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Grocer, diplomat, chieftan, pacifist

Helen Baggott tells the extraordinary story of the Swanage grocer who was twice sentenced to death by the Russian Bolsheviks

In a shady corner of Godlingston Cemetery in Swanage is an intriguing memorial. Aeneas Ranald MacDonell’s headstone first catches the eye because it is laid flat, atop the grave. But it’s really the inscription that demands more than just a passing glance:
1875 – 1941, 21st Chief of Glengarry, Diplomat,
Author, Journalist

There are few alive today that will recall the MacDonell family in Swanage. But before the onset of World War 2, they were well known. MacDonell had brought his family – wife Dora and sons Donald and Peter, plus a nephew Maurice – to the town in the 1930s. Swanage was chosen for its climate. Dora was ill and she would eventually succumb to TB in 1935. Home was on Ballard Estate, part of New Swanage. MacDonell ran the small shop that was near the entrance to the estate, now a private dwelling. Selling groceries, stationery and tobacco he also owned nearby lock-up garages.
The family’s home was one of the former army huts on the estate; nearest to the cliff path it had a peaceful setting. The house was named Swastika – before that lucky charm became the emblem of the Nazis. Eventually it would be re-named, but not until local children had used its sign for target practice. In the town centre MacDonell also owned a gift shop. His son Donald recalled that his father was not a businessman, neither shops thrived and he struggled with the finances.

Aeneas Ranald MacDonell with his sons and nephew in Swanage

But MacDonell had been born into a family of wealth. His father was Secretary to the New Zealand Railway Co and their home was in Chelsea. Never an outstanding scholar, he coasted through his education at St Paul’s, London. Too often school reports labelled him as rather idle, poor and at best, fair. After successfully completing a course where he learnt the rudiments of bookkeeping and commerce, it seemed his career lay in a dusty office – or so his family may have assumed.
Invited to some of the grandest parties, young MacDonell was drawn to the arts, even meeting Oscar Wilde. Theatre attracted both his attention and his heart. Besotted by an actress appearing in the West End he auditioned for a place in the chorus, certain that spending time in her presence would be enough to win her. After only one week his family became suspicious of the late nights and, appalled at the idea of their son treading the boards, made a cash settlement that released him from the contract.

Chastised, but still a dreamer, MacDonell reluctantly began work for Herries, Farquhar and Co – city bankers. Realising their son was never going to rise above clerk status his parents offered respite from the tedium with a spell on a cousin’s plantation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1898 he sailed aboard the Himalaya, enjoying the company of fellow passengers perhaps a little too much. On arrival he had spent all his money; thankfully the cousin was able to clear his debts.
Any thoughts of remaining in Ceylon were short-lived. The summer of 1900 was the dawning of a new era, one of responsibility. In July his brother Alastair passed away. Only nineteen, his life had been cut short by TB. A few months later and a sister, Elsie, also died. Both had been living in Bleadon, Somerset. It had been hoped the climate and local medical expertise would offer them some benefit.

'Swastika' – the home of MacDonell in Swanage, whose sign was perhaps understandably the target of stone-throwing boys in the war years

There was further heartache the following January when MacDonell’s father died. All three are remembered in the churchyard at Bleadon. A cross sits above a tiered plinth, engraved with their names and that of Hugh, a brother who died shortly after birth in 1878. Now head of the family, MacDonell was also the 21st Chief of Clan Ranald of Knoydart and Glengarry. His great-grandfather had succeeded to the title in 1868 on the death of Charles Ranaldson – a cousin. The title carried no wealth, apart from its history – the line is traced to the 12th century and the Kings and Lords of the Isles.
In 1902 MacDonell left England again, this time to work in Baku, Russia (now Azerbaijan).  On the western shore of the Caspian Sea, the area is rich with oil. These were volatile times and unrest between Armenians, Turks and Russians often escalated into explosions and gunfire. Witnessing the aftermath of a massacre, he recalled in his memoirs that ’I could not sleep…wondering what had happened to the girls I had danced with. I wanted to be revenged’. It wasn’t long before the British would be advised to leave. But MacDonell remained and was appointed temporary Vice Consul, with the role confirmed in 1907.
Despite this period of violence he married in 1909 – Dora Hartford was born in Christchurch and lived with her new husband in Russia.  Their sons, Donald and Peter, were born in Baku. In 1916 Dora and Peter returned to England, joining Donald who was already at school. Baku was a prize many wanted to win. Thousands of troops were deployed to the area during World War 1 and, once the Russian revolution spread to the region, the British fought hard to retain some control.

A contemporary leaflet showing a strike at one of the oil wells of Baku

MacDonell’s knowledge of the area proved a valuable asset and in 1917 he was employed by the Foreign Office. Becoming an honorary Major, he was awarded the OBE in 1919 and CBE in 1920. The British were keen to support the Armenians in their fight against the Bolsheviks and Turks. Historians record that MacDonell was recruited to distribute funds to the Armenians – something that wasn’t without danger. Often his train journeys to remote areas were ambushed and he would be interrogated, sometimes for days. Twice the Bolsheviks tried MacDonell (in his absence) for treason and on both occasions they sentenced him to death.
As the British retreated from their position, MacDonell had no choice but to leave. With all his assets confiscated he returned to England with little money. But his experiences held him in good stead and he began working in Fleet Street for the Daily Express. In his autobiography …And Nothing Long (published in 1938), MacDonell recounts his adventures in Russia. He concedes that he wrote from memory. Letters written in the 1990s by his eldest son reveal that the tales were listened to with cynicism – but affection.
‘He had a lively and inquisitive mind…as we grew up we began to detect a strong tendency to dramatise his fascinating stories…and it became evident that they were other people’s experiences and not his’. He also describes his father as being something of a ladies man, despite ‘spindly legs and a large head…he was generally regarded as very good looking’.
When Dora’s health declined, the family moved to Swanage and MacDonell lived in semi-retirement, running the two shops, until he too became ill. After his wife’s death and with little money he lived for a short time in Christchurch in a house owned by his wife’s family. During the early days of World War 2 he returned to Swanage, living in a flat above a shop in the High Street, near the quay. After MacDonell’s death his two sons would both achieve fame in their own right. Donald, a pilot with the RAF, was shot down in 1941 and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner in Europe. For a while he was held at the infamous Stalag Luft III – at the time of the Great Escape. After the war he remained with the RAF, becoming Air Commodore. He last visited Swanage in the 1970s.
Peter was a talented artist and actor. Educated at Bryanston (near Blandford) he spent the war as a conscientious objector working on farms in Scotland. In the 1950s he appeared in the West End – sharing the stage with Kenneth More, Michael Gough and Glynis Johns.

Peter MacDonell (standing, left) acting with Kenneth More, who in the film Reach for the sky played Douglas Bader, who, like Peter's brother Donald, was held prisoner at Stalag Luft III

However fanciful some felt MacDonell’s tales to be there’s little doubt of his place in history. He witnessed the violent end of British control in an area that still suffers from conflict and atrocity today. Years after he returned to England he mourned the loss of his ‘oil-bearing lands…the house with its collection of fine carpets, silver and china’. It is little wonder that he found it difficult to ‘become enthused over pyramids of soup and sugar’ in his shops. But he concludes his memoirs by revealing that it is people that matter, that he had become a pacifist because war kills ‘too many people who are not directly interested’. Those assets, lost in Russia, came and went at a terrible price – something MacDonell found difficult to reconcile. He died in Swanage’s hospital in May 1941.

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