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Monday, 6 December 2010

Donaldson Maritime Ancestors

To me "snow" was the white stuff falling in winter and a "smack" was a slap to a recaltrant child.  But that all changed  as I  began researching my husband's maritime ancestors and learnt about the different names for ships in the 19th century - barque or bark or barc, brig, sloop. smack and snow - an illustration of the diverse routes that family history can take you.

I traced the Donaldson family back to the marriage of Samuel Donaldson, merchant in South Leith (near Edinburgh),  His grandson Robert went from South Leith to the port of South Shields on the River Tyne  and his son Robert moved to Porstmouth on the  English south coast - the linking factor the sea with family occupations ranging from merchant, master mariner, seaman, caulker, roper, ship's carpenter and river policeman.

Tyne and Wear Archives provided information on the life of Robert Donaldson (1801-1876), master mariner of South Shields, and the ships he sailed on, listed in "“A Dictionary of Tyne Sailing Ships:  a record of merchant sailing ships owned, registered and built at the Port of Tyne 1830-1930”, compiled by Richard Keys.  This is a complete A-Z of Ships, master mariners and owners, detailing ships, voyages, disasters and share-ownerships, and much more - a must for anyone with maritime ancestors in this region.

The entries make fascinating reading, with all six ships on which Robert Donaldson sailed, having an eventful history and coming to a sad end (though not under his charge).  

The Thetis became a wreck after sinking off the Yorkshire coast in 1869.

The John was stranded in 1861 and became a wreck during a severe easterly gale.  Twenty-eight other Tyne ships went ashore in the same area during the same gale.

The Emerald, in  December 1855, when on passage from the Tyne to London, foundered in five fathoms on the Dough Sand (Long Sand) Thames estuary.   Three survivors were brought ashore by two Bridlington smacks.  Eleven others were unaccounted for, including some of the crew of the rescuing smack who were in a small boat, which disappeared. 

The Hebe was wrecked in Robin Hood’s Bay, along with other vessels on 27 January 1861. The  Ann & Elizabeth  disappeared after leaving the Tyne in November 1863, with her captain leaving a wife and six children.

The  William Mecalfe was Robert Donaldson's largest ship    On her maiden voyage, it transported 240 male convicts from Portsmouth to Hobart, on a passage that took 102 days.  In January 1855 eight of her crew were sent to goal for three months each by the North Shields magistrates for refusing duty.  In October 1858 her master and one man were washed overboard.  Nine days later, the ship was abandoned, with the crew taken off.

These incidents were by no means unusual  and bring home the hazards our mariner ancestors faced in their daily lives.


  1. Well, I had heard of a scow - but never a snow! Just goes to show: never say never...

  2. hi Susan, I hadn't heard of a snow either though I knew many of the others. My Melvins were mariners in Leith for many a long year. Mostly they are in the South Leith records but sometimes in the North Leith records. Your Donaldson ancestor was similar age to my Melvin ancestor give or take a year or two. I wonder if they knew each other. I also have links to Tynemouth but my Melvin married a Gilhespy from North Shields. Aren't all these links interesting! Pauleen


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