A remarkable life portrayed in MacLennan’s legacy
In February 2015, Cairns & District Family History Society (CDFHS) received a visit from a very distinguished elderly gentleman. He was 94 year-old Dr Stafford MacLennan. Dr MacLennan asked if CDFHS would accept his extensive photographic collection as he had no relatives1 and wanted it be kept in a safe place.
As many of the photographs were unlabelled, Dr MacLennan agreed to return the following week to identify as many of them as possible.
This proved to be a difficult task so we took an oral history from Dr MacLennan instead. Here is Dr MacLennan’s story, as recorded at CDFHS premises in Hartley Street East on 18 February 2015.
It is illustrated using photographs from his collection and extended by some additional research based on these photographs.
Stafford Northcote MacLennan was born on 14 June 1921 in Hertfordshire, England.
His Scottish father died in 1927 when Stafford was only 6 years old, so he had little memory of his father, but appears to have been close to his mother, despite the fact that he was sent to Boarding School in Leatherhead in Surrey, England.
He left school in 1939, aged 18, just as Britain was about to go to war with Germany (WWII).
On leaving school, Stafford wanted to join the Navy but there were no vacancies.
The alternative was to join the Army but he didn’t want to become a soldier, so he did voluntary work on farms instead.
Later he returned to the recruiting office and joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman, initially on destroyers.
After spending time as an Able Seaman, he received a commission and volunteered to go on the Dutch submarines in the East (Far East/Asia). At that time Holland was occupied by Germany.
After serving on submarines for some time, the Royal Navy posted Stafford to Archangel in Russia, a posting which he enjoyed greatly. It appears that he and his colleagues may have had a training role in Russia.
Whatever he did, judging by the photographs, it appears that he had a happy time and made a number of friends, as he was to do throughout his long life.
After 6 years of military service, Stafford left the Royal Navy and studied medicine at the London Hospital in the East End of London.
His medical studies were funded by the British Government under a scheme to educate war veterans.
Whilst studying, he lived at home with his mother.
He qualified as a doctor in 1952 and then spent about eighteen months as a junior doctor in various hospitals.
With his practical training complete, Stafford joined the British Colonial Service as a doctor, serving in Semporna, North Borneo.
Semporna is a district as well as a town located in Tawau Division, on the east coast of what is now known as the island of Sabah, Malaysia2.
In August 1881, the administration of North Borneo came under the control of The North Borneo Chartered Company, or British North Borneo.
In 1890 it became part of the Straits Settlements and then North Borneo became a protectorate of the British Empire.
Its internal affairs continued to be administered by the company until 1946 when it became the Crown Colony of British North Borneo, which is the administration under which Stafford served from 1954 until 19573.
Stafford enjoyed his life as a doctor and a bachelor on Borneo, making many friends and participating in the social events that characterised colonial life in the 1950s.
As well as events like the Scottish St Andrews Night Ball – attended by the Governor of the island, and the Christmas parties, there were also formal visits by dignitaries to the hospital where he worked and, of course, his work to keep him busy.
After working for three years in Borneo, Stafford returned to England for the compulsory three months leave that went with such overseas postings.
He soon became bored though, and took up a position as a ship’s surgeon.
Stafford said he worked as a ship’s surgeon for about eighteen months on an old cargo boat that went around the world.
It also took about twelve passengers.
As Stafford’s memory for dates and times was not very clear, it is not possible to be completely sure that his tour of duty on the ship occurred before he joined the Colonial Service or after his first three year tour of duty.
However it seems most likely that it was after his first 3 years with the Colonial Service and that the cargo boat was the City of Winchester, because a photograph of that ship was among his collection.
The City of Winchester was built in 1952.
She was owned by Ellerman and Bucknall who were formed in 1742 as cork merchants.
Originally they chartered their ships, but then, in 1851, they became ship owners themselves.
In 1891 they formed the British and Colonial Steam Navigation Company.
Two years later they joined with the Union Line to form the American & African Line which operated a passenger and cargo service between New York, Cape Town and Calcutta.
The City of Winchester was sold to the Ben Line in 1970 and scrapped in 19754.
This information resonates with Stafford’s memories that the ship he served on carried passengers as well as cargo.
It also resonates with his meeting with the young woman who became his wife.
Stafford’s wife, Mary, was born in South Africa on 10 June 1921.
From the small number of photographs of her as a young woman it seems that she grew up with a love of the African bush and the outdoor life.
All the photographs of her show a lovely young woman with an infectious smile.
Stafford met Mary whilst serving as ship’s doctor on the Winchester. She sat at the surgeon’s table and they fell in love very quickly.
Stafford proposed to her before the journey was over and Mary accepted.
On his return to England, Stafford visited his mother to tell her he was to be married.
Mary and Stafford were married in Mary’s home town of Pretoria, South Africa.
Stafford said that after their wedding, he and Mary returned to Borneo where they lived and worked for about 25 years.
It is unlikely that they spent another 25 years in Borneo because their wedding would have been in 1957 or 1958.
Another 25 years in Borneo would take the date to 1983, yet we know that the couple were living and working in Darwin, Australia in 1974 when Cyclone Tracey destroyed their home.
Whilst in Borneo, Stafford applied to an American company, Caltex Pacific, for a position, as the salary was much better than that offered by the British Colonial Service.
He was successful and he and Mary were posted to Sumatra and then to Irianjaya where they worked for a while on an island before moving to the mainland. Stafford was posted to various different mine sites as medical officer. He served in this capacity for about 10 to 15 years.
Stafford and Mary retired from Caltex Pacific and Irianjaya with a pension and returned to England. From there they flew to Brisbane, where Stafford did two different locum positions before the couple moved to Darwin.
In Darwin, Stafford established his own practice in obstetrics and gynaecology, with Mary as his receptionist. He was approached by other Darwin specialists to join their practices, but he preferred to work on his own.
He also did short-term consultancies in Indonesia during this time, with another gynaecologist working as his locum. Joan Ivinson and Sue Green, retired Darwin nurses, remember working with Stafford in the 1970s. They said he was the second private practitioner in obstetrics, and the other was Doug Mounsie5.
It is unclear when Stafford and Mary went to Darwin, although they were in the town during Cyclone Tracey on Christmas Eve 1974. Their high level house was damaged and they spent some time in Adelaide after the cyclone before returning to rebuild the house and the practice. They lived in a caravan in the garden whilst the rebuilding took place.
Stafford continued his obstetrics practice for another five or six years before finally retiring.
After they retired, Stafford and Mary moved to Queensland, where they lived at Clifton Beach for some time. The couple later moved to Cairns to live in Abbott Street.
They travelled extensively during their early retirement, visiting China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Turkey, Europe and England, as well as making a return visit to Tembagapura Mine in Irianjaya. They also enjoyed the company of their many friends.
Mary died in 2014 and Stafford died in mid-2015.
Visitors to CDFHS can view the Stafford MacLennan Collection.
- We now know that Dr MacLennan is survived by a cousin, with whom he was in contact later in 2015 before his death.
- Email message from Janie Mason, retired Matron and Nurse Educator from Darwin provided this information, 26 February 2015