The last Titanic survivor,
rescued aged nine weeks
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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 was nine weeks old when the liner sank after hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic on its maiden voyage from Southampton on 15 April 1912. Miss Dean died in a care home in Hampshire on 31 May at the age of 97.
Miss Dean's ashes were scattered from a small launch on the water of berth 43/44 at Southampton Docks, the terminal from which the ship set sail. Miss Dean's partner Bruno Nordmanis scattered the ashes accompanied by a small group of friends and relatives and the port's chaplain, the Reverend Andrew Huckett.
It followed a service at St Mary's Church in Copythorne, Hampshire, on Saturday morning.
The disaster resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people, largely due to the lack of lifeboats on board.
Miss Dean had been travelling with her family in third class from Southampton to America where they hoped to start a new life and open a tobacconist's shop in Kansas City.
Miss Dean's mother, Georgetta, and two-year-old brother, Bert, also survived but her father, Bertram, was among those who perished when the vessel sank. Elizabeth Gladys Dean, better known as Millvina, was the Titanic's youngest passenger when her family boarded the liner. Another baby on board, Barbara Joyce West, was nearly 11 months old when the vessel sank. She also survived.
Barbara Joyce Dainton, as she became when she married, died
in October 2007, leaving Miss Dean the last Titanic survivor.
OTHER ILL-FATED VESSALS WE RECALL. Hartford Courant compiled extensive list of major sinkings - many of the ferry type - here.