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The Last Titanic Survivor Was Forced to Sell Her Titanic Memorabilia to Pay Health Bills at 96

Nikola Budanovic
Photo by GERRY PENNY/AFP/Getty Images

On April 10, 1912, the notorious RMS Titanic embarked on its maiden voyage ― never to return again. Considered today as one of the worst modern peacetime marine accidents involving a commercial ocean liner, the name Titanic became synonymous with disaster.

Hailed as unsinkable, the ship proved otherwise after hitting an iceberg some 375 miles (600 km) south of Newfoundland. Of more than 2,200 passengers and crew on board, only 705 survived.

Among them was one Eliza Gladys “Millvina” Dean, who was born just nine weeks prior to the journey, making her the ship’s youngest passenger.

RMS Titanic

RMS Titanic

A daughter of Bertram Frank Dean and Georgette Eva Light, little Millvina found herself aboard the legendary ship along with her two-year-old brother, Bertram Vere Dean. The Deans were planning to settle in Wichita, Kansas, where Bertram Snr. had friends and family.

They had embarked from Southampton to join his brother who owned a small tobacco business. Bertram Snr. was to become a partner in the firm, although fate had other plans.

The greatest irony perhaps was that they weren’t supposed to be on the Titanic in the first place, but were transferred due to a coal miners strike that prevented them boarding their designated liner.

Millvina Dean and her brother Bertram

Millvina Dean and her brother Bertram

Just before the iceberg collided the starboard side of the ship, the Dean family were asleep in their third-class cabin, assured that they were safe from harm, deep in the belly of the unsinkable sea giant.

However, in a matter of minutes, all of that was about to change. The collision woke Bertram Dean and he stepped out of the cabin to investigate. Quickly grasping the situation, he returned to the cabin and got his family up and onto the deck.

Panic soon took hold over the passengers who were stampeding on the deck, in hopes of reaching one of the 20 lifeboats, as it became clear that the only place the ship was going was the seabed.

This iceberg was pictured in the morning of April 15, 1912 and is thought to be the one that the Titanic had struck.

This iceberg was pictured in the morning of April 15, 1912 and is thought to be the one that the Titanic had struck.

Most likely due to the fact she was carrying two infants, Georgette managed to get aboard one of the lifeboats, becoming one of the few third-class passengers to do so. Unfortunately, her husband didn’t.

After they were rescued, the family, along with other Titanic passengers were taken to New York, from where Millvina’s mother intended to proceed with the plan of continuing the journey to Kansas.

The Titanic’s final plunge

The Titanic’s final plunge

However, once faced with the reality of her situation ― now a single mother with two small children ― she reversed her decision and returned to Britain aboard the RMS Adriatic, which set sail towards Liverpool on May 2, 1912.

Upon their return, the two-month-old Millvina was met by a number of reporters, all of whom wanted a picture of the “Titanic Baby”, as she was dubbed by press.

The fact that an infant managed to survive an ordeal of such proportions was a dash of light in this truly dark episode of history. A Daily Mirror article dating from May 12, 1912 regarding little Millvina read:

“[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 no more than ten minutes.”

Although for a brief period of time Millvina was sort of a celebrity in Britain, she wasn’t even aware that she was aboard the Titanic until she was eight years old.

It was at that time that her mother remarried, finally revealing the truth about the child’s father’s death.

Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic

Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic

Nevertheless, the tragedy was something that was put behind them, and the story of the Titanic soon fell into obscurity.

Millvina grew up in Southampton and worked as a cartographer during WWII. After the war, she joined an engineering company and settled for a career in its purchasing department.

However, in the 1980s, Milvina would regain her celebrity status as a surge of interest in her story appeared after the wreckage of Titanic was discovered by accident during a U.S. Navy mission.

The Collapsible B was found by the CS Mackay-Bennett

The Collapsible B was found by the CS Mackay-Bennett

What followed was a series of conventions, exhibitions, documentaries, radio and television interviews all regarding her Titanic experience. Millvina’s brother also received no less attention, however he died in 1992, 80 years after the sinking of the ship.

In 1997, she attended a Titanic Historical Society convention in Belfast as an honorable guest, and was given the opportunity to travel to Kansas, symbolically ending the journey she had set out on, 85 years earlier.

Apart from being the youngest person aboard, Millvina Dean became the sole living survivor of the disaster in 2007, when Barbara West Dainton, who was around one year old when aboard the Titanic, passed away.

By 2008, however, the years had caught up with 96-year-old Millvina, as she was struggling with a broken hip.

Millvina Dean, British Titanic Society Titanic Convention, Hilton Hotel, Southampton. 1999. Photo by Stephen Daniels, CC BY-SA 3.0

Millvina Dean, British Titanic Society Titanic Convention, Hilton Hotel, Southampton. 1999. Photo by Stephen Daniels, CC BY-SA 3.0

Her medical bills stacked up, and she was less and less capable of covering them. Left with no other choice, she decided to sell the Titanic memorabilia she had in her possession. Among those items was a letter addressed to her mother by the Titanic Relief Fund, as well as a suitcase that was given to the Dean family in New York, right after the rescue.

It amounted to a sum of around $41,570, but this wasn’t enough to cover her medical expenses at a private clinic.

In the meantime, she sold a couple of other items, but this too was of little help, as the bills kept soaring.

Millvina spent the rest of her days in a care home in Ashurst, Hampshire, where she finally passed away from pneumonia on May 31, 2009.

Read another story from us: A Brandy Flask from The Titanic Sold for A Huge Price

As a tribute to the last survivor of the Titanic, her ashes were scattered into the sea at Southampton docks, where the ship embarked on its tragic maiden journey.