Titanic letter to go in display in Belfast

Fri, Jun 22, 2012, 01:00

One of the last letters from the Titanic is to go on display this summer at the new Belfast visitors’ centre dedicated to the liner.

Assistant ship’s surgeon Dr John Simpson’s note to his mother was brought ashore at Cobh, Co Cork, the vessel’s last stop. It will be displayed at the Titanic Belfast building in the city’s docks where the boat was built.

The 37-year-old Belfast doctor was married and had one son when he took the commission on Titanic. He previously worked on another White Star Line ship — the Olympic.

In the missive, dated April 11th, 1912, Dr Simpson said he was settling into his cabin well and that the accommodation on board his new vessel was larger.

It was signed off: “With fondest love, John.” Dr Simpson died when the Titanic sank on April 15th, 1912. It was feared the message, written on notepaper headed RMS Titanic, would never return to Belfast after it was put up for auction in New York in March with a reserve price of $34,000.

The Titanic Foundation, the charitable group which oversaw the building of Titanic Belfast, stepped in to buy the item.

Dr Simpson’s great-nephew, Dr John Martin, from Killinchy in Co Down, said: “It was part of our family history for so long and it is tangible evidence of the man and a link to his personality.”

Dr Martin (63) said it was not an emotional letter.

“It is quite humdrum in its contents, it is just a letter of a man writing to his mother,” he added.

“Although there is no huge emotional content to it, it gained that emotional context by the history of what happened in the following few days afterwards.

“It is an embodiment of a moment in history and there is that personal connection that the family has to it and that makes it very special to me.”

The correspondence was in the family for many years but passed to a collector of Titanic memorabilia.

Kate Dornan, a great niece of Dr Simpson, said the idea that it had been lost forever was terrible.

“Getting it back means the world to us, to our children and grandchildren,” she said.

“It all feels a bit surreal because it means everything to us.”

She was amazed how small it looked, preserved between clear plastic sheets in a file before installation in a collection about Dr Simpson at Titanic Belfast over the summer.

Ms Dornan (59) from Bangor in Co Down, added: “Whenever we thought it was going to be lost to us we were very distressed and the idea of it being lost made us realise how much it meant to us and we could not believe it when the Titanic Foundation stepped in and brought it back to us.”

She added: “I am proud of him and I am proud that this is back here.” Tim Husbands, chief executive of Titanic Belfast, said it was a unique document.

“I think it signifies a city reclaiming its heritage. This letter just reaffirms the emotional relationship and the ties the city has with the telling of the worldwide story that is the Titanic,” he said.

Bryan Gregory, acting chief executive of the Titanic Foundation, said it was a great chance.

“It was the last link between the Titanic and the city of Belfast, written by one of the sons of Belfast back to his family,” he said.

“It was a one-off opportunity and either we seized that opportunity or let it go.”

While reporting on the recent campaign by Dr John Simpson’s descendants to bring the letter back to Belfast, the BBC’s Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson discovered, by chance, that he was related to the Titanic doctor.

Dr Simpson was a cousin of Mr Simpson’s great-grandfather. He said he initially thought the family did not have any chance of bringing the letter home from New York.

“Fair play to the Titanic Foundation for stepping in, digging deep and buying it so that everyone in Belfast can see it,” Mr Simpson said.

“It’s only a small piece of paper but the letter from the Titanic offers of a glimpse of the enormity of the human tragedy — the last words of a devoted son to his Belfast mum.

“Too often the story of Titanic is glamorised; the letter keeps it real.” It goes on display at Titanic Belfast later this summer.

PA