John Donaldson and his Family

By Humphrey Arthure, Journal 4, 1985

John Donaldson (1840-1899) gave up a promising career as an engineer in India to come home and go into partnership with his brother-in-law, John Thornycroft, about 1872, some eight years after Thornycroft had started to build boats in Chiswick. They had been students together at Glasgow University and Donaldson married one of Thornycroft’s five sisters, Frances Sarah, in Bombay Cathedral before their return to England.

John Donaldson was born in Elgin in 1840 and his father, Peter Donaldson, kept a coaching inn, The Gordon Arms, there; he died when John was only three. His mother, a very Scottish lady, lived in Chiswick with the family until 1891. John Donaldson’s grandfather was a vintner in Aberdeen but also a flesher or butcher and a coachmaker, finally owning the Star Inn. He died in 1842.

John Donaldson went to Aberdeen Grammar School where he showed an aptitude for mathematics. On leaving school he was apprenticed at Morrison’s Engineering Works at Newcastle and later became chief draughtsman at Cowan Sheldon’s Works at Carlisle. He then sold a small property in Aberdeen in order to study at Glasgow University, where he was awarded the Walker Prize in Engineering and Mechanics.

After getting his Certificate in 1867 he worked his passage to Egypt as second engineer on a small steamer. Rounding the Cape in a violent storm, the Captain went off his head and was put ashore at Cape Town. In the Red Sea they ran out of fuel and had to burn the ship’s biscuits – John Donaldson then trekked across the desert to Aden to buy coal. After this he got a job as engineer in the Feroze, which lay in Annesley Bay during Lord Napier’s Abyssinian Expedition, distilling water for the troops. In 1869 he was appointed Chief Engineer at Dum Dum Arsenal near Calcutta, which he remodelled before working on improvements to the Port of Calcutta.

According to his grand-daughter, Mrs Marion Gain, to whom I am indebted for much of this history, John Donaldson brought business acumen and stability to the Thornycroft shipbuilding firm. Furthermore he and his eldest son, Thornycroft Donaldson, both distinguished marine engineers, used to sift through the often brilliant, but sometimes impractical ideas which flowed from John Thornycroft’s inventive brain.

John Donaldson always refused to allow his name to be added to the firm, preferring to leave it as Thornycroft & Co. and this was typical of his selfless way of life and humility.

It was to John Donaldson that R T Smith, apparently a very inefficient Thornycroft clerk, went and asked for a loan of £5 to start a coffee stall in Church Street, to try and diminish patronage of the Lamb Tap Inn. This was a great success as R T Smith had a heart of gold and a flair for welfare work. He gave up clerking and Donaldson continued to pay him his salary on condition that he never let on who paid him. R T Smith founded the Chiswick Mission in 1880 and he used to find homes for children who had been left motherless because of early death or desertion – these children were not then eligible for orphanages.

John Donaldson was a Scot and a Presbyterian. He did not attend church very often but was a great reader of the Bible. The Parish Church did not exactly commend itself to him as the Vicar’s wife, Mrs Dale, often complained of the noise and smell of Thornycroft employees as they went past the Vicarage. Nevertheless the stained glass window at the west end of the north aisle was given by Mr and Mrs John Donaldson in 1884 ‘To the glory of God and the adornment of this house’. It depicts our Lord blessing little children and in its upper parts are the patron saints of the chief cities of Scotland.

Siegfried Sassoon, John Thornycroft’s nephew and John Donaldson’s nephew by marriage (he called them Uncle John and Uncle Don), says in his book ‘The Old Century’ that Uncle Don was greatly loved by all who knew him. In this book Sassoon describes the launch of HMS Speedy on the 18th May 1893 by Princess May, wearing a large flowered hat. In fact it was launched by the wife of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lady George Hamilton. Siegfried was then only seven and he must have been confused because on this same day Princess May became engaged to the elder brother of Prince George – she later married Prince George and became better known as Queen Mary.

John Donaldson built the Tower House at the northern end of Chiswick Lane In 1875. It is now a convent, used since 1952 by the Missionary Sisters of Verona. They followed a French Roman Catholic Sisterhood, Marie Reparatrice, a closed order whose members wore pale blue and white robes and were known as the Blue Nuns. The Donaldson family had a large music room which became the Chapel; it was damaged by a bomb in World War II, soon after which the Blue Nuns left and went to Wimbledon.

Mrs Gain remembers meeting a Mlle Marie des Victoires in the dining room, a room in which many scientists, engineers and artists had been entertained by the Donaldsons, while the children listened intently to their interesting conversation. Among the many visitors were Prof and Mrs Ayrton and Sir Benjamin Baker. In the late 1890s John Donaldson and Sir Benjamin bought neighbouring estates at Pangbourne, the site of the present Pangbourne Nautical College. After John Donaldson’s death the family moved to 2, Melbury Road, Kensington, where Hamo Thorneycroft had his studio.

John Donaldson designed a family steam yacht, Thetis, known as the floating nursery. It was a very stable ship, built rather like Noah’s Ark and she used to sail across the Irish Channel when it was too rough for the mail boats.

Music-rooms and studios were essential in all the Donaldson homes. John Donaldson’s wife, Frances or Fanny, had a magnificent contralto voice and had been a pupil of Francesco Bergeo. They had five daughters as well as five sons and were a close-knit Victorian family. Mary, the eldest daughter, was a painter and her portrait of Uncle Hamo is in the family. She used to return regularly to the Tower House for French conversation lessons with one of the Blue Nuns. Alyce was pupil of Madame Schumann and no mean performer at the piano – she also became the much-loved family housekeeper. Helen, Mrs. Gain’s mother, played the violin exquisitely and won a Royal Society of Arts bronze medal. Helen married Clarence Hamilton, who was Vicar of Windsor from 1927 to 1940 and became Chaplain to the Royal Family. Isabel, the fourth daughter, was a sculptor who specialised in children. She was a great character who took her numerous nephews and nieces to museums, castles, cathedrals and the theatre – anywhere that would arouse a child’s imagination and appreciation of the beautiful or historic. The youngest daughter, Frances, played the ‘cello; she studied at the Royal Academy of Music and won its highest award – she also tied with Barbirolli in a competition.

John Donaldon’s eldest son, Thornycroft Donaldson, often called Thorny, followed his father in the Thornycroft works and was General Manager of the firm for many years, including both World Wars. In 1899, the year his father died, Thorny won the Telford Premium. Like his father he had exceptional integrity and combined engineering skill with administrative ability. He assisted in the development of torpedo gunboats and destroyers. The second son, Norman, was a Gunner who was killed at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915. Next came Malcolm, affectionately known as Dottie, who rowed for Cambridge in the University Boat Race of 1906. He became a consultant gynaecologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital; he was particularly interested in cancer and the education of women in the early detection of cancer, lecturing to Women’s Institutes up and down the country. He was my senior colleague at Mount Vernon Hospital, Northwood, and I got to know him well. Malcolm Donaldson’s son, Sir John Donaldson, is now Master of the Rolls and his wife was the first woman Sheriff in the City of London, becoming Lord Mayor in 1983.

The fourth son, Alastair, became a Captain in the 34 Sikh Pioneers; he was very artistic and became a professional photographer. The youngest son, Eric Donaldson, followed Malcolm as a medical student at Bart’s and became Medical Officer of Health for Surrey before becoming a Senior Medical Officer at the Ministry of Health. He was awarded the OBE for preparing hospitals for air raid casualties in World War II. Mrs Gain relates that one of her nephews, presumably a Donaldson and a marine engineer, sailed in the Falklands Task Force as second-in-command of the Coventry.

It is interesting to recall the probable origins of all this talent. John Donaldson’s wife was the daughter of Thomas and Mary Thornycroft, both of whom were sculptors. Thomas was the sculptor of Boadicea in her Chariot’ and exhibited Boadicea’s head at the Royal Academy in 1864. After his death in 1885 Hamo Thornycroft, who became even better known as a sculptor than his father and was knighted, found the Boadicea group occupied too much room in his studio. John Thornycroft therefore built a large shed in the garden of Walpole House where Boadicea was cast in bronze and set up on the Embankment at Westminster Bridge in 1902. Mary Thornycroft made life size marble figures of all Queen Victoria’s children which are still at Osborne, and her statue of a skipping girl used to be at Chiswick House.

John Francis, Mary Thornycroft’s father, was a Norfolk farmer who wanted to be a sculptor and had had some training from Samuel Joseph, who sculpted the Wilberforce statue in Westminster Abbey in 1844. He got an introduction to the Duke of Sussex after saving a woman from drowning in the Serpentine and the Duke, who was President of the Royal Humane Society, became his patron. Francis became a fashionable portrait sculptor and modelled William IV, Queen Victoria and many statesmen. Thomas Thornycroft became his pupil and later married his daughter. The combination of Thornycroft and Donaldson genes produced a most remarkable family.

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