Ronald Niel Stuart was born in 1886 in Liverpool to Neil Stuart and Mary Harrison, both from experienced seafaring families. Neil Sr. had been born on Prince Edward Island in Canada and had met and married Mary in Montreal. She was the daughter of a master mariner from Australia. In the 1880s the family moved to Liverpool, where Stuart was born as the youngest of six children. Neil worked in the city as a dock superintendent and owner of a wholesale tea shop before dying suddenly whilst preparing for a return to the Merchant Navy.
Stuart was by this time a stocky, blonde, blue-eyed man described as "powerful" but "very bleak and penetrating". He was initially educated at Shaw Street College, but following his father's death was forced to leave and take a job as a clerk in an office. Stuart's son commented that "He hated it . He hated Liverpool". In 1902, Stuart decided to leave the city and find work in a different environment. He took an apprenticeship with the shipping company Steele & Co and was sent to learn his trade on the sailing barque Kirkhill.
In 1905 the Kirkhill was wrecked on a rock near the Falkland Islands. Stuart survived the sinking and returned to England to continue his training. He was posted to a new ship upon his return but she too was wrecked by a cyclone off the Florida coast. Eventually, after several years service he achieved his mariner's qualifications and gained a job with the Allan Line as a junior officer. He then served in a variety of sailing and steam ships traveling across most of the world. In 1910, the Allan Line was taken over by the Canadian Pacific Line and he continued working with the company's new owners as a junior ship's officer.
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