Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Can the family of this Titanic officer bring his final letter written on the liner to Belfast?

Dr John Edward Simpson
Dr John Edward Simpson's relatives Kate Dornan, her brother Dr John Martin (right) and their cousin Dr Denis Martin (left), with a copy of his letter

The family of an officer who chose to go down with the Titanic have appealed for help to return to his home town a letter he sent from the doomed liner.

The two-page personal note Dr John Edward Simpson wrote to his mother days before the ship sank is due to fetch at least US$50,000 (£31,500) when it is sold at a New York auction house at the start of next month.

His relatives, who say they cannot afford to bid for the valuable artefact, desperately want to see it brought back to Simpson's native Belfast, where Titanic was built, to be put on museum display.

Fearing it could be snapped up by a private collector and lost from public view forever, they are hoping a benefactor can step in.

“We're at a point where the family can't afford to buy it and it would be great if a donor or benefactor could be found who would purchase and return it to Northern Ireland for display,” said his great nephew Dr John Martin.

According to eyewitnesses who survived the 1912 disaster, 37-year-old Dr Simpson, the assistant surgeon on board, stood with fellow officers on the deck of the stricken vessel as it went down. The group had resigned themselves to their fate, making no attempt to board the lifeboats and instead calmly helped others to safety.

Dr Martin explained that the letter had been passed down through several generations in the family and the plan was always to have it placed in a permanent Titanic exhibition in Belfast.

But, he said 15 years ago, Dr Simpson's 81-year-old daughter-in-law gave it to a Titanic enthusiast in Holland in the hope it would go on display. However, what happened after that remains a mystery and Dr Martin said relatives have always regretted its loss.

He said they thought it was gone for good until they heard it was to be sold at Philip Weiss Auctions in New York city.

The retired Belfast doctor said the people of Belfast should be able to view the letter.

“There aren't that many actual Titanic artefacts which relate specifically to Belfast and he was, as far as I am aware, the only serving officer on Titanic who was a native of Belfast,” said 63-year-old Dr Martin.

“The letter was one of the last objects to leave the ship before the sinking — all of those things make it quite a unique artefact.”

The letter, dated April 11 1912 and written on notepaper headed RMS Titanic, was brought ashore at Cobh, Co Cork (then called Queenstown) before the ship set sail for America. It was dispatched to his mother Elizabeth who was living on Belfast's Dublin Road.

In it the married father of one, then based in Liverpool, said he was tired but settling into his cabin well. He had worked on the Titanic's White Star Line sister ship the Olympic for a year previously and observed that the accommodation on board his new vessel was larger.

The surgeon, who treated second and third class passengers, signed off: “With fondest love, John.” Three days later he died along with 1,500 others after the ship struck an iceberg.

Dr Simpson's story will form part of the £90m Titanic Belfast attraction opening in Belfast next month ahead of the 100th anniversary of the sinking in April.

Dr Martin, who with his sister Kate Dornan and cousin Dr Denis Martin is appealing for a benefactor to come forward, said the letter provided a rare insight into the life of one of the ship's officers.

Profile

Dr John Edward Simpson, (37), was the assistant surgeon on board the Titanic. He was born in Belfast in 1875 at the family home in Pakenham Place and had five sisters. In 1905 he married Annie Peters from Lancashire and lived at Tottenham Road, Hornsbury and had one son, John Ralph. He signed on as assistant surgeon to Dr O’Loughlin on the Titanic and was responsible for the second and third class passengers. He died at sea when the ship met its fate on April 15 1912.

Remembered... the captain of chivalry

By John Laverty

Have you ever wondered where the phrase ‘women and children first' originated from?

You might think it had something to do with the Titanic, but you'd be wrong.

Yet it does have its roots in another doomed vessel with Ulster connections.

Yesterday brought the 160th anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead, a British ship which perished off the South African coast in 1852.

There were insufficient lifeboats, and only 193 of the 643 civilians and soldiers on board survived — one of them a certain Ulsterman, Captain Ralph Shelton who had the presence of mind to organise an evacuation based on saving women and children first.

Captain Shelton (full name Ralph Shelton McGeough Bond) was a member of the McGeough family who had owned the famous Argory mansion and surrounding lands in Tyrone since the 1740s.

He inherited the house in 1866 but died without an heir in 1916, and the Argory stayed within the family until it was donated to the National Trust in 1979.

The hitherto unknown act of chivalry displayed by Capt Shelton and his colleagues was later lauded by Rudyard Kipling in his poem Soldier an' Sailor Too.

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