Ed Coghlan reviews Susie Millar's memoir of her great grandfather Thomas Millar who helped to construct the Titanic and died on her.
Four year old Ruddick Millar was disappointed with the Titanic. As a special treat his dad, Thomas Millar, had brought Ruddick and his older brother Tommy to the Harland & Wolff shipyard on a Sunday morning in 1911 to show his sons the ship he had been working on. In Ruddick's mind a "boat" was something you could see all at once whereas the tall metal mountain, that was Titanic, seemed to soar above him blocking the light and presenting a frightening image to the little lad. He tried hard to hide his true feelings because he knew how much this meant to his Dad who had helped to build the powerful engines that would drive this giant through the waters.
For Thomas Millar his involvement with Titanic made the many years of hard work and study at night worth while. He was ambitious and wanted to make something of his life. Unlike many of his workmates, who were happy to settle for the comfort of working in familiar surroundings, Thomas was prepared to go wherever the opportunity to learn presented itself. This desire to progress brought him from the Belfast shipyard of Workman, Clark & Co to the Vickers yard at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria. When an opening arose at Harland & Wolff, Thomas grabbed the opportunity to return to Belfast to work for a progressive Yard that was at the cutting edge of new advances in shipbuilding. He had to cope with the disadvantage of not having family members working in the Yard who could show him the ropes so it was a matter of applying himself during the day and studying at night to increase his knowledge of the trade.
Thomas Millar also had an ambition to travel and try his luck in either Canada or America. He was a trained engineer and felt there would always be a need for his skills. All the cards seemed to fall into place when he heard that the White Star line were looking for skilled engineers to go to sea on their ships. It offered increased pay and the opportunity for travel with the potential of work opportunities overseas.
His delight at being offered a position as assistant deck engineer with the White Star line was overshadowed by the fact that he had lost his wife Jeannie early in 1912 leaving him with two young boys to care for. He could not have taken the position with White Star were it not for the support of family prepared to care for the boys in his absence. After initial training he was appointed to the very ship the engines of which he had helped to build and install. He signed on as a crew member of Titanic in Belfast in April 1912 and arranged for his sons Tommy and Ruddick to come and say farewell. As a going away present he gave each of them two new pennies dated 1912 with the exhortation "dont spend them until I see you again". That opportunity never arose as Thomas Millar lost his life in the North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15th 1912.
The coins provide the title for Susie Millar's "The Two Pennies - A True Story From the Titanic". The author is a great grandaughter of Thomas and has put together a very moving story of a family tragically torn apart by events in 1912. The story is presented in the form of personal diary entries by various family members that combine to give a picture of what life was like in Belfast at the close of the 19th / start of the 20th century. In a very moving way the reader is given an insight into the lives, tribulations and aspirations of Thomas and the Millar family.
It is no surprise that an image of Titanic appeared on the cover of almost every book that flooded the book shelves in this centenary year, which makes the absence of Titanic on the cover of "The Two Pennies" all the more noticeable. Instead the cover features a small child playing with a makeshift paper boat in a stream with a backdrop of Carrickfergus Castle, at the mouth of Belfast Lough, and in the far distance the outline of a large shipyard gantry. The significance of the cover can be found in the book and makes quite an impact. The reader will also find the subsequent history of the coins.
This is a refreshingly different read from other Titanic related material. As I read through the pages I developed a rapport with the various family members and got an insight into the impact on ordinary lives arising from the loss of Titanic. The Millar family were as much victims of the Titanic as those who died in the tragedy 100 years ago. I have no hesitation in recommending this book.
ISBN: 978-1-4567-7667--1 (sc)