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One Titanic 100th birthday bash as Eleanor recalls her dad's links to doomed liner

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 02/05/2016

Eleanor Thompson raises a glass
Eleanor Thompson raises a glass
With Roy Lilley, Eddie McIlwaine and Robin Walsh
With family members Elaine Thompson, Susan Butterwick, Vanessa Thompson and sister Peggy Gault
A picture of her father Ambrose Willis

There couldn't have been a better place for widow Eleanor Thompson to celebrate her 100th birthday at the weekend than Titanic Belfast.

Not only did she sit down to dinner with former staff journalists at the weekly Larne Times - where her husband Emil occupied the editorial chair for many years - but her father had actually worked on the doomed White Star liner, in charge of interior design.

Ambrose Willis had been a chief draughtsman at Harland & Wolff shipyard.

As Eleanor was wished many happy returns, she recalled how her dad had sailed on Titanic during her sea trials and was with the ship when she left Belfast for Southampton to prepare for that ill-fated maiden voyage to New York.

"He was due to be on the Titanic when she collided with the iceberg, only he was called back to Harland's at the last minute to work on her sister ship the Olympic," Eleanor explained.

Her son John arranged the birthday bash with his brother Peter, who travelled from Sydney for the occasion

"Mum might never have been born if my grandfather's original plans hadn't been changed," explained John.

"He could have ended up going down with the ship, to which he'd devoted so much time and energy.

"Indeed, many of his colleagues and workers including carpenters and others from the shipyard did die, and he grieved their loss."

So Eleanor's thoughts when she blew out the candles on her cake - baked in the shape of a bottle of gin, her favourite tipple - at The Bridge in Titanic Belfast were fixed on what might have been.

She was shown her father's salary book, which is in the Titanic museum with other artefacts of the vessel.

Eleanor was born at Knock to Ambrose and his wife Mabel.

She and Emil, an ex-Army captain who died in 1976, were married in 1940 and were together for 36 happy years.

Eleanor has three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

In her heyday she wrote a column in the Larne Times under the pseudonym of Eve Wisdom, and women all over east Antrim enjoyed her witty style. In the above picture with her are Larne Times old boys Robin Walsh, who went on to be BBC Northern Ireland controller; Roy Lilley, former editor of the Belfast Telegraph; and myself, ex-Daily Mirror and still writing a column for the Belfast Telegraph, where all three of us worked after the Larne Times.

"She will always be 'Mrs T' to us," said Robin.

"We never called her Eleanor. She is an amazing woman." Among Eleanor's congratulatory cards was one from the Queen, another from Irish President Michael D Higgins, and another from the Lord Lieutenant of Antrim Joan Christie.

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