Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 41. A face in the crowd

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Monkbarns officers and apprentices 1918, Bunbury WA

Monkbarns officers and apprentices – and small guest – 1918, Bunbury WA. Sivell family collection

As the world celebrated the end of the war in November 1918 with dancing and concerts, old “Jock” Donaldson, master of the British sailing ship Monkbarns far from home in Bunbury WA, put his feet up in the town’s best hotel and sat back to await the arrival of the Melbourne steamer SS Kurnalpi, and his son.

James Donaldson jnr, born like his father in West Kilbride, Scotland, within sight of Portincross Castle – from where the bodies of Scotland’s kings were ferried to Iona – had followed the Old Man to sea and in 1908 joined the Melbourne Steamship Co, tramping the west Australian route from Perth to Sydney, £14 return in saloon class.

By 1918 he was Captain Donaldson, 39, with a wife and children, and a ship of his own, and that November his regular call at Bunbury would coincide with Monkbarns’ time in port. So, while Bert Sivell and the 2nd mate oversaw the apprentices discharging the slimy ballast stones loaded in Rio de Janeiro and the scouring of the holds and the killing of the rats (at which young Cobner was to prove a dab hand) and the laying of dunnage for the consignment of Jarrah wood railway sleepers due to arrive any day from the sawmill inland, Captain Donaldson took up residence in the Rose hotel, yarned with the mayor and his cronies, and waited.

Bert Sivell and 'the 2nd'

Monkbarns mates: First officer Bert Sivell and 'the 2nd' - probably Gil Cheetham

“One day there was great excitement on the ship,” wrote apprentice Victor Fall. “For weeks the Old Man had been talking of his son, and his steamer. The apprentices in particular were anxious to see this ship, as from the Old Man’s account she was at least equal to the Katoomba, the 10,000-ton interstate liner.

“At last, a very small steamer about 250 tons came into the bay, belching black smoke from a tall funnel, which seemed too big for the ship. She was so small that as she passed the stone breakwater only the top of her masts and funnel were visible.” Memory is an unreliable witness – Kurnalpi was in fact a 495 tonner, twice as big as Fall remembered, but the Monkbarns boys were not impressed. ‘THAT thing, we could swing her on our davits!’ one of them was heard to remark, rather regrettably within the Old Man’s earshot, Fall recalled.

Meanwhile, among the mayor’s wife and her circle, interest focused not on Kurnalpi but on the tidbit that Captain Donaldson was also expecting the arrival of his daughter from Melbourne, and the grandchild he hardly knew, supposedly a little girl of nine.

On November 24th 1918 a series of photographs was taken on and around Monkbarns, two of which featuring – if reluctantly – the 70-year-old captain. (“The old man is looking pretty fierce. I had a fine job getting him to come out” wrote Bert.)

Bert himself is there, seated beside Donaldson, awkwardly showcasing the three stripes on his sleeves. Victor Fall is there, and Lewis Watkins and Percy Wilkins – who later married an Ozzie girl in Newcastle NSW and is believed to have carved out a career for himself in state politics. The rat-catcher James Cobner may in the photo too. He also settled in Newcastle NSW, and opened a chain of drycleaners. But the central face in the photo is a mystery.

I think it is Donaldson’s grandchild. You guessed, another James Donaldson.


In the photograph: Captain Donaldson and First Officer Bert Sivell, seated; ranged behind them from left – unknown, unknown, Malcolm Glasier (15) with cane?, unknown, 2nd Mate Gilbert Cheetham? holding child, unknown, Percy Wilkins (19), Victor Fall (17), Lewis Watkins (18) and unknown.

Next: Shanghaied, and a death at sea
Previously: Armistice in Bunbury WA

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll


2 Responses

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  1. […] Coming next: Death at sea Previously: A face in the crowd […]

  2. […] Captain Donaldson’s visitors, the mystery child and a kidnapping Previously: A walk among the […]

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