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Sunday, 9 January 2011

Why was Young John Donaldson Left Behind? Mystery Monday.

We can often find out the "who, where, and when" of our ancestors, but what about the "why"?   My mystery is  - why was 6 year old John Robert Donaldson left behind when his parents moved 350 miles south.

John was born in 1854, the son of Robert Donaldson, a shipwright,  and Isabella Walton of South Shields. On his birth certificate, only the Christian name John was given  but in other records, he appears to have added the name of his father Robert.   South Shields is a  community on the north east coast of England, dominated  by the sea and maritime activity.  An obvious next step in research  was to find the family in the 1861 Census, but frustratingly, in the days before online records, this proved impossible to trace.   Yet all the indications were that direct Donaldson descendants had remained in South Shields down the generations.

It was only much later  the opportunity  to do national searches online at http://www.ancestry.co.uk/ and http://www.findmypast.co.uk/revealed that by 1861 Robert and Isabella were at  Portsea in Portsmouth on the south coast of England. With them were two young sons Thomas, aged 4, born South Shields and one year old Frederick W. (Walton perhaps after Isabella's maiden name?) born at Portsea, indicating a move c.1857-1860.  But there was no mention of their eldest son, John  who would have been 6 years old. 

How had the family travelled 350 miles from South Shields to Portsea, by rail or more likely by sea?  Was work the reason,  with Robert now employed at Her Majesty's Dockyard as a shipwright?  Why was John not with them? 

Back in South Shields, I returned to the 1861 census and  found John's maternal grandparents, John and Hannah Walton, with the household also including their grandson John Robert Walton aged 6.  This must be "my" John Robert Donaldson, mistakenly recorded in the census with the wrong surname.     An entry in the 1871 census gave further confirmation - a John Donaldson, aged 16, born c.1855 was living at the home of his maternal uncle Robert Walton. Death records showed that John  must have lost his grandparents (and his home)  in 1868.

Eight year later John married Jane Elizabeth Rushton. and they had four sons - John Robert, Henry, Thomas, Frederick and one daughter Isabella.  Interestingly these names echoed those of his siblings in Portsmouth.  For Robert and Isabella had more children, making a family of Thomas, Fredrick, Henry, Robert, Charles, Isabella and Alfred.   The fact that John retained the name of his father and mother  for his eldest son and daughter suggests that the split had been amicable.  One cannot help wonder did the two families ever meet?

But why John was left behind remains a mystery and we shall never know - another factor  that makes family history so absorbing.


  1. Absorbing, frustrating and addictive! If only we knew why John was left behind...it's probably not such a sad situation as we imagine. Jo :-)

  2. It may have been that John was needed by his grandparents for help on their land, or in their business. Or perhaps at the time of the move he was ill, and once he was better the family just decided to leave things be. If only there were that hidden tidbit somewhere to find!

  3. and aren't these the days when we wish the ancestors had left a journal or letters behind?
    What a mystery.


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