The Lost Brother: Robert McDonald (1899-1918)

My Connection to Robert McDonald

Robert McDonald was an older brother to my Great Grandfather, John McDonald.

I quickly became intrigued with Robert’s story as I hadn’t been able to account for what happened to him following Ireland’s 1911 census.  I searched death and marriage records, but could find no mention of him.  I looked through immigration records but wasn’t able to find him there either.  Given his age, I knew it was possible Robert had served in the Great War, but nothing seemed to fit.  I had hit a brick wall.

A couple of years passed before I realized that an older family member might be able to point me in the right direction.  Somehow I had managed to overlook one of the most obvious resources available to me.  Sure enough, I was rewarded with a critical piece of information that would enable me to break down this brick wall.  I was told that Robert had either served in Great Britain’s navy or merchant navy, and that he may have been lost at sea.

Soon afterwards I found a record indicating that Robert had indeed been a merchant seaman.  This was quite a thrill for me as it resulted in finding what I believe is the only surviving picture of Robert, which can be seen later in this post.   While Robert’s story had largely been forgotten, I hope that this post will serve as a kind of memorial to his life.  I think it’s important that we remember the lives of those who came before us.

October 1918

In the closing weeks of World War One, a young mercantile seaman by the name of Robert McDonald had become ill.  He had been transferred from the British steamship Ortega to a workhouse infirmary in Liverpool, England.  It was late October 1918, and the Ortega was being used to transport American troops to France.  Although the Great War was nearly at an end, an even greater killer was now stalking healthy young people across the globe.

The McDonald family in Belfast

Robert McDonald was born on the 26th of June, 1899 in Belfast, Ireland.  He was the oldest son, and third of seven children born to a railway carter named Robert McDonald, and his wife Maggie.  Less than a year before Robert’s birth, a son had been born to another Belfast family.  He would grow up to write many well-known and much loved books, including The Chronicles of Narnia.  His name was Clives Staples (C.S.) Lewis.

On 5 November 1901, Robert’s older sister Maggie died of diphtheria while the family was living on Glasgow Street, in Belfast.  She had been sick for five days, and was only four and a half years old at the time of her passing.  Thankfully, children today are vaccinated against diphtheria, however in the early twentieth century no such vaccines were available.  Maggie was buried in the Belfast City Cemetery and likely lies in an unmarked grave.  Many families were too poor to purchase a headstone for their loved ones, and would sometimes simply mark their grave with a rock or some small trinket.  Robert was probably too young to remember his sister’s passing, as he only would have been a couple of years old at the time.

Belfast to Whitehead

Sometime between 1905 and 1907 the McDonald family moved to the seaside town of Whitehead, in Country Antrim where they lived at 8 Windsor Avenue.  Robert would have been quite young when he finished his education as his parents likely didn’t have the money for him to pursue further schooling.  Growing up in Whitehead, Robert must have been very familiar with his father’s long time occupation as a railway carter, transporting goods from trains using a horse and cart.

In July 1917, tragedy struck the McDonald family once again when Robert’s older


Ballycarry, Northern Ireland

sister, Elizabeth Jane, died of tuberculosis at the age of 22.  She had been sick with the illness for approximately one year, and was buried in the family burial plot in Ballycarry.   The 1911 Census of Ireland indicates that Elizabeth had worked as a shirt maker, however not much else is known about her.  Elizabeth’s death doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in any of the local newspapers.

Off to sea

The sea would have loomed large in Robert’s formative years.  As a young man looking for employment it would have represented adventure, a chance to earn an income and independence from his parents.  Looking at his picture, Robert must have been quite young when he entered Great Britain’s merchant navy.  My guess is that he would have been about 18 years old at the time, although it’s possible it was earlier than that.  I have come across a record of one of my Hawkins ancestors who was working on a ship at 14 years of age as a deck boy.  Thanks to merchant navy seaman records, we also know that Robert was 5 feet 4 inches tall, with dark hair and brown eyes.  He was listed as a second cook aboard the Ortega, and eventually obtained the rank of able bodied seaman.


Postcard Picture of British Steamship ‘Ortega’

For Robert and Maggie McDonald, they must have felt a mixture of pride and anxiety when their eldest son went to sea.  Germany had declared the waters around Great Britain to be a war zone, and had been using their U-Boats to sink British and neutral merchant vessels.  No doubt the McDonalds were very familiar with the story of the Lusitania, which had been torpedoed by a German submarine off the southern coast of Ireland in 1915 resulting in the deaths of nearly 1,200 passengers.

Robert sailed on a ship called Ortega,  which was a 7,970 gross ton passenger ship with one funnel and two masts.  It had been built in 1906 in Belfast by Harland and Wolff, and could attain a speed of 15 knots.  For German U-Boat captains bent on sinking as many tons of British shipping as they could, the Ortega would have presented an inviting target.


CR-10 Card for Robert McDonald

Spanish Flu

I had a little bird; it’s name was Enza; I opened a window; and In-Flu-Enza

Children’s rhyme – abt. 1918

By October 1918, it would have been clear that the war with Germany would soon be over.  Unfortunately, just as the war was winding down, the worst pandemic in modern history was claiming even more lives than the Great War had.  Up to 5% of the world’s population in all.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 was not the seasonal variety of flu that most of us are familiar with today.  Many people died within three days or less of contracting the illness, and healthy young people within the 18-35 year old age bracket were particularly susceptible.  This is because the flu turned the body’s own immune system against itself, attacking the lining of the sick person’s lungs.  A stronger immune system was actually to the sick person’s detriment, and resulted in a higher mortality rate for healthy young people.

The ports that Robert frequented provided the means for this extremely contagious illness to travel rapidly around the globe.  It is thought that American soldiers, such as the ones that the Ortega had transported to France, had brought influenza with them.  Robert’s age and occupation meant that he was at very high risk for contracting the illness.

On Saturday, October 26, 1918 young Robert McDonald had become another casualty of the Spanish Flu.  His cause of death was recorded at a Liverpool Workhouse as 1) influenza, 2) pneumonia.  The influenza had weakened Robert’s immune system to the point where he had become susceptible to pneumonia and died.  The hospital would have been overcrowded with patients sick with the flu, which is likely why Robert had been placed in the Liverpool Workhouse.


Robert was laid to rest at Walton Park Cemetery, in Liverpool, England.  Due to wartime conditions and the spread of influenza, Robert’s family likely would not have been present for the burial.  Because people became ill so quickly and died in such great numbers, mass graves were sometimes dug to bury the flu victims.  I think it is very likely that Robert’s grave is unmarked.

Possible questions for further research

New records are continually being made available online, so it is possible we will learn more about Robert McDonald’s story in time.  Here are some outstanding questions that may be worth exploring:

  • What school did Robert McDonald attend in Whitehead?
  • Do other pictures of Robert exist?
  • What ports did the Ortega visit in 1918?
  • Is Robert’s final resting place at Walton Park Cemetery marked?


Burial entry for Robert McDonald – Walton Park Cemetery, Liverpool, England

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