Who Were Robert McDonald & Margaret Adams?

Bit by the genealogy bug!

In my previous blog posts I wrote about two merchant sailors from County Antrim named Robert and James McDonald.  As I researched this branch of my family tree further, I also became intrigued with the story of their parents, Robert McDonald and Margaret Adams who lived in the town of Whitehead.  It can be a dangerous thing when you get bit by the genealogy bug!

Who were Robert McDonald and Margaret Adams?

When I began asking my family about Robert and his wife Margaret, I was surprised to learn that my father had actually met Margaret when his family went to visit her around 1960.  Margaret, who I’m told went by ‘Mac’, was born in 1870, and was quite elderly by the time my father’s family stayed at her home in Whitehead.  Although my father was only been a boy at the time, he was able to recall Mac’s large stone house on Windsor Avenue in Whitehead, which she heated using a peat fireplace.

A few years ago I was given an old family bible, which had Mac’s obituary taped into the inside cover.  A copy of the two obituaries, and Mac’s picture can be seen below.

Station Master of Whitehead

In speaking with family members, I had also been told that Mac’s husband, Robert, had

Larne – abt. 1912

served as the Station Master in Whitehead.  As I investigated further, I learned that Robert had been recording his occupation as Carter, as early as the birth of his daughter, Maggie, in 1897.  Carter was short for Railway Carter, which as I understand it, was someone who used a horse and cart to deliver goods that had been offloaded from a train.  When his children Elizabeth Jane and Robert died in 1917 and 1918 respectively, Robert’s occupation had been recorded on their death records as Foreman Carter.

I have included a picture below of the staff members of Whitehead Railway Station, which was taken in the 1920’s.  I don’t know the exact year the picture was taken, but given that Robert died in 1926, I think there is a good chance that he would have been known to them.  It’s possible that he is even pictured among them, however the individuals in this picture don’t seem to be named, so I may have to content myself with wondering.


A gentleman by the name of Joseph Montgomery served as the longtime Station Master in Whitehead for 34 years, up until the time of his death in 1923.  Given that Robert McDonald died in March of 1926 after having been sick with tuberculosis for a year and a half, it leaves a very small window of time when he could have been the Station Master at Whitehead, or acted in some interim capacity.

Robert would have had at least 30 years of experience as a Railway Carter by the time of Joseph Montgomery’s death, and his death certificate indicates that his occupation had been that of a Railway Official.  And while a possibility exists that Robert McDonald may have acted as Whitehead’s Station Master for a short period of time, I have not been able to find any documentation to prove that he did.


A curious omission

Robert McDonald and Margaret Adams were married on the 17 November 1893 in the Parish of Killead, St. Catherine’s Church of Ireland.  Their marriage certificate indicates that Robert was a 21 year old labourer when he married Margaret.  While Margaret’s father is recorded as being a cooper named John Adams, there is simply a line drawn through the space where the name of the groom’s father would normally have been recorded.  This omission has presented somewhat of a brick wall in my research, as marriage records are one of the best ways to learn who the fathers of the bride and groom were.

Marriage record of Robert McDonald & Margaret Adams (17 Nov 1893)

Playing detective

One possibility is to try and work backwards, using Robert’s age to try and locate his birth record.  I have made a list of the sources that make mention of Robert’s age:

  • Marriage record indicates a birth year of about 1872
  • 1901 census indicates a birth year of about 1872
  • 1911 census indicates a birth year of about 1875
  • 1926 death record indicates a birth year of about 1874

Robert recorded his birthplace as Belfast in both the 1901 and 1911 census.  So it seems reasonable to be looking for a Robert McDonald who was born in Belfast between approximately 1870-1875.  When a family member shared with me that Robert had been born in Legoniel, Belfast on 6 January 1874 to William McDonald and Rachel McCormick, I accepted this as fact since the name, date and birth place all seemed to fit.

As I continued to research this family I was surprised to learn that William and Rachel had another son born in 1880 who they also named Robert McDonald.  This means that either the first child they named Robert did not survive, or they had two living sons, both of which were named Robert!  If the first Robert did not survive, that would prove this is the wrong McDonald family, as the Robert born in 1880 would have been too young to marry Margaret Adams in 1893.  The only problem is that I have not been able to find such a death record.  Once again Robert proves to be a very elusive ancestor.

6 January 1874 birth of Robert McDonald – Legoniel, Belfast
1 April 1880 birth of Robert McDonald – Legoniel, Belfast


Children of Robert McDonald and Margaret Adams

Robert McDonald and Margaret Adams had seven children, and I have listed their names and birth dates below:

  • Elizabeth Jane – b. 2 Apr 1895
  • Maggie – b. 18 Apr 1897
  • Robert – b. 26 Jun 1899
  • James – b. 4 Sept 1901
  • John – b. 7 Apr 1905
  • Samuel – b. 22 Dec 1907
  • Herbert – b. 1 Aug 1912

I have bolded the name of my Great Grandfather, John McDonald, who is pictured below (top left) along with pictures of his brothers.  Top row: Samuel (middle), Herbert (right), Bottom Row: James (left), Robert (bottom right).


Closing thoughts

So who were Robert McDonald and Margaret Adams?  They raised a large family in what is now Northern Ireland, and certainly experienced more than their fair share of hardships.  They lost their 4 year old daughter Maggie to a childhood illness called Diptheria which thankfully, children today are vaccinated against.  Elizabeth Jane was only 22 when she died of tuberculosis in 1917, and the couple’s two eldest sons were both casualties of Great Britain’s merchant navy.  One cannot imagine the loss that Margaret and Robert must have felt when they were notified of the death of their son James, only hours after having received a letter from him.

Belfast News-Letter – 1 Dec 1924

Margaret lived for another forty years after her husband Robert’s death, no doubt seeing many changes over the course of her long life.

Larne Times 18 Oct 1941

We catch another glimpse of Margaret in an article by the Larne Times (on right), which covered the wedding of her son, Samuel, to Elizabeth (Lily) Fee in 1941.  After having endured so much tragedy, events like this wedding must have also brought joy into Margaret’s life.

Of course the McDonald family were much more than a collection of names and dates.  While genealogical records can reveal much about the lives of our ancestors, they often fail to tell us what they were really actually like.  Was Margaret Adams an outstanding cook?  Did Robert McDonald like to whistle or have a dry sense of humour?  Certainly many of these details have been lost to time, but it it can be very rewarding to try and piece together their stories.

Outstanding questions

Robert McDonald and Margaret Adams wouldn’t truly be elusive ancestors if we weren’t left with some outstanding questions about them!  Here are a few that I have been considering.  If you have thoughts or opinions on these, please let me know.

  • Were William McDonald and Rachel McCormick the parents of Robert McDonald?
  • Did Robert McDonald actually serve as Station Master at Whitehead?
  • Do any additional stories or pictures of this family exist?
Ballycarry, Northern Ireland


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