Northern Ireland

Doctor's last Titanic letter comes home to Belfast

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Media captionThe long-lost letter was sold at auction in New York for £25,000

A last letter from a Belfast doctor on board the Titanic to his mother is coming home to the city of his birth.

Titanic assistant ship's surgeon Dr John Simpson's note to his mother will go on display this summer at the new Belfast visitors' centre dedicated to the liner.

It was brought ashore at Cobh, County Cork, the Titanic's last stop.

Days later on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic in April 1912, it sank with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.

The letter will be displayed at the multi million-pound Titanic Belfast building in the city's docks where the boat was built.

Dr Simpson, 37, from Belfast, was married and had one son when he took the commission on Titanic. He previously worked on another White Star Line ship, the Olympic.

In his letter, dated 11 April 1912, Dr Simpson said he was settling into his cabin well and that the accommodation on board his new vessel was larger. He signed off: "With fondest love, John."

Dr Simpson died when the Titanic sank on 15 April 1912. There were fears that the message, written on notepaper headed RMS Titanic, would never return to Belfast after it was put up for auction in New York in March with a reserve price of $34,000 (£21,692).

Image caption Dr John Martin and Kate Dornan with the coveted letter

The Titanic Foundation, the charitable group which oversaw the building of Titanic Belfast, stepped in to buy it.

Dr Simpson's great-nephew, Dr John Martin, from Killinchy in County Down, said: "It was part of our family history for so long and it is tangible evidence of the man and a link to his personality."

Dr Martin, 63, said it was not an emotional letter.

"It is quite humdrum in its contents, it is just a letter from a man writing to his mother," he added.

"Although there is no huge emotional content to it, it gained that emotional context by the history of what happened in the following few days afterwards. It is an embodiment of a moment in history and there is that personal connection that the family has to it and that makes it very special to me."

The correspondence was in the family for many years but passed to a collector of Titanic memorabilia.

Kate Dornan, a great niece of Dr Simpson, said the idea that it had been lost forever was terrible.

"Getting it back means the world to us, to our children and grandchildren," she said.

"It all feels a bit surreal because it means everything to us."

Bryan Gregory, acting chief executive of the Titanic Foundation, said it was a great chance.

Image caption The Titanic sank in April 1912 with the loss of 1,500 lives

"It was the last link between the Titanic and the city of Belfast, written by one of the sons of Belfast back to his family," he said.

"It was a one-off opportunity and either we seized that opportunity or let it go."

While reporting on the recent campaign by Dr John Simpson's descendants to bring the letter back to Belfast, the BBC's Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson discovered, by chance, that he was related to the Titanic doctor.

Dr Simpson was a cousin of Mr Simpson's great-grandfather. He said he initially thought the family did not have any chance of bringing the letter home from New York.

"Fair play to the Titanic Foundation for stepping in, digging deep and buying it so that everyone in Belfast can see it," Mr Simpson said.

"It's only a small piece of paper but the letter from the Titanic offers a glimpse of the enormity of the human tragedy - the last words of a devoted son to his Belfast mum.

"Too often the story of Titanic is glamorised; the letter keeps it real."

It goes on display at Titanic Belfast later this summer.

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