A tale of two brothers: the story of Robert & James McDonald (part 1)

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

Children’s rhyme – abt. 1918

My connection to the McDonald family

I have several memories of my Great Grandfather, John McDonald.  The first is of a birthday present that he gave me when I was about six or seven years old.  It was a bank with a slot in the top to put coins in and was shaped like a castle.  When you pushed a button, a face with a skull would emerge, complete with an appropriately scary sound.  I remember thinking it was pretty great.  The second memory I have was of visiting his apartment in Sarnia, which was near the public library.  The Flinstones were on television.  I also have a vague memory of his dear friend Ina who I believe lived in the same apartment complex, but can only recall that she wasn’t very tall.  The last memory I have of my Great Grandfather was the family gathering that followed his funeral.  It was August 1989, and I was twelve years old at the time.

Because I was so young when my Great Grandfather passed away, it had never occurred to me to think about the life he had lived, where he came from, or who his family had been.  I must admit that it had been many years since I had thought of him, when I heard of a family story that his brothers may have served in Britain’s Merchant Navy, with one possibly having been lost at sea.  I have always loved history and was immediately intrigued.  Several years have passed since I first heard that story, and while I have managed to piece together some of what happened to my Great Grandfather’s brothers, elements of their stories remain lost to time.  That’s probably why I find this kind of thing so interesting.  There is always the chance that we may gain some further insight into how they lived.  I believe their stories are worth remembering.

October 1918

In the closing weeks of World War One, a young mercantile seaman by the name of Robert McDonald had become ill, and was transferred from the British steamship Ortega to a workhouse infirmary in Liverpool, England.  It was late October 1918, and the Ortega was being used as a transport ship to carry American troops to France[i].  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[ii].  He was the oldest son, and third of seven children born to a railway carter named Robert McDonald, and his wife Maggie[iii].  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.

In the summer of 1901, Queen Victoria was in the closing years of her reign, and Great Britain was only months away from another conflict in South Africa that would become known as the Second Boer War.

On 5 November 1901, Robert’s older sister Maggie died of diphtheria while the family was living on Glasgow Street, in Belfast[iv].  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 diptheria, however in the early twentieth century it was still a prolific killer of children.  Maggie was buried in the Belfast City Cemetery[v] 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 were busy raising a large family and 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 to their final destinations using a horse and cart.

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

Balllycarry, 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, and her death doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in any of the local newspapers. If any pictures of her have survived, they are likely in a private family collection.

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[vi].  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 at will.  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 May 1915 causing the deaths of some 1,198 passengers[vii].

The merchant ship that Robert sailed on, the Ortega,  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. There is even a record of a German light cruiser called Dresden chasing the Ortega in 1915[viii], but this likely took place before Robert had joined the ship’s crew.

CR-10 Card for Robert McDonald

The Spanish Flu

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, also known as the Spanish Flu, would continue until the spring of 1919, claiming more lives than the Great War had [ix].  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 very ports that Robert frequented provided the means for this extremely contagious illness to travel rapidly and on a global scale.  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 in a Liverpool Workhouse, young Robert McDonald had become the latest casualty of the Spanish Flu.  His cause of death was recorded 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.


Due to wartime conditions, and the spread of influenza, Robert’s family likely would not have been present for his burial which took place at Walton Park Cemetery, in Liverpool, England.  People became ill and died in such great numbers, that there are records of mass graves being dug to bury the flu victims.  While Robert’s grave may be unmarked, and his passing does not seem to have been recorded in any newspaper, it is my hope that this blog post will serve as a kind of memorial to him.  His story is worth remembering.

Possible questions for further research

New records are continually being made available online, so it is entirely possible that 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




[i] http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/descriptions/ShipsO.shtml

[ii] General Register Office Northern Ireland (GRONI), U/1899/47/1007/38/135

[iii] The National Archives of Ireland, 1911 Census, http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Antrim/Templecorran/Windsor_Avenue/189116/

[iv] General Register Office Northern Ireland, D/1901/47/1007/30/202

[v] Belfast City Council (http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/community/burialrecords/burialrecords.aspx)

[vi] Find My Past, Britain, Merchant Seaman 1918-1941

[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinking_of_the_RMS_Lusitania

[viii] The Ships List (http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/descriptions/ShipsO.shtml)

[ix] The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (https://virus.stanford.edu/uda/)


10 thoughts on “A tale of two brothers: the story of Robert & James McDonald (part 1)

  1. I’m so happy to know all this about my Uncle Robert. My Dad would have been 6 when Robert died. Keep searching Chris !
    Heather Martin (nee McDonald)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for visiting, and your kind words! I was very impressed with your blog and meant to say so earlier. I am now following and look forward to reading more of your posts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am proud to say we have a wonderful group of people at my site who not only help to contribute, but also discuss things further with the other readers (I can become repetitive and boring, so they talk among themselves sometimes.) I do my best to answer any questions or find someone who can answer them.
        I think you’ll enjoy your visits, especially if history and/or the Pacific itself are interesting to you.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s great to be a part of a community like that! I have learned so much through forums like that. I’m following and will keep that in mind. Have a great weekend!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. An amazing job on researching the family Chris, you make it all so real and the way you write is fantastic , it’s all quite a story!


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