Millvina Dean: The last survivor of the sinking of the Titanic

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The Independent Online

Millvina Dean had the double distinction of being both the youngest passenger on the Titanic and the last of the survivors of its sinking in the Atlantic in 1912. Her life almost ended at the age of nine weeks when the liner sank after its collision with an iceberg. But instead of a tragically short life she had a particularly long one, reaching the age of 97.

Dean had two periods of celebrity in her life. The first, which was quite fleeting, came when, within weeks of the disaster, she was brought back to England on another ship. The Daily Mirror reported: "She was the pet of the liner during the voyage, and so keen was the rivalry between women to nurse this lovable mite of humanity that one of the officers decreed that first and second class passengers might hold her in turn for no more than 10 minutes."

Her second bout of celebrity came more than 70 years later when the discovery of the Titanic's resting place by a deep-sea diving expedition sparked worldwide interest. At that point Dean, who was in her 70s having led an unremarkable life, found herself in great demand as a human reminder of the sinking. To her delight, she was whisked around the world to make personal appearances and give talks on the event – of which she had, of course, no memory, having been a babe in arms at the time.

"Everyone makes such a fuss of me," she said. "I have travelled to so many places because of it, meeting all the people. People look at me as a sort of celebrity. I certainly don't think of myself as one but I really do enjoy it."

Her family's experience was one of the many poignant tales from the sinking of the Titanic since, although her mother and brother survived, her father was one of the 1,517 people lost in one the world's foremost maritime disasters.

Her parents, Bertram Frank Dean and Eva Georgette Light, ran a public house in London's East End and had two children, Millvina and her brother Bertram, who was born in 1910. They were travelling in third class, hoping to start a new life by taking over a tobacconist's shop in Kansas City, Missouri, where they had relatives. Originally due to sail on another ship, they were transferred to the Titanic because of a coal strike.

They boarded the supposedly unsinkable vessel at Southampton on a family ticket which cost £20. On the voyage Dean's mother sent a postcard home during a stopover in Ireland, reporting that her baby was "very restless." When the ship struck the iceberg Mr Dean is said to have immediately grasped the seriousness of the situation and acted quickly. In doing so he saved the lives of his wife and his two children, according to Mrs Dean.

Millvina related: "She told me that they heard a tremendous crash, and that my father went up on deck then came back down again and said, 'Get the children up and take them to the deck as soon as possible, because the ship has struck an iceberg.'"

Some details of Dean's story were to vary a little over the years: it was affectionately said of her that the older she became the more she remembered about the event. But she remained firmly convinced that her father saved the lives of three of the family: "That's partly what saved us," she would say, "because he was so quick."

She said her father's last words to her mother were, "Well, I hope to see you a bit later." She added: "She thought that she would, because the ship was unsinkable. It was so dreadful for my mother, it was heartbreaking." Dean later said wonderingly: "It amazes me that people thought the ship was unsinkable, so they weren't caring. They were going on dancing or whatever they were doing at that time and so my mother and my father and a sailor kept us on deck and that is how we were saved."

Dean and her mother were placed in lifeboat number 13. They were separated from her two-year-old brother but he was later reunited with them, having been kept safely in another lifeboat. Baby Millvina was placed in a bag for warmth and safety: "They managed to get me into a lifeboat," she said. "I was so small, so I was put in a sack." She survived several hours afloat on the icy Atlantic before being rescued by the liner Carpathia.

The survival of three members of the family was particularly fortunate in that they were travelling third class. That section had the highest casualty rate of passengers, three-quarters of them perishing.

Afterwards her mother decided not to settle in America, and took the family back to Southampton. There Dean lived quietly over the decades, working as a secretary and in clerical jobs. She never married.

She came to public notice again in 1985 when the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic, in waters more than two miles deep, attracted huge attention. Few had previously taken much interest, she recalled – "but then they found the wreck, and after they found the wreck they found me."

The interest reached a new peak 12 years later with the blockbuster movie Titanic, which won 11 Oscars. After all the decades of obscurity Dean was a worldwide hit.

She enjoyed the attention, she said: "They look on me as something historical, quite out of this world. I think sometimes they look on me as if I am the Titanic," she added.

"People more or less deified her," the Titanic historian John P. Eaton said. "She had a spark, she was a remarkable lady, a darling who would have been a character in her own right had she not gained celebrity status as the last link to Titanic."

Her mother died in 1975, at the age of 96, while her brother died, aged 81, in 1992.

She disapproved of divers exploring the wreck, saying: "I don't believe in people going to see it – I think it's morbid, I think it's horrible." She also preferred not to watch the movie. Some of those associated with the film, however, responded to an appeal to help meet her nursing home bills in the last years of her life. They included director James Cameron and actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

In a tribute Charles Haas, president of the International Titanic Society, said: "It is truly the end of an era. An effervescent person with a wonderful sense of humour, she had a marvellous approach to life. It is almost as if God gave her the gift and she really took advantage of it."

David McKittrick

Millvina Dean, Titanic survivor: born London 2 February 1912; died Ashurst, Hampshire 21 May 2009.