Robert Donald, Royal Navy

By June Parkin

WW1 must have broadened the horizons of many Teesdale men. One such was Robert Donald of Startforth, who signed up for 12 years’ service in the Royal Navy in September 1915.

Robert was born on July 6th 1894 and in the 1901 Census is living in High Startforth with his father Robert, a general labourer, his mother Margaret and his two older brothers, John George a Flax-spinner’s Clerk and Alfred a Draper’s Assistant. In the 1911 Census Robert is a  Draper’s Apprentice and is visiting John George, now a Grocer’s Clerk in Middlesbrough. (John George had recently married a Stockton girl, which may explain his move.)

Why Robert, at the age of 21, joined the navy rather than the army is unknown, but ‘Ancestry’ does provide a record of his naval service.

Robert Donald M15415, was first assigned to HMS Victory I, which was not a ship as such, but a training base in Gosport, Hampshire. Royal Navy personnel at all times have to be assigned to a ‘ship’ whether at sea or ashore. He became a Probationary Sick Berth Attendant training at the Haslar Hospital in Gosport.

Sick berth personnel did not wear the same uniforms as naval ratings because in 1891they were given a new style uniform, a double breasted jacket with a red cross badge on the sleeve.

Robert’s conduct was reported as ‘Very Good’, he passed his probationary period and his first posting at sea was to HMS Malaya from October 1916 to July 1921. The Malaya was a Queen Elizabeth-class fast battleship commissioned on February 1st1916. Robert was probably fortunate in joining the ship after the Battle of Jutland, because The Malaya was hit by seven 12″ shells, it received two holes below the water line and a 6″ battery was wrecked; 63 men were killed and 68 injured. After repair, her service during the First World War generally consisted of routine patrols and training in the North Sea.


                                                                                                Badge of  HMS Malay. The ship was paid for by the Malay government as a contribution to the war effort.

Robert returned to Haslar Hospital and then to HMS Fisgard, another shore-based facility in Gosport. In 1924 he was promoted to Leading Sick Berth Attendant and in September 1926 was posted to HMS Revenge. This was reported in the Teesdale Mercury on October 26th, mentioning that ‘the “Revenge” is the flagship to the Atlantic Fleet now on manoeuvres in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland’. Robert stayed with the Revenge until she went into retirement as flagship in January 1928. He had completed his 12 years service and received a war gratuity and Long Service and Good Conduct Medals.

Robert must have remained in the Portsmouth area as he married Edith Carter in 1932 at Alverstoke near Gosport.