Category Archives: History

The Unsinkable Millvina Dean

On April 10, 2012  hundreds of people gathered in the English port town of Southampton.  They were there to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

Titanic docked at Southampton

Everyone knows the tragic story of the unsinkable ship…that sank.  Less than a week after it set sail from Southampton, shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912, the ship hit an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the sea about 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada, taking 1,517 souls with it.

Survivors of the wreck were thoroughly —and understandably— traumatized by what had happened to them.  My grandfather, who was a little boy when the ship sank, said that people were afraid of the survivors, that they had a haunted look in their eyes and were believed to bring bad luck.

That seems like a horrible thing to think about people who had escaped such a disaster, doesn’t it?  It shows you how times have changed and how much more compassionate the human race has become.

One of the survivors aboard the ship was commonly known as Millvina Dean.  Little was known about her until a new interest in the Titanic arose in 1985, when the wreckage was found.  I became aware of Millvina shortly before her death in 2009 at the ripe old age of 97.  A large picture of her hung on the wall behind the  cash register in the gift shop at the Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri.  I was curious about who she was, so I asked the cashier and then came home to do some research.

This is Millvina’s story….

She Was Born Elizabeth Gladys Dean

Photograph taken circa 1912/1913 of Millvina D...

Photograph taken circa 1912/1913 of Millvina Dean and her brother, Bertram. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bertram Frank Dean and his wife Georgetta Eva Light welcomed their second child, and only daughter into the world on February 2, 1912.  She was christened Elizabeth Gladys Dean, but was known all her life by her nickname Millvina.  (It is unclear where that nickname came from.)

Little Millvina’s father Bertram was a pub owner who wanted to start a new life for his family in America.  His cousin was a tobacconist in Wichita, Kansas, and had invited Bertram and his family to come there and help him run the business.  So off they went on a new adventure.

The Deans had not originally intended to board the Titanic, but a coal strike and fate (if you believe in such a thing), put them aboard that ship in Southampton on April 10, 1912.

The Night the Titanic Went Down

Like so many other migrants at the time, the Deans did not have a lot of money, so they couldn’t afford to travel in style — their berth was in the overcrowded steerage of the massive ship.

Unlike so many stories about the unfortunate souls in steerage, Bertram Dean was able to get his family out.  Millvina’s mother recalled that Bertram went to investigate after hearing (and feeling) a loud crash late in the evening on April 14, 1912.

When he came back, he announced that the ship had crashed and that everyone needed to get dressed and get on deck.  Millvina, her mother, and her older brother Bertram (Bert) Vere Dean were placed on one of the first lifeboats that left the ship.  Bertram, Sr. promised that he would meet up with them later, but he never did.  He perished with 1,516 other people  on that frigid night in April.

Millvina’s mother Georgetta at first wanted to continue to Kansas, but after a week in United States, she took her children and moved back to England, to the family farm near Southampton.  The children were educated and generally taken care of through pensions given to the survivors.

Millvina Found Fame But Not Fortune

Millvana Dean had lived a quiet life.  She never married nor had any children.  She worked hard as an assistant/secretary at several businesses around Southampton and briefly worked for the government during World War II.

She never told her coworkers that she was on the Titanic.  She didn’t see the need to because she was only two months old when the ship went down; she didn’t remember any of it.  And she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

When the ship’s wreckage was  discovered in 1985, she was tracked down and interviewed by several people.  So at 73 years old,  Elizabeth Gladys “Millvana” Dean suddenly became famous.  She neither sought fame nor particularly wanted it, but she accepted it and attended a number of events in Europe, Canada, and the United States.

Here is a video of her speaking and signing autographs in 1998 in Canada:

Her Final Days

Millvana’s health became quite fragile in her last days on earth, and it became necessary for her to live in a nursing home.  Unfortunately, she did not make much from all her appearances for events tied to the Titanic, and could not afford the $5,000 a month in resident fees.

She sold off many of her family’s possessions, including a mail bag her mother had carried around (and was at one time thought to have been the bag they used to lower her off the ship in), compensation letters from the Titanic Relief Fund,  and a suitcase full of clothes given to the family.

Thankfully the person who bought the items at auction gave them right back to her.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet heard of her plight, and they along with director James Cameron and Celine Dion donated more than $20,000 to The Millvana Fund to pay for her expenses.

Her health began failing even more after that.  She suffered from pneumonia, and eventually succumbed to the illness in her sleep on May 31, 2009.  She was 97 years old.

Please let me know what you think about the Unsinkable Millvina Dean and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic by leaving a comment below.  And please feel free to share this post with anyone you think would be interested!