MY FAMILY HERO
Readers reveal a gem from their family tree John Watson’s ancestor George Donald was the son of ‘Bounty immigrants’ who rose to become a celebrated MP
John Watson’s immigrant ancestor became an Australian MP
Australia was a land of opportunity for British working-class people in the 19th century. Many emigrated to leave a life of grinding poverty behind them. However, it was a tough choice, starting afresh in a land that was so alien to their own.
John Watson’s family did just that, and were among the famous ‘Bounty immigrants’ of the 1830s and 1840s, whose passage to Australia was paid for by the colonial government. Skilled and manual labourers were in great demand in the colonies. Shepherds, blacksmiths, tailors and needlewomen were among the workforce recruited by agents in Britain, who would be paid large sums of money for their safe arrival.
“My maternal great grandfather George Donald was a stonemason and among the Bounty immigrants who sailed on the
England in 1837,” says John. “The Donalds lived in Ayrshire and hailed from the Western Isles. George made the journey to New South Wales at the age of 28, with his wife Jane and two infant children. It’s hard to imagine what the voyage was like for the young family.”
The Donalds settled in Sydney, and had six more children, the youngest of whom is John’s family hero George McGarvie Donald. George was born in Paddington, in 1846, before the family moved to the town of Yass, not far from Canberra. He later dropped ‘McGarvie’ because it was the name of a Presbyterian minister whom he disliked.
“As a youth, George was apprenticed to his father to learn the building trade. He worked on the stone arches of the Zig Zag Railway, which climbs the western side of the Blue Mountains and is now a popular tourist attraction. He also laboured on the viaducts over the Middle River near Marrangaroo, when the Great Western Railway was extended. George and his fellow workers helped create the infrastructure of modern-day Australia.”
George fell in love with Marion Wiles and they were married at Sodwalls in the late 1860s. When work was completed on the railway, the couple moved to Hill End, near Bathurst, close to Hawkins Hill where more than £10 million worth of gold was mined.
The Donalds had nine children. At this time, George branched out into building churches, municipal centres and private homes. His reputation grew and he was asked to erect a number of important buildings in Hill End, including the Church of England, which still stands today, and the grand Cooerwull Academy at Bowenfels. The couple then moved to Lithgow near Sydney, where he formed a very successful partnership with Thomas Crowe. The pair constructed some of the finest buildings in the area until Thomas’s untimely death.
St John’s Anglican Church, which George built in Wallerawang, is considered a particularly fine example of the Victorian Gothic style and is still in use as a church today as well as a heritage visitor site. By this time, George had become Lithgow’s most celebrated builder. He was clearly respected in the community and was elected as Lithgow’s first mayor in 1889.
Two years later, a couple of parliamentary constituencies were formed and George stood for Hartley as an independent candidate. He was voted in and joined the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. The son of a Bounty immigrant had become an MP in the Australian parliament. At the end of George’s first term in 1894, a deputation approached him to stand for Hartley again, but he declined because his business was being neglected. At that time, MPs did not receive any salary or expenses. His building business continued to flourish and in 1908, George moved to Sydney and won a large contract to construct telephone tunnels.
“Family members have told me a lot about George. He was a perfectionist and all his work was crafted to the highest standards. He was also a lover of nature – and hated the motor car. When he had any spare time, he would go for long walks in the bush with his dog. George was a generous man and often gave money and goods to people in distress. He was also strictly teetotal.”
George died at Marrickville, Sydney, in 1930 aged 84, and was buried at Woronora Cemetery in Sutherland, Sydney. How does John feel about his high-achieving grandfather? “I am often surprised and proud of the enterprise of ancestors in spite of the difficulties of the places and situations they found themselves in.”
George was clearly respected in the community as he was elected
Lithgow’s first mayor in 1889
St John’s Anglican Church, which George Donald built in Wallerawang, New South Wales, Australia