George Ranald Macdonald, the son of Gertrude Gould and her husband, Ranald Macintosh Macdonald, was born at St Albans, Christchurch, on 4 October 1891. His maternal grandfather, George Gould, had been a leading merchant; his father, the son of a runholder, owned farm machinery and tramway companies. After schooling at French Farm, Akaroa, and Christ’s College, Christchurch, Macdonald studied history at Christ Church College, Oxford. He graduated BA in 1912 and MA in 1919, qualified as a lawyer but rarely practised.
In the First World War Macdonald was rejected for military duty with the New Zealand forces because of defective eyesight. He did hospital work for the British Army, was responsible, as a second lieutenant in the Army Service Corps, for the transport of cannon, and saw active service in the Royal Tank Corps. By 1918 Captain Macdonald, thrice wounded and awarded the Military Cross, had lost all taste for war. He was to play a minor part, as a Home Guard member, in the Second World War.
On 14 February 1922 Macdonald married Beatrice Mary (Wina) Clifford, daughter of a prominent Catholic farming family, in the family chapel at Stonyhurst station, Waipara, North Canterbury. After an early farming venture failed he became a manager of Lowry Hills, Cheviot, a family property he inherited on his father’s death in 1928. The Macdonalds lived in a 'tin whare’ until 1925, when they built a house. They had four sons. Macdonald did much tree-planting and established a good flock of Corriedales. In the early 1930s he began to breed and race horses. About the end of the Second World War he became depressed about his seeming lack of success as a farmer. He sold his racehorses, abandoned the stewardship of the Canterbury Jockey Club and his several directorships, and sold Lowry Hills to the government for soldier settlement. He bought a West Eyreton farm, which he named Hambleden, and eventually retired to a house, Tixall, at Woodend.
In retirement Macdonald returned to his interest in history. Through an old friend, Roger Duff, director of the Canterbury Museum, he took an unpaid museum job sorting photographs. In 1950 academic and local history enthusiast Graham Miller and the museum’s archivist John Wilson called on Macdonald to collect the Clifford family papers. The visitors mentioned the need for a biographical dictionary of colonial Canterbury as an aid to research. After taking advice on the feasibility of the project, Macdonald volunteered to compile such a dictionary under the aegis of the museum.
The local community being yet close-knit, and Macdonald’s generation – the grandchildren of the pioneers – being still active, the historian was able to 'run to earth’ many informants. Repositories allowed Macdonald extraordinary freedom. The museum had accepted that its agent would borrow from its newspaper collection and the Canterbury Public Library did likewise. At Timaru Macdonald was given the keys so that he might spend the weekend scanning newspaper office files. Support came from Nelson historian Ruth Allan and, locally, from historian James Hight, Carl Straubel, David Macmillan and librarian Robert Cameron Lamb.
Macdonald exhibited lateral thinking and tremendous industry in his search for information. Through personal contacts and the family stock and station agency, Pyne, Gould, Guinness, he sought descendants of rural families. He unearthed other informants by publicising his research in radio talks and Press articles, visited the Alexander Turnbull and Hocken libraries, and read the Lyttelton Times for an 80-year period, extracting and meticulously dating immigrant lists, advertisements, bankruptcies, local news and obituaries. On field trips he took the whole of his well-organised files in the boot of his car. He saw the value of church registers and tombstones as historical sources and, at 70, was clambering through overgrown graveyards. Data was carefully written up on cards – he struggled in vain to learn to type. Macdonald shared information freely even when a writer wanted only 'spicy bits to make what they call a "racy book’’. He assisted historian Keith Sinclair with his research on William Pember Reeves, but commented, 'There must be many much more worthwhile subjects’.
In November 1964 Macdonald presented to the museum his 12,000-entry magnum opus, together with a useful, if idiosyncratic, subject index. Later he added a nominal index. His prose style was clear and enlivened with anecdote. However, the work was extensive rather than comprehensive; only 66 of the entries are for women, and there is a bias towards the upwardly mobile: those whom the compiler considered to have made a contribution to Canterbury’s development. When Macdonald found forgotten people at the bottom of the economic pile, he usually left them there.
Macdonald contributed sprightly entries to A. H. McLintock’s Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966) and wrote histories of the Christchurch Club and the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company, while his annotations to L. G. D. Acland’s Early Canterbury runs were incorporated into the text for its fourth edition. With two other local graduates of Christ Church College, Oxford, he made a donation which led to his alma mater commissioning the design and construction of a mace for Canterbury University College.
Tall, slim and bespectacled, George Macdonald was of equable temper and possessed a quiet, incisive wit. His domestic life was happy and he said of his wife: 'She loves her home and is not averse to yours truly’. Macdonald died at Christchurch on 13 December 1967; he was survived by his wife and children. His name and personality survive in his biographical dictionary, a boon to genealogists and perhaps the single most important contribution to the history of Canterbury.