IN these days of global marketing and online bidding it is reassuring to know that, just occasionally, with some wit and a little good fortune, one can still make a good wage from a solitary find at the local auction room.
Former Castle Douglas police detective turned antiques dealer David R. Howard attended such a sale held by Thomson Roddick and Medcalf, Dumfries in December. Lot 745 was briefly described as “a small collection of Titanic memorabilia and memorial items relating to Thomas Mullin, one of only two Dumfries citizens who lost their lives on the Titanic, includes a White Star Line badge inscribed no. 32, a pocket watch, a postcard and cuttings”.
The items had been entered for sale by a relative who declared them unlucky. Well for some perhaps…
A small picture in the catalogue illustrated some but not all of the items contained in the lot, so Mr Howard was surprised when his modest speculative commission bid was successful at £102. Not mentioned by the auctioneers was a steward’s leather note pad and a vesta case.
As Mr Howard soon discovered, Thomas Mullin had indeed been born in Dumfries – he lived on Observatory Row with his grandmother, brother and two sisters – and was from the same school and the same football team as John Hume, a Titanic band member. A weaver by trade, he suffered from failing eyesight and only after a period of hospitalisation did he seek his fortune at sea at the age of 20.
He obtained a place as a saloon steward on the ship St Louis about nine months before he was transferred to perform the duties of Third Class saloon steward aboard the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Mullin’s body was recovered by the Minia (one of two ships whose grisly task was to find the bodies of the 1513 who perished in the freezing waters) and her sad cargo landed at Halifax, Nova Scotia where he was allocated victim number 323 and a permit issued for his burial. His possessions were sent home to Dumfries in a canvas bag. It’s the sort of biographical detail Titanic collectors love.
Research also led Mr Howard to contact Henry Aldridge and Son, the Devizes auctioneers who – through the enthusiasm of Andrew Aldridge – have become specialists in selling Titantic and associated memorabilia. They were delighted to identify the chromium-plated and copper badge as an R.M.S. Titanic Third Class steward’s badge and found it recorded among Mullin’s meagre possessions listed in the archives in the public record office in Nova Scotia.
It was very rare. In fact – given that they were worn by the ill-fated team who looked after the lowly steerage passengers on the ship – it was the only example known to have sold at auction. They estimated it at closer to £12,000-15,000 and at the Hilton Hotel, Southampton on April 2 it was bought by an UK collector for £28,000 (plus 10 per cent buyer’s premium).
And the other objects in this small collection?
The postcard depicting the 46,000-ton ship – addressed to Mr J. Mullin (brother of Thomas) and postmarked, post disaster, for Glasgow April 20, 1912 – carried no message but sold at £2500, while the memorial card, probably from the service held at Maxwellton Parish Church, Dumfries, made £800.
Unsold with a reserve of £5000 was the personal folding memo book cover in faded green leather that was also listed among Mullin’s possessions in Nova Scotia, but it will be reoffered in a future sale once further tests have been carried out.
Also held for a future sale were a silver pocket watch (its hands frozen at 20 minutes to two, the time when passengers first began to enter the water), and a vesta case, both heavily corroded, perhaps by salt water. These (not mentioned in the archives) will also be subject to salinity tests to determine whether they too went down with the unsinkable ship.
Mr Howard, who retired from the police force with multiple sclerosis, will use the windfall to pay for his two children to attend university.
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