'There used to be a sense of shame she had been built here - not now'
Descendents of some of the men who worked and died on ‘Titanic’ tell FIONOLA MEREDITHabout the ship’s legacy
“My great-grandfather, Thomas Millar, was in the unusual position of both having worked on Titanic and having sailed on her, on her maiden voyage.
“His wife died in 1912, and he was left to raise their two young boys alone. Thomas, then aged 33, decided to sail on Titanic to New York, where he would continue to work as an engineer for the White Star Line and build a new life for his family. So he took the post of assistant deck engineer on the Titanic.
“The boys – Thomas Jr, aged 11, and my grandfather, Ruddick, then aged 5 – were to be left in the care of their aunt, and then sent over to America once their father was settled, a matter of months at most.
“My great-grandfather brought the boys to the dock on April 2nd when the ship was getting ready to sail to Southampton, and he gave both his sons two shiny new pennies with the instruction that they weren’t to spend the money until they saw him again.
“They never did. Thomas Millar went down with the ship he had helped to build. My grandfather, Ruddick Millar, kept the pennies all his life, and I have them now.
“My great-grandfather was trying to do his best for his sons, but they were left impoverished. Their aunt brought them up until they were 16, using a meagre pittance from Titanic fund. But being a Titanic orphan didn’t hold my grandfather, Ruddick, back. He became a well-known author, playwright and newspaper columnist in the 1930s. He remembered a lot of detail about Titanic, and that was passed down through the family.
“I’ve known the story of the two pennies since I was a child, but it’s only recently that I’ve written about it.
“For a long time, nobody talked about Titanic in Northern Ireland. But now it’s different. I gave up my job as a journalist and wrote a book, The Two Pennies: a True Story from Titanic. Now I spend my days giving talks and tours about the ship.”
“My great-grandfather John Arthurs worked as a cabinet-maker on Titanic.
He lived off Divis Street in west Belfast. Titanic was always part of our family lore. I have a hexagonal marquetry chessboard at home, which we always called the Titanic chessboard. It was a Harland and Wolff ‘homer’, a beautiful piece of craftmanship made from lovely old pieces of wood brought home from the shipyard, mounted on a cheap piece of pine. We learned to play draughts on it as children, and to me it’s a physical connection with Titanic.
“There must be so many families that have bits and pieces connected to Titanic, all kinds of treasures that are worth nothing in monetary terms but which connect local people to Titanic and the shipyard. I would love to see these hand-crafted artefacts in a people’s museum of the ship. But we’ve never been good at blowing our own trumpet when it comes to Titanic.
“For decades, it was a taboo topic. There was almost a sense of shame that she had been built here.
“Yet there is so much to be proud of – we had the biggest shipyard in the world, the biggest gantry. In celebrating the launch of Titanic, we’re not celebrating a piece of steel; we’re celebrating the achievements, the craftmanship of the workers. We’re celebrating our wonderful maritime history.
“As chair and co-founder of the Belfast Titanic Society, this is my clarion cry: what happened to Titanic was a disaster, she herself was not. And Titanic was not the end of the Harland and Wolff shipyard. It continued for years afterwards.
“The centenary of the launch is an opportunity to get a different story about Titanic out. While the rest of the world will commemorate next year the centenary of the ship’s loss, only Belfast can use 2011 to celebrate the building of the ship and mark our shipbuilding heritage.
Here in Northern Ireland, you can take the story of Titanic into any school, and there will always be someone who pipes up that their great-great-grandfather worked on the ship. It’s a story that cuts across the religious and political divide.
“I’m glad to see the shipyard in Belfast [now known as Titanic Quarter] coming back to life with the Northern Ireland Science Park. That’s where they have the youngest, best brains from home and abroad.
Titanic was at the cutting edge of technology when she was built. It’s fitting that all these exciting new developments are happening in the birthplace of this great ship.”
“My father, John Parkinson, was very proud of owning the tools which his father, Frank Parkinson, had used when working as a joiner on the constuction of Titanic. There was a smoothing plane, a hammer, a chisel and a screwdriver. John himself was apprenticed to joinery in the shipyard and used the tools after his father’s death. We were a family of woodmen.
“Later, John became president of the Belfast Titanic Society, and he would go to historical societies and schools and tell the children all about his memories of his father and the ship.
“John described how his father would come home every night and tell the family how big and luxurious Titanic would be, how it was so well built that it would never sink. ‘How can a ship that big stay up in the water?’ asked John. His father said, ‘Johnny, that ship will always stay up in the water.’
The day the ship was launched was very emotional. It was so important to the shipyard, to the thousands of men who worked there every day. My father saw Titanic on the slipway and waved to her as she left Belfast. He remembered it in the book he wrote about his connection with the shipyard: how people called out ‘Rule Brittania’ and waved handkerchiefs.
“John wrote that, ‘less than a fortnight later, news reached of its tragic fate. My father couldn’t believe it. Later he broke down and cried.’
“John died in 2006, aged 99. We plan to put up a school’s competition in his memory next year, the John Parkinson Memorial Award. Even in his 90s, John was still telling people about Titanic. He always made a big impression.”
“My grandfather, Anthony Wood Frost – known as Artie – was a member of the ‘Guarantee Group’ [an elite trouble-shooting team of Harland and Wolff’s finest engineers, led by the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, who accompanied Titanic on her maiden voyage. All of the men perished].
“I am very proud of our family’s connection with Titanic. We have a great history of building ships with Harland and Wolff. Artie’s father, George Frost, made engines in the early days of the shipyard, and when he retired in 1907, Artie got his job. Between them, the pair built a lot of ships, mostly White Star Line vessels.
“Artie rose to one of the most prestigious posts in the shipyard: he was known as a foreman fitter. I have a copy of the letter my grandfather received when Titanic was to be launched. It was ironic that he was chosen to be part of the Guarantee Group as a reward for his hard work.
“When the ship sank, it was terrible for my grandmother, very painful. She never really spoke about it again. Her youngest child was only two the time, and it was days before she found out whether Artie had survived or not.
“It was hard for her to manage, the family had lost its only source of income. She did get a lot of support from Harland and Wolff, though. The worldwide relief fund for Titanic paid for my father and his brother to be educated.
“My dad and my uncle followed in the family tradition and joined Harland and Wolff too. I’m 74 now, but I suppose you could say I was a Harland and Wolff baby.”