Two New Pennies: Touring Titanic & the Story of Thomas Millar

The weather was pleasant enough on Wednesday, April 10, 1912.

The region had “a clear night with dry spells; [and] the morning dawned fine with some good spells of sunshine.” Hardly unforeseen in the early springtime, it was still a touch chilly, even in the sunlight.

Titanic had been scheduled to depart at noon. 

Over 900 passengers boarded Titanic that morning, and a skeleton crew had been on board since late March, in preparation for her sea trials. 

This roster included all seven officers—save the newly installed Chief Officer Henry Tingle Wilde, and including the newly former Second Officer David Blair, who had been ousted from the crew to make room for Wilde and had disembarked upon Titanic's docking in Southampton.

But neither the crew nor the passengers were the first to step foot within Titanic.

The ship’s debut had gone all sorts of awry.

Titanic’s maiden voyage had unfortunately already been delayed from its original date of March 20th, owing to her older sister Olympic having sustained damage to her portside propeller shaft in a collision with the H.M.S. Hawke in September of 1911.

Titanic's new departure date of April 10th then found itself in the immediate wake of a prolonged coal miners’ strike, which had begun in February and ended over a month later on April 6, just four days shy of Titanic at last setting sail. 

Furthermore, British transit lines were still severely impacted by the miners’ strike, and along with that came significant shipping delays. 

Titanic had, therefore, not been properly polished on schedule, so to speak, and so her fittings were not complete when they should have been. As Titanic sat docked in Southampton, therefore, she was still in fact receiving her so-called final touches: carpets were still being laid, furniture and potted ferns were still being situated, and in many areas she was still being painted.

Fresh flowers were reportedly brought aboard to mask the pungent scent of the paint and varnish, but it did not seem to help much. For example, Second-Class passenger Winnifred Quick, who was 8 years old when she survived the sinking, recalled that the smell of fresh paint nauseated her so much that on the night of April 14th, her mother had left the door to their room ajar to vent the fumes.

Owing to this delayed work, White Star refrained from the usual publicity-driven grand “Open Day” that it had held for previous vessels, wherein visitors would pay admission to tour the most impressive parts of the new ship, such as the Grand Staircase.

Titanic’s older sister, the RMS Olympic, had successfully hosted such a day back on May 27, 1911, shortly before her sea trials got under way.

Titanic’s crew, however, had done their best.

On Thursday, April 4th, the docked ship was “dressed” in flags and pennants as a “salute” to the people of Southampton in the absence of the tradition Open Day: a veritable "rainbow," wrote Sixth Officer James Moody, that consisted of 220 flags, each of which were set 9 feet apart.

The pageantry remained in place through April 5th, which also happened to be Good Friday.

Titanic had also been unofficially toured by various visitors in both Southampton and its hometown of Belfast, where it had been constructed.

Some of these tourists were illustrious—such as artist Norman Wilkinson, whose painting was hung in the First-Class Smoking Lounge and who Captain Smith was simply too busy to chaperone—and many were unnamed or otherwise covert. 

Per the Belfast News-letter edition dated April 1, 1912, White Star allowed guests of “special invitation” to take a look around the ship on March 30th, shortly before she undertook her sea trials on April 2nd.

“Guests… had the opportunity of inspecting the liner on Saturday last… and naturally this privilege was highly appreciated. The visitors were afforded every possible facility in their tour through the huge vessel.”

Citation Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.

Amongst these may have been the children of Thomas Millar.

Thomas Millar was 33 years old in April 1912, and he had labored on both Olympic and Titanic. He’d completed his apprenticeship with Harland & Wolff, and as of the 1911 census, he was noted as a fitter. He reportedly worked to build Titanic’s engines.

Thomas was also a new widower. Three months prior in January 1912, his wife Jennie had died at only 32 years old from pulmonary tuberculosis. Thomas was bereft, and his two young boys were without a mother.

After Jennie passed away, Thomas decided to take to the sea in order to reconstruct life for himself and his sons, named Thomas Jr. And William. He planned to work in New York, or maybe Canada, and carry on with the White Star Line. His sons would be taken care of by their aunt, and sent over in a few months’ time, once Thomas was settled.

So Thomas Millar signed onto Titanic on April 6, 1912, as an assistant deck engineer. It was only his second sea voyage, with the first being a stint on the SS Gothland, which at the time was chartered to the Red Star Line.

And on April 2, 1912, Thomas brought his sons to the dock where Titanic awaited its departure from Belfast.

There, as a special gift, he gave Thomas Jr. and William both two shiny new pennies, and asked them to make a promise: to keep them, until they were reunited. “They are this year’s”, he is reported to have told his boys. “Don’t spend them until I come back. I kept them out of my last wages specially for each of you.”

Later that day, little William Millar watched Titanic pull away from the beach at Boneybefore.

And less than two weeks later, as he played with a paper boat on that same beach, that he saw his older cousin Ella approaching, bearing tragic news.

Thomas Millar died in the sinking. His body, if ever identified, went unrecovered.

The Millar boys, who had only just lost their mother, were now orphaned and impoverished. Thomas Jr. was 11 years old; William was only 5.

They stayed in the custody of their aunt until each were aged 16, supported only by a “pittance” from the funds provided to the surviving families of victims. 

But they, much like their late father, carried on. And neither ever spent their father’s pennies.

Thomas Jr. grew up to work for Harland & Wolff. William, who went by his middle name of Ruddick, became a notable writer and playwright. He died in 1952.

The pennies that Ruddick refused to spend, even as he grew up poor and parentless, now belong to his granddaughter, Susie Millar.

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