A tale of two brothers: the story of Robert & James McDonald (part 2)

 A tale of two brothers

As Remembrance Day approaches, I will be thinking of the story of Robert McDonald, a young merchant sailor from County Antrim who died of Spanish Flu during the closing months of the first world war.  Robert served as part of the crew of the merchant ship Ortega, which helped to transport American troops to France, and is probably also how he contracted the illness that claimed his life.  Although nearly 100 years have passed since Robert’s death, it is important that we not forget what he and others involved in the war effort sacrificed to safe guard the freedoms that we enjoy today.

In this second of two blog posts, we will take a look at the life of the other brother in this story, James McDonald.  Like his older brother, James also served in Great Britain’s merchant navy.  And while James is the focus of this blog post, it would be impossible to tell his story without also providing some insight into the rest of the McDonald family and the town of Whitehead where they lived.

Merchant seaman James McDonald

Who was James McDonald?

James McDonald was born in Belfast, Ireland on 4 September 1901.  James was a middle child, 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, however there were a few such as Mary O’Hanlon and Patrick Haughey who recorded their religion as being Roman Catholic.


Birth registration of James McDonald

Another year older

By the time of the 1911 census, eight year old James was living with his family on Windsor Avenue, in Whitehead and attending school along with his brothers Robert (aged 10 years) and John (aged 6 years).  Their oldest sibling, 14 year old Elizabeth was working as a shirt maker and the youngest of the family, Samuel, was only 3 years old.  Another sibling would later be added to the McDonald family when young Herbert was born in 1912.

In reality, the ages of several of the McDonald children were recorded incorrectly, which was not all that uncommon for census records of the time.  For example, according to her birth registration, Elizabeth would actually have been 16 at the time of the 1911 census, which, somewhat ironically, was conducted on her birthday.  Could the family have been celebrating Elizabeth’s 14th birthday when she was actually 16 years old?  A common source of misinformation was when neighbors or other non-family members provided information to the census enumerator.  And while the McDonald family had a boarder living with them by the name of Andrew Greer, the census was signed by the elder Robert McDonald, pictured on the right.

Robert McDonald

Did Robert forget his daughter’s age, or did he get it right and the enumerator recorded it incorrectly?  We may never know.

A life at sea

After the 1911 census, I was unable to find any further trace of James, and for nearly two years, considered it a brick wall in my family research.  I could find no marriage or death record, and no indication that he had emigrated from Ireland.  I knew that James was young to have fought in the Great War, but that it was possible.  I combed through British war records, but nothing seemed to match. It was only when a family member mentioned that two McDonald brothers may have served in Britain’s Merchant Navy, that I was once again able to pick up the trail.

I soon learned that Find My Past has a searchable database of merchant navy seaman records, and was thrilled to find a young Antrim seaman named James McDonald among them.  As a British sailor of this time period, James had his picture taken and physical appearance recorded on these cards, along with the name and address of his father, Robert McDonald (pictured above).

The index cards indicate that James was 5 feet 5 merchant-seamen-james-mcdonald-1inches tall, and although the photo is black and white, we also know that he had light brown hair and grey eyes.  James had attained the rank of ordinary seaman and does not seem to have had any tattoos as many other sailors of that period did.

Seaman missing

The life of a merchant sailor was and continues to be an inherently dangerous occupation.  Some sailors died of illness or disease, such as James’ older brother Robert, who died during the influenza pandemic of 1918.  Others sustained injuries in the course of their duties, were the victims of piracy, or were lost at sea and presumed dead.

I was surprised when I heard on the CBC that in Canada, an average of 12 fishermen are still lost at sea each year.  Hearing the story told by a mother of one of the ship’s crew was absolutely heart breaking.  She had spoken with her son the morning he went missing to read him the weather report.  Apparently he and the others on the ship were already experiencing the weather that had been forecast.  She indicated that was the last time she spoke with her son, and one could sense the lack of closure that came from never finding the crew or their ship.  For all of today’s technology, some things haven’t changed all that much since James McDonald went missing in 1924.

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 27 November 1924.  The news of James being presumed dead must have been a terrible ordeal for Robert and Maggie McDonald.  With his passing, the couple had now been pre-deceased by four of their seven children.

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.”

The following week, a brief notice was placed in the Larne Times regarding the passing of James McDonald.  Now 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.


Merchant navy records indicate that James was listed as missing, and the above newspaper articles make mention of him having drowned, so it would be interesting to see if the crewlist and log book of the Towneley contain any additional information on what happened to James.  The official ship number of the Towneley was 145532, however I have not yet been able to obtain those records.

To the best of my knowledge, neither James or his brother Robert have a headstone to mark their passing but they and other mariners like them, 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 the story of James and Robert McDonald 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!

Questions for further consideration

Do the crew list and log book for the Towneley (145532) still exist for when James died in November/December 1924?  If so, do they contain any additional information around the details of his disappearance?

One thought on “A tale of two brothers: the story of Robert & James McDonald (part 2)

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