did not seem to have had any tattoos as many other sailors of the period would have had.

James McDonald
CR-10 Card of James McDonald
Robert and Maggie McDonald
Robert & Maggie McDonald – Parents of James McDonald

Seaman missing

The life of a merchant sailor was and continues to be an inherently dangerous occupation.  Some sailors died of illnesses such as pneumonia, while others sustained injuries in the course of their duties.  In my research I was shocked at the number of merchant sailors who were lost at sea.

In his book Ghost Ship, author Brian Hicks tells the intriguing story of a ship called the Mary Celeste, whose entire crew went missing in December 1872.  The ship had left the New York harbour and was later found adrift in the North Atlantic with no sign of her crew or what might have happened to them.  While not all maritime disasters have sparked the same amount of interest and speculation as the Mary Celeste, it is a good example of the hazards that come with life at sea.

As a merchant sailor, James McDonald had made up part of the crew of the ship Slemish in 1919 and the Lord Antrim in 1920.  The CR10 card above indicates that in 1924 James had been serving aboard the Towneley, and was recorded missing on November 27, 1924.  Using the date that James went missing, I was able to search local newspapers and eventually found two articles relating to his death.

Belfast News-Letter Reports Death of James McDonald


Belfast News-Letter – 1 Dec 1924

I have transcribed the article above that references the death of James McDonald.  It reads:

“Mr. Robert and Mrs. M’Donald, 8 Windsor Avenue, Whitehead, have received news that their son, James, has been drowned at Newcastle-on-Tyne.  A few hours before, Mrs. M’Donald had received a letter from him addressed from Newcastle-on-Tyne expressing his regret that owing to his duties he would be unable to fulfill a promised visit home.  The deceased had sailed under the same captain for 4 years, and was a very promising seaman.”

Margaret McDonald
Mrs. MçDonald (left) in Front of her Home on Windsor Avenue in Whitehead

Larne Times Reports Death of James McDonald

The following week, a brief notice was placed in the Larne Times regarding the passing of James McDonald.  Somewhat difficult to read, the notice reads:

Mr. James McDonald, son of Mr. Robert McDonald, Windsor Avenue, Whitehead, who has been reported drowned at Newcastle-on-Tyne.


Unanswered Questions

Merchant navy records indicate that James went missing on November 27, 1924 however both the Belfast News-Letter and Larne Times reported that James had drowned.  Had James gone missing and his body was recovered later?  If so, why does there not appear to be a record of his burial?

It’s possible the details around the death of James McDonald are contained in the log book of the ship he had worked on.  The Towneley’s official ship number was 145532, however I have not yet been able to obtain those records.  If you have ideas about how to access these records, I would love to hear from you!

Closing Thoughts

The sea must have been a constant reminder to Robert and Maggie McDonald of their two sons who never came home.

While there may not be a headstone to mark their passing, James and Robert McDonald are not forgotten.  A merchant navy memorial overlooks the river Tyne where James was reported missing, a picture of which is included below.  It is described as depicting “a sailor at the wheel, on a sloping base to give the impression of what it is like to stand on a ship’s deck in a choppy sea.  Overlooking the Tyne he gazes keenly ahead to the dangers that may come.”


For those in peril on the sea

It seems fitting to close this blog post with the first three verses of a well known mariner’s prayer called, Eternal Father, Strong to Save

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walkedst on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!


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