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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

The Donaldson Connection

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As far as one can ever be categorical about these things, I had thought, the Donaldsons were not related to the Findlays in any way whatsoever.

That's only because I never heard any mention of it within the family. There is however an intriguing coincidence:

  • My grandmother Hannah Findlay's aunt, Isabella Donaldson Findlay (5 Dec 1844 – 16 May 1925), married James Muir (dates unknown) on 30 Jun 1868

  • Mary (May) Donaldson's father, Alexander Murray Donaldson (16 Jul 1834 – 11 Mar 1883), married Mary Isabella Muir (1840 – 1926) on 20 Mar 1874

The two Muirs were of the same generation, and the two unions had those three reasonably unusual names in common. Were the Muirs by any chance brother & sister? Or at any rate, was there a reasonably close degree of kinship?

Isabella Donaldson Findlay ~ James Muir
Mary Isabella Muir ~ Alexander Murray Donaldson

Click here to see an assessment of the evidence so far.

But one member of that family, a most extraordinarily individual and eccentric woman, Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson, MEMD, known to Scottish Highlanders and Lowlanders alike as "Herself", and within the Waddell family as Uncle Tonal, was a considerable influence upon my grandmother Hannah, and was indeed godmother to my father Walter. For simplicity I shall generally refer to her as May, as did my Aunt Jane on occasion.

Although James Muir appears not to have been sibling or close kin of Mary Isabella Muir, click here to see that he is actually expendable in that the Findlays and the Muirs / Donaldsons had been such close kith that Hannah and May were virtually predestined to bond. Something of that very same nature happened in my own childhood but was tragically curtailed by leukaemia, in those days untreatable and incurable.

The information in the first table below is principally based around the following webpages

and also

#IndividualSpouse / PartnerFamily
‑5Alexander Donaldson Janet Rattray
(m 1803)
George Donaldson
(1805 –
5 Aug 1874)

and doubtless others
‑4George Donaldson
(1805 –
5 Aug 1874)

died at Coromandel Valley, Adelaide
Jane Murray$
(17 Apr 1804 –
13 Jun 1885)
(m 2 Jul 1831)
died in Adelaide
Alexander Murray Donaldson
(16 Jul 1834 –
11 Mar 1883)

George Donaldson
(1835 –
? = Rosina Anderson

Peter Lawton Donaldson
(b 1838)

Eliza Jane Donaldson
(b 1840)

Jessie Rattray Donaldson
(14 Apr 1841 –
‑4John Muir
(ca 1814 –
1874 Q2)

cloth manufacturer
Mary (Paterson?)
(ca 1814 –
25 Dec 1903)
(m 27 Dec 1838)
Mary Isabella Muir
(26 Mar 1840 –
1 Jun 1926)

Christina Paterson Muir
(6 Feb 1842 –
22 Jun 1915)

Margaret Wilhelmina (Maggie Wilkie) Muir
(1 Sep 1848 –
7 Oct 1924)
‑3Alexander Murray Donaldson
(16 Jul 1834 –
11 Mar 1883)

cloth merchant

£200 16s 9d
Mary Graham
(d 28 Feb1865)
Frederick Donaldson
= (Private)
Mary Isabella Muir
(16 or 26 Mar 1840 –
1 Jun 1926)
(m 20 Mar 1874)

£3,437 17s 9d
Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson
(19 May 1876 –
17 Jan 1958)


John Muir Donaldson MC
(21 Oct 1877 –
14 Jan 1963)

£32,322 15s 0d

Alexander Herbert Donaldson
(1881 –
3 Mar 1952)
= Mary Cook

£11,385 0s 3d
‑2Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson
(19 May 1876 –
17 Jan 1958)

Portraits1,  2,  3
Mary Isabel Bonus
(5 Jan 1875 –
9 Aug 1941)

$: I can't yet establish the link with Alexander Murray (25 Dec 1803 – 10 Apr 1880) who founded the Murray & Son biscuit and jam manufacturers in Coromandel Valley.

The Donaldson Line

May's father Alexander was reputedly a man of substantial means, and allegedly bequeathed a considerable fortune to May herself, inter alia, when he died so prematurely. Indeed, as my Aunt Jane recently (Mar 2013) remarked to me, he had been a shipping magnate, a senior director of the Donaldson Line.

(All this is hardly borne out by the probate figures featured above – but let us suspend judgement, as he might also have had a clever accountant.)

Well, my Aunt is a model of probity, and she spoke in good faith, but a dramatic assertion of that sort immediately raises my suspicions. Nullius in verba, as the fine old scientific motto says, and I just had to look into their family background. Thank goodness for Google and the ancestry.co.uk website.

The following extract gives an exceptionally clear and complete account of the origins of the Donaldson shipping empire (1855-1968) and the family members who ran it, tying in very neatly with the family tree already deduced from other sources:

The partnership of Donaldson Brothers was formed in 1854 as shipbrokers, charterers and insurance agents by John Donaldson (1833-1889) and his brother, William Falconer Donaldson (1830-1880), both of whom had previous experience in Glasgow shipping offices. Donaldson Brothers set up premises at 62 Buchanan Street, Glasgow. After inheriting a mill at Anderston, the partners became shipowners. In 1858 Patrick Donaldson (1828-1880), elder brother of John and William, joined the company, not as partner but as cashier. Archibald Falconer Donaldson (1841-1907), younger brother of John and William, joined the firm aged 17 and by 1890, when both founding partners were deceased, was the dominant partner. Two of John's sons, William Cattanach (1868-1914) and Charles2 (1870-1938) had entered the business in 1885 and 1888 respectively, as did William Betts Donaldson (1872-1945) and Norman Patrick Donaldson (1878-1955), sons of William Falconer Donaldson (1830-1880). Family involvement with the firm was continued in later years by Norman Fraser Graham Donaldson (1906-1945), son of Norman Patrick Donaldson (1878-1955), and Charles Glen Donaldson1 (1904-1956) and Fred Alastair Donaldson (b 1909), sons of Charles Donaldson (1870-1938). The next generation of Donaldson Brothers include Patrick Graham Donaldson (b 1937), son of Norman Fraser Graham Donaldson (1906-1945), Alastair Noel Donaldson (b 1935) and Angus Fred Donaldson (b 1944), sons of Fred Alastair Donaldson (b 1909).The company operated routes to South America, North America and Canada, originally as cargo carriers, but increasingly also transporting paying passengers. In 1904 the 'Athenia' was built. Shortly afterwards she was converted to a passenger ship with accommodation for 530 travellers. The Donaldson Brothers passenger ships were particularly associated with emigration to Canada.The Donaldson Line Ltd was incorporated in 1913 as a private limited liability group, to replace the separate companies managing ships in the fleet. At the same time the partnership of Donaldson Brothers was incorporated as Donaldson Brothers Ltd and continued to own and manage The Donaldson Line Ltd. During World War I seven ships of the line were lost to enemy action while acting as hospital ships, transports and supply ships under the Liner Requisition Scheme. In 1916 the Donaldson Line merged with the Anchor Line (Henderson Brothers) Ltd to form the Anchor Donaldson Line Ltd, operating a passenger and cargo service between Glasgow and Canada. In 1919 the Donaldson South American Line was formed under the terms of an agreement with Armour, a meat packing firm, to transport refrigerated cargo from South America to Europe and the USA. In 1938 the Donaldson Line became a public company. In the same year Stuart Black, his brother Albert, and his son Hervey joined the Board of Donaldson Brothers Ltd and the company changed its name to Donaldson Brothers   Black Ltd. At the same time the management of the Donaldson South American Line ships was transferred to the new company. The former company was wound up in 1941.

#IndividualSpouse / PartnerFamily
‑4John Donaldson
(b 1792)
Mary Falconer
(b 1806)
(1828 –

William Falconer
(24 Mar 1830 –

Marion A
(b 1833)

(17 Jul 1833 –

Janet G
(b 1837)
Archibald Falconer
(1842 –
14 Jan 1913)?
(1841 –
‑3William Falconer Donaldson
(b 24 Mar 1830)
Henrietta Maria Betts
(b 1840)
(m 30 Apr 1867)
(b 1868)

Mary Falconer
(b 1870)

William Betts
(1872 –

Norman Patrick
(1878 –
‑3John Donaldson
(17 Jul 1833 –
Jessie Cattenach
(b 1837)
(b 1865)

Janet W
(b 1867)

William Cattenach
(1868 –

(1870 –
7 Dec 1938)

Alice Mary
(1874 –

Archibald T
(b 1877)

(b 1878)

It is quite clear from these two tables, coupled with the narrative, that Alexander Murray Johnson, MEM's father, had absolutely no direct connection with the Donaldson shipping company or the family dynasty around which it was based. He may of course have been a distant cousin, beyond the scope of this investigation, but that would hardly have conferred more than a very small slice of the pie – he was certainly very rich but he was equally certainly not the shipping magnate of Waddell family tradition.


Subsequent to this, a letter just received from Aunt Jane avers that Mary Donaldson's father Alexander had amassed his wealth as a major figure in MacBraynes, the iconic ferry company that has served the Scottish West Coast and Western Isles for the last 160 years.

Various versions of a local poem (based loosely on Psalm 24) refer to MacBrayne's long dominance of Hebridean sailings:

The Earth belongs unto the Lord
And all that it contains
Except the Kyles and the Western Isles
And they are all MacBrayne's.

To quote from Wikipedia

In 1851, Burns Brothers, G. and J. Burns of Glasgow, passed their fleet of Hebridean vessels to their chief clerk, David Hutch[e]son. The new company, David Hutcheson & Co. had three partners, David Hutcheson, Alexander Hutcheson and David MacBrayne. In 1878, the company passed to David MacBrayne, partner and nephew of Messrs. Burns.

No mention of Alexander Donaldson there!


But the references to Sir George Burns (who was immersed in affairs of business until just before his death at 95, an inspiration to us all) in the early history of Hutchesons, also mention his involvement with two other Scottish financiers, James Donaldson and David McIver, as major investors in the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, a snappy name for a new venture in 1851 by Samuel Cunard, a Nova Scotian entrepreneur. Fortunately for everybody else, it was renamed as the Cunard Steam Ship Company in 1878.

Well, at last, maybe a link is established with Alexander Donaldson, Mary's father. But he was only 17 in 1851, and he didn't have an elder brother called James either. And there I think I'll leave the matter; it's been an enjoyable chase but the quarry has escaped. If anybody else can provide the missing piece of jigsaw I'd love to hear from them.

1: Father of the semi-legendary (Charles) William Donaldson, perpetrator of the intensely amusing Henry Root letters in the 1980s, and whose downhill spiral of sex, drugs and theatrical extravagance was universally admired as a perfect example of the genre, as described in this memoir:



His wife was called Cherry Hatrick??? Cool! Was she a drag artiste, by any chance?

Should we start a 'quotes' section here? Donaldson was a great one for witty remarks – I particularly like his description of Stephen Fry as "The stupid person's idea of a clever person"

William Donaldson has been tipped as the subject of Carly Simon's song "You're So Vain". The Telegraph obituary gives a number of clues (how he wears his hat, his affairs with his friends' wives, his sale of family treasures) that this might be the case.


Donaldson, (Charles) William [Willie; pseud. Henry Root] (1935-2005), writer and impresario, was born in Sunningdale, Berkshire, on 4 January 1935, the son of Charles Glen Donaldson (1904-1956), shipowner, and his wife, Elizabeth (Betty), nee Stockley (d. 1955). His father was co-chairman of the Donaldson Line, a family shipping firm established as Donaldson Brothers in 1854, which owned a fleet of nineteen passenger and cargo ships. Although the company was based in Glasgow he had moved south five years after marrying Elizabeth Stockley in 1927. For complicated psychological, and less complicated comical reasons, Donaldson was later to portray his mother as an overbearing snob. The truth was rather different: she was a loving, occasionally indulgent mother to her two children, Eleanor Jane and Charles (as Donaldson was known at the time).

From 1942 Donaldson attended Woodcote House preparatory school, where he became a boarder in 1944 at the age of nine. By the time he went to Winchester College in 1948 he had become known as William, or Willie. He was remembered by old Wykehamists with varying degrees of fondness as a restless and subversive figure who had great charm but also a well-developed talent for disruption. When Lord Wavell inspected the college corps, it was Donaldson who right-turned and quick-marched, while the rest of his house platoon turned left. He did his national service in the submarines, developing an intense friendship with a fellow old Wykehamist, Julian Mitchell, with whom he shared a passion for ballet, the arts, and intellectual discussion. Mitchell already knew that he wanted to be a writer; Donaldson's ambition was to be a ballet critic. In April 1955 the two sailors travelled to Paris vowing to lose their virginity. After a week the mission was accomplished after a fashion but, on his return to London, Donaldson was summoned to Sunningdale. There he was told that his mother had been killed in a car crash near Winchester. The tragedy was particularly devastating to Donaldson's father who effectively gave up on life, staying at home and drinking heavily. He died less than two years later.

Now rich, Donaldson went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where his most notable achievement was to set up and edit, with Julian Mitchell, who was at Oxford, a literary magazine called Gemini whose contributors included Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Geoffrey Hill. Meanwhile his personal life was becoming complicated. While attending Ascot and smart parties in the expected way, even becoming engaged to a beautiful, tennis-playing debutante, Sonia Iris Avory (daughter of Edward Raymond Avory, stockbroker), in his last year at Cambridge, he spent increasing amounts of time in the company of the girls he was truly attracted to-those who plied their trade around Curzon Street. 'I knew that I was a pervert when I was twenty', he said years later. He nevertheless married Sonia Avory, at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, on 17 July 1958. She was then aged twenty.

On leaving Cambridge, Donaldson became a theatrical producer. His first enterprise, an atom bomb satire by John Bird called Here Is the News, was a brave and expensive failure but Donald Langdon, agent to Peter Cook, was sufficiently impressed by Donaldson's nerve to offer him another satire, Beyond the Fringe (1961), which became a huge hit in the West End and on Broadway. Characteristically, Donaldson finessed failure out of triumph, investing what money he had made in a series of original, eccentric, money-losing revues. Although he was among the first to recognize the talent of Spike Milligan, Marty Feldman, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, he was more or less broke by 1964 and definitively bankrupt by 1966.

Donaldson's personal life was equally eventful. For the first part of the 1960s he lived the life of a typical wealthy, fun-loving bachelor of the time. Unfortunately he was married. In 1960 Sonia gave birth to his son, Charlie. The marriage ended in divorce in 1965. For a while Donaldson lived with the actress Sarah Miles (b. 1941), a period interrupted when he moved out, soon becoming engaged to the young American singer Carly Simon (b. 1945). When Simon returned to America to prepare for marriage, he revived his relationship with Miles. The relationship was again short-lived. In 1967, broke and on the run from creditors, Donaldson travelled around the country with Claire Gordon (b. 1941), an actress. They were married on 1 September 1967. The following year, after the death of a grandmother, Donaldson received his last family bequest, which he spent on buying model agencies and throwing famously exotic, drug-fuelled, and debauched parties at the flat in Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea, where they lived.

After one final theatrical disaster, a production of Oscar Panizza's The Council of Love (1970) that was unsuccessfully sued for blasphemy, Donaldson debunked to Ibiza, where he spent what money he had left on a glass-bottomed boat called (coincidentally) Capitan-Wylly. His relationship with Gordon broke down during this period, although they were not finally divorced until 1975. In Ibiza Donaldson contacted a colonel's daughter who had become a successful call-girl. In October 1972 he returned to England to move in with the woman he called Emma Jane Crampton. Surrounded by a wealth of comic material, Donaldson began to write, reworking the events of his life in the form of semi-fiction, with himself as the fall guy and villain. Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen, whose first line was 'Living in a brothel isn't everything it is cracked up to be', was published in 1975 to some favourable reviews. By this time, Crampton had been replaced in Donaldson's affections by his former secretary Cherry Jane Hatrick (daughter of David Lindsay Hatrick, production engineer), with whom he lived at 139 Elm Park Mansions, off the Fulham Road in Chelsea, for several years.

In 1980 Donaldson's most successful book, The Henry Root Letters, was published. Inspired by an American book, Don Novello's The Lazlo Letters (1977), it took the form of a series of letters (often accompanied by a £1 note) written to politicians, policemen, and media stars by a vulgar and ferociously right-wing wet-fish merchant, many of which received gratifyingly vain and stupid replies. The book became one of the great best-sellers of the decade. Briefly fashionable, Donaldson was the first gossip columnist of the Mail on Sunday and replaced Julian Barnes as restaurant critic of The Tatler. There was a second book of Root letters and Henry Root's World of Knowledge (1982), an application of the idea behind Flaubert's dictionary of received ideas to Thatcher's Britain.

For the rest of his life Donaldson regularly wrote comic volumes-'toilet books', as he called them - sometimes in collaboration with other authors. A gleeful literary impersonator, he created a series of alternative personae, including the oleaginous court correspondent Talbot Church, the French intellectual Jean-Luc Legris, and the demented TV producer Liz Reed. His more directly autobiographical work, from the semi-factual novel Is This Allowed? (1985) to the semi-fictional memoir From Winchester to This (1997), and his memorably frank column 'William Donaldson's week' in The Independent, reflected with lacerating, self-immolating humour and wildly varying degrees of accuracy the downward spiral of his private life. In 1985 he became passionately involved with Melanie Soszynski, an escort agency girl with a fondness for cocaine. At the end of an exciting and destructive relationship Soszynski was in a rehabilitation clinic and Donaldson had developed a liking for crack cocaine, which he continued to take for the next fifteen years. Having confessed his infatuation to Cherry Hatrick, he married her on 5 August 1986 (after she had insisted they either marry or separate), but the relationship was already over. Hatrick moved out of Elm Park Mansions nine months later, though they never divorced.

Although Donaldson continued to write with a brilliant, savage wit, his life in the 1990s took a melancholy turn. After another doomed affair with a call-girl, he was declared bankrupt for the third and final time in August 1994. His final years were brightened by two things: a relationship with the model Rachel Garley, and his last great triumph as a writer, Brewers' Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (2002), a 300,000 word compendium of bad behaviour. 'Willie Donaldson has never had the recognition he deserves as a comic genius', Francis Wheen wrote in the Mail on Sunday. 'Perhaps this magnificent volume will do the trick' (Mail on Sunday, 15 Dec 2002).

Throughout his life, Donaldson acquired a reputation as a corrupting influence, but in person he was a respectable, quietly spoken, slightly frayed figure of naval bearing, beguiling company, and as funny at first hand as he was on the page. His years of recreational crack abuse finally caught up with him on 22 June 2005 when, during a heatwave, his lungs finally gave out and he died of respiratory failure, alone in his Elm Park Mansions flat. He was cremated at a sparsely attended funeral at Mortlake cemetery. A memorial reading of his work at the Lyttelton Theatre six months later was, however, a sell-out.

Terence Blacker.

Gazette clipping
Obituary bulletin for Charles Donaldson (1870 –
7 Dec 1938) in the Gazette, Montreal, Thu 8 Dec 1938: