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Ethel was born on 14th September 1882 and was the fifth child of John Hamilton McDonald and Augusta Mahala Annie, née Page. They had married on 31st May 1873 at Christ Church, Bermondsey. John is described as an engineer and Augusta, the daughter of a wood turner from Rotherhithe. John was in fact a ships engineer.

The 1881 Census shows Augusta on her own with the older children living at 52 Mellish Street in Millwall, stating her husband was an engineer on steam vessels. This was a mixed residential street with some people comfortable and others not. Presumably John senior would have been earning a reasonable income and must have been working away from home in the course of his employment.

Ethel baptised with her siblings in Millwall

Ethel was baptised Ethel Mary alongside her four older siblings on 25th July 1883 at St Luke’s, Millwall. Her sisters Jessie and Flora were 7 and 2 years old, and her brothers John junior and Eugene were 6 and 3. They were still living at 52 Mellish Road in Millwall and their father was still working as an engineer.

The McDonald family move en masse to Hamburg

At some point between 1883 and 1886, the family moved to Hamburg in Germany. Possibly that was where John Hamilton’s employment took him as Hamburg had a busy port. It is not clear if Ethel went with them but there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Ethel’s two younger siblings Bernard and Dorothy were both born in Hamburg in 1886 and 1888. This information I have deduced from another family tree which is substantiated by German records seen on Ancestry and Census returns.

Birth and deaths in Hamburg

In 1888, disaster struck the family in Hamburg with baby Bernard dying in January. This was then countered by the birth of Dorothy in February, but then followed by the deaths of Jessie in March, aged 13, and John Hamilton senior himself on 12 June 1888, aged only 36 years old. It is not clear what happened whilst they were in Germany but losing two of her children and then her husband in less than 6 months, must have been devastating for Ethel’s mother Augusta.


By 1891, Augusta had moved back to London where she could be found at 5 May Terrace in Poplar, widowed and working as a dressmaker with her children John, aged 14, and a store keeper, and Dorothy, aged 3. Where were Eugene, Flora and Emily? I have been unable to accurately identify what happened to Flora. She too may have died but both Eugene, aged 12, and Ethel, aged 8, are listed as wards of The Merchants Seamans Orphan Asylum on Hermon’s Hill, Wanstead in Essex. This was an establishment for children of men lost at sea. Does this mean their father died at sea?

The Merchants Seamans Orphan Asylum

The purpose of the Asylum was to give these children a sound education and above all be religiously instructed. Newspapers of the day held it up as a good example of support and education. In 1891, there were about 200 boys and 100 girls there. It seems to have been a good place to be educated, the children were described as happy and contented. Ethel should have received a good education there and we hope, was happy. Presumably John, aged 14, was too old to be there and Dorothy too young at that time.


We know nothing further of Ethel’s whereabouts or how long she remained at The Merchant Seamans Orphan Asylum, but by the time of the 1901 Census, she is living, aged 18, at 12 Haydock Road in Deptford in four rooms with her mother Augusta, aged 46, and her brother Eugene, aged 22, who is working as a Tube Attendant GPO. This is the first indication that Emily has health problems as it is noted she is “afflicted with fits”. How long she has suffered from them is unclear but she is clearly not able to work. Her younger sister Dorothy, aged 13, is now a ward of the Merchant Seamans Asylum.


I can find no entry for Ethel, or anyone of a similar name, being admitted to Horton Asylum but she must have arrived at some point prior to 1910 as she is noted as dying and being buried at the Horton Estate Cemetery on 24th May 1910. Maybe her fits gave her brain damage and as she does not appear to have been at an Epileptic Colony, her mother may not have been able to cope. Although she was widowed, she did have the fortune of having some of her children receiving a good education.

Author’s thoughts

Ethel lost her Father at an early age but did have the fortune of receiving what seems to be better than average education. However, the contact she had with her Mother must have been limited when she was a young child. One can imagine she must have suffered some degree of detachment from her family being educated away from home. She may have found that difficult. By the time she had finished her education and returned home, she appears to have been suffering from fits, which may have meant that perhaps her mental capacity was reducing. At some point she was admitted to Horton Asylum. She again was in care and her condition obviously deteriorated to such a degree that she died. What contact she had with her family once she was at Horton is unknown. Such was the social stigma of mental illness (if indeed this was what she was suffering from), Ethel was shut away from society and died alone.

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