The last survivor, lowered to safety as an infant from the most famous shipwreck in history, now selling her memorabilia to pay for her nursing home bed.
Millvina Dean was a babe in arms when her family boarded the Titanic. She remembers nothing of the journey, of her rescue, or of her father, who perished when it sank. But it’s an event that has shaped the 97-year-old’s life.
Millvina Dean in her mother’s arms a few weeks after the disaster
At the age of just nine weeks, Millvina Dean was lowered to safety from the deck of the sinking Titanic. Now, she is selling the last of her memorabilia to help pay her nursing home fees.
Almost 100 years after it dipped below the waves of the Atlantic, the supposedly unsinkable ocean liner still exerts a powerful hold on our collective imagination. It was heralded as an engineering triumph, yet succumbed to the forces of nature on its maiden voyage. Among the 1,517 who perished were the rich, the poor, and those in between.
The fascination is such that recently an enthusiast wrote to her, offering £100 for a lock of hair. Even she – a veteran of the Titanic convention circuit since 1985 – is somewhat bemused.
“The girls chopped a bit of hair off and put some red ribbon around it and said: ‘that’s the last you’ll hear from him’,” she says, a smile spreading across her face.
“I believe in fate – we weren’t supposed to go on the Titanic at all, we were supposed to go on an American ship”
“But he sent the cheque. I wrote back to say he’d restored my faith in people’s honesty.”
This anecdote has a more serious side. The spinster is struggling with monthly bills of about £3,000 and is in danger of losing her room at her Southampton nursing home.
And so on 18 April, the last of her Titanic memorabilia goes under the hammer, including a canvas mailbag used to carry family belongings back from New York after she, her mother and two-year-old brother were rescued.
“I have a philosophy, if you have to do something you have to. Don’t look back and be broken hearted about it,” she says.
The same auctioneer is also selling a flask another man used to give hot milk to his wife and two daughters. That devoted father shinned down the rope of a rescue boat before returning to the deck – and his inevitable fate.
Millvina more than anyone knows how deep fascination with the Titanic still runs.
Lot 135: The US mailbag used to carry the family belongings
Her voyage in 1912 profoundly shaped her life, yet she has no memory of it, or her father, lost in the freezing waters of the Atlantic on that fateful day. She is both part of the story, and detached from it.
What is it like to have lived her entire life in the shadows of arguably the most famous sea disaster?
“I’m the type of person who treats everything as it comes,” she says. “Perhaps I’m out of the ordinary but I never ask anything about it – to me it’s just something that happened in the past.
“It altered my life entirely, of course. If it hadn’t been for the ship going down, I’d be an American leading an ordinary American life.”
And the flipside of experiencing such a tragedy is that it opened up adventures she would never otherwise have had – travelling the world to talk to Titanic enthusiasts.
“The Titanic has created great opportunity in my life. I’ve stayed in the best hotels and met so many awfully nice people. I wouldn’t have had a lot of experiences I’ve enjoyed, like going to America, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, France.”
Millvina was eight when her mother Georgetta revealed her father Bertram, aged 27, had died in the tragedy and they had survived.
TITANIC IN NUMBERS
882ft by 92ft, 46,328 tonnes – largest vessel afloat at time
2,223 passengers and crew left Southampton on 10 April 1912
Struck iceberg, sank in two hrs 40 mins at 0220 GMT on 15 April
1,517 killed, 706 survived
Total lifeboat capacity: 1,178 but ship could carry up to 3,547
Survival rates by ticket class – first: 60%, second: 44%, third: 25%, crew: 24%
She had been too distraught to speak of it until then.
“I felt unemotional when I was told, because I didn’t know my father,” says Millvina.
While the Titanic was seldom discussed, Georgetta spoke enough about it over the years for Millvina to built up a picture of what happened.
The family boarded the ship in Southampton to start a new life in Kansas, where Bertram planned to open a tobacconist’s.
“I believe in fate because we weren’t supposed to go on the Titanic at all – we were supposed to go on an American ship,” Millvina says.
“There was a coal strike and all the coal had to go on the Titanic, so our ship couldn’t sail. Someone wrote to my father and asked if he’d like to go on the Titanic, and of course he thought it was wonderful.”
Millvina aged three with her mother and older brother Vere
On that fateful night, her father heard a crash and went up on deck to investigate.
“He came back and said the ship had apparently struck an iceberg and told my mother to get the children out of bed and up on deck immediately.
“I envisage that’s what saved us. We were third class and quite a lot of the third class children were not saved.”
While happy to recall events from afar, Millvina refuses to watch James Cameron’s dramatised film of the disaster for fear it will be too upsetting.
“Although I didn’t know my father, at the end I’d feel quite emotional. I’d wonder what happened to him – would he jump overboard? I’d be letting my imagination run right away with me, thinking what he would do.”
She believes this tragedy will continue to fascinate. Not only did fate throw a cruel twist at the luxurious and acclaimed liner loaded with millionaires and ordinary people alike, there is no age bar among enthusiasts.
A mischievous smile plays around her lips as she recalls the many school groups she has spoken to about the Titanic.
“I’m usually sitting in the middle surrounded by small children. I dislike intensely small boys because they always know more than I do.”
Millvina Dean’s sale of Titanic memorabilia takes place at Henry Aldridge & Son auctioneer in Devizes, Wiltshire on 18 April 200