A MYSTERY benefactor has stepped in to ensure a valuable letter written by an officer days before he died on the Titanic will return to his home town.
There were fears that the note Dr John Simpson penned to his mother onboard the doomed liner would be snapped up by a private collector and lost from public view forever when it was put up for auction in New York with a 34,000-dollar reserve price.
But after hearing about a campaign by relatives of the ship’s assistant surgeon to bring the letter back to his native Belfast where the Titanic was built, a donor, who does not want to be named at this stage, has bought it for the city just weeks before the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.
According to witnesses who survived the 1912 sinking, Dr Simpson, 37, stood with fellow officers on the deck of the stricken vessel as it went down, resigning themselves to their fate, making no attempt to board the lifeboats and instead calmly helped others to safety.
His great-nephew Dr John Martin said he was happy the letter was coming back to where it belonged: Belfast.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” he said. “I’ve never actually seen the original letter itself as it was last in Belfast in the 1940s before Dr Simpson’s son moved away.
“So for it to be on its way back is just amazing and so appropriate now just ahead of the 100th anniversary of his death. We are so thankful to the benefactor.”
The letter had been passed down several generations of the family and Dr Martin said 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 The Netherlands in the hope it would go on display. However, what happened to the letter after that remained a mystery to the family and Dr Martin said relatives had always regretted its loss.
They thought it was gone for good until they heard it was to be sold at Philip Weiss Auctions in New York. But the item failed to reach its reserve price at the sale earlier this month, enabling the benefactor to step in and purchase it for an undisclosed sum.
Dr Martin said the letter will soon be back in Belfast, with the intention of putting it in a public exhibition before the April anniversary of the disaster.
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 the US. It was dispatched to his mother Elizabeth living in Belfast’s Dublin Road.
In it the married father of one, who was 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 to his mother that the accommodation on board his new vessel was larger.
Dr Simpson also complained he had found one of his trunks unlocked and five or six dollars had been stolen from his pocket book.
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 when the ship struck an iceberg.
Dr Simpson’s story will form part of the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction opening in Belfast this month.
Dr Simpson was a contemporary of Titanic designer Thomas Andrews at Royal Belfast Academical Institution.
In an interesting quirk, the BBC’s national correspondent in Ireland Mark Simpson found out he was related to Dr Simpson in the midst of the publicity surrounding the campaign to bring the letter home.