SS Nomadic: Our last vital link to White Star Line and RMS Titanic

Best known as RMS Titanic’s little sister, SS Nomadic is a survivor and hero in her own right. She is also our last true connection to the White Star Line, boasting of sterling heroics throughout both peace time and war

Residing in the celebrated Hamilton dry dock, within close proximity to the Titanic Belfast museum, sits a small ship that possesses a much bigger story than any initial glance might otherwise convey.

Wearing a paint scheme of traditional hues in combination with pristine wooden decking, gleaming brass fixtures and a singular amber funnel, SS Nomadic looks reassuringly familiar.

She appears to be an aesthetic nod to the glory days of transatlantic travel, albeit on a notably smaller scale. Don't let her size fool you, though. This ship packs a cultural punch of the highest magnitude.

Besides remaining our only surviving connection to White Star Line, SS Nomadic has played host to a plethora of historical figures, having also served with merit during both World Wars; subsequently escaping the scrapyard by the skin of her rudder.

As the final living relative to RMS Titanic, SS Nomadic showcases a turbulent history and we remain fortunate that she still exists – let alone open to visitors. This is her incredible story.

SS Nomadic: RMS Titanic’s little sister

Measuring 71 metres in length, with a gross tonnage of just over 1,000 tons, SS Nomadic reminds us – albeit not in size – of many gargantuan vessels that eagerly plied crossed the Atlantic in the early 1900s.

The names of these grand ships still reside with us today. People the world over know of the tragic fate that unfolded for RMS Titanic in April 1912, while RMS Olympic evokes memories of the industrious push to produce the biggest, fastest ships in the world.

Alongside stellar wartime service when it really mattered, these British juggernauts still capture the imagination of contemporary society.

Sadly, both Titanic and Olympic (and sister ship Britannic) are mostly no more, but their charisma and reputation remain steadfast among maritime enthusiasts. So, what of SS Nomadic – the only living relative?

With an average speed of 12 knots and the capacity to carry 1,000 passengers, this little ship seems, on paper, to have been destined for service that was far less glorious. To some extent, this is true. Delivered to the White Star Line in May 1911, SS Nomadic was one of two ships designed to offer the supporting act to RMS Titanic and other similar vessels.

SS Nomadic, and her sister ship SS Traffic, were built to serve as tenders to the grand liners of the White Star Line, which for all of their impressive qualities had simply become too large to dock at one of the principal harbours on the transatlantic route – the French port of Cherbourg.

SS Nomadic was constructed alongside White Star Line's celebrated Olympic-class liners. Credit: Wikicommons

After a liner had anchored nearby, the two tenders would work together to ensure that everything, and everyone, could board conveniently – while bypassing the logistical difficulties of a ship that could not dock in Cherbourg’s shallow waters. You can spot SS Nomadic making a cheeky cameo in James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster film.

SS Traffic would carry out luggage, mail and third-class passengers to the nominated liner as it waited out from shore, while SS Nomadic ferried first and second-class passengers in a cocoon of luxury. Nomadic was the posh totty of the two sisters, but that didn't mean she was unable to graft.

Designed by Harland & Wolff managing director Thomas Andrews, SS Nomadic had an interior that was as plush as her larger stable mates. Furnished with beautifully carved wooden panels, wrought-iron entrance doors, porcelain water fountains and a chic bar, SS Nomadic offered a carefully curated first impression of the White Star Line, as well as comfortable passage across to the liner of the day.

To prevent any sort of grumbles on delay, SS Traffic usually proceeded first so that key items could be transferred before a liner’s eager quota of passengers arrived.

Meanwhile, Nomadic possessed a special escalator and winches for rapid freight and baggage loading before she then crossed the harbour and allowed her passengers to board the main vessel, all in less than 30 minutes.

White Star Line's SS Nomadic became a firm and beloved fixture at Cherbourg, enhancing the port with a boatload of style. Credit: Facebook/SS Nomadic

The two tenders worked sleekly and in tandem, first serving the indefatigable RMS Olympic at her initial call to Cherbourg, and then RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage when she dropped anchor to await further passengers on the evening of April 10, 1912. For SS Nomadic, this particular yet seemingly routine service would prove to be her most important. Even if the two ships would never meet again.

As she carried 142 first-class and 30 second-class passengers (including famed industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim and New York millionaire John Jacob Aster) over to ‘the ship of dreams’, SS Nomadic, her crew and those working at Cherbourg harbour were all unaware that – beyond that evening – RMS Titanic would never require a tender. Nor return to European shores again.

Four days later, after hitting an iceberg in the dead of night, RMS Titanic tragically sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, taking 1,503 of her crew and passengers with her. The tragedy sent shockwaves across the world, devastating European communities and leaving socialites without heirs. SS Nomadic had been the last ship to serve Titanic and those three hours, where she acted as the great ship’s little tender, would follow her evermore; for better and for worse.

SS Nomadic won the heart of the nation following a sterling effort during WWI. Credit: Facebook/Twitter/SSNomadic

All mine: A brave little ship

In the years that followed, Cherbourg struggled to comprehend the shocking demise of RMS Titanic. When RMS Olympic pulled into Cherbourg not long afterwards, and the little tenders were required once more, the harbour fell deathly silent. The unearthly presence of an identical sister to Belfast's 'ship of dreams' radiated an overwhelming sense of spectral distress.

Alongside her modest engine note, memories of Titanic trailed behind Nomadic akin to a mournful wake; as if a ghost ship had loomed over proceedings. However, there was still work to be done during the lull of peacetime, before the incoming drum of conflict.

When World War I broke out in August 1914, news of the conflict reached Cherbourg quickly and, with it, so too did a rapid decline in maritime business. Passenger numbers dwindled while the grand liners RMS Olympic and RMS Britannic were requisitioned by the British Government for war service.

The tenders were at an unexpected loss until finally, in April 1917, the French Navy took them into service. Thanks to an urgent need to keep the supply chain between Great Britain, the United States and France operational, SS Nomadic was promptly fitted out as a minesweeper.

She carried a captive balloon and was granted Giraud-type anti-submarine grenades. Joining her sister SS Traffic, Nomadic became the flagship of Saint Nazaire’s Minesweeper Squadron, commanded by the head of the Basse Loire Minesweeping Group.

SS Nomadic and sister ship SS Traffic worked in tandem during the war effort. Credit: Reddit/SSNomadic

Impressively, in her first month, SS Nomadic destroyed nine German mines. While this was a crucial and respectable role for SS Nomadic to undertake, it was perilous work. One of those first nine mines exploded in close proximity, with both the ship’s clock and Captain’s washbasin incurring damage.

At the time, mine detection was practically non-existent. The only choice was to sweep for these explosive hazards and when one was found, options included defusing it or destroying it with guns. It was an extremely dangerous way of asking for trouble. No fewer than 48 minesweeping ships were lost during the conflict prior to 1919. Still, little Nomadic pressed on.

In June 1918, Nomadic located a mine near the escort ship Crozon. The crew of Nomadic bravely hauled the device, its anchor and the connected chain out of the water before defusing the bomb on deck. The tender and her crew could have been taken out in an instant.

Afterwards, to congratulate such heroic efforts, the commandant of the Saint Nazaire waterfront rewarded the crew with an extra ration of wine. They likely needed the drink and again Nomadic carried on.

On other occasions, Nomadic stumbled upon less combustible but still dangerous finds. In spring 1919, her sweep wires encountered the wreck of SS Norhaug – a Norwegian coal ship that had floundered in the very same spot after hitting a moored mine.

By this point, Nomadic was operating along the French coast by Le Croisic, west of Nantes. In May of that year, both Nomadic and Traffic left for decommissioning in Brest. However, instead of being released back to Cherbourg, they would instead spend the summer in Brest ferrying troops back home. The little ships returned to Cherbourg in October 1919 after performing this noble service, having survived their courageous minesweeping years.

The SS Nomadic acted as tender for culture's greatest ships when they approached France - here photographed with Cunard's Queen Elizabeth. Credit: Facebook/SSNomadic

Multiple post war clients

Upon her return to Cherbourg, SS Nomadic once again resumed tendering duties. This time however, due to the loss of so many other tenders during the war, Nomadic was now asked to serve several shipping lines. Among Nomadic’s clientele was the White Star Line’s RMS Majestic, alongside the Cunard liners RMS Caronia and RMS Mauretania.

She was in esteemed company, but the increased workload was notable. In December 1926, when 2,070 passengers arrived in France with RMS Majestic, not only did all those individuals require a ferry over to the Cherbourg dock, but so too did some 2,200 bags of mail and 1,800 items of luggage. Nomadic teamed up with four other tenders – Traffic, Alsatia, Lotharingia and Avenir – and the load was successfully covered courtesy of all hands on deck.

In the background, much was changing. There were fewer tenders and fewer passengers as the economy bit. More importantly, the port of Cherbourg was slowly transforming into a deepwater harbour in an eager bid to retain all possible business.

This colourised image of SS Nomadic showcases the vessel in her original colour scheme. Credit: Reddit

As Cherbourg moved towards serving liners directly, the deepwater harbour virtually terminated any need for tender activity. Spotting the inevitable, White Star Line sold SS Nomadic and SS Traffic in 1927 to the Compagnie Cherbourgeoise de Transbordement.

Both tenders continued serving the line from which they’d originated as well as those from other agencies. However, it wasn’t long before the Societe Cherbourgeoise de Remorquage et de Sauvetage stepped in. They renamed SS Nomadic as Ingenieur Minard in honour of Paul Minard, the designer of the deepwater port.

Nomadic’s funnel was repainted black with a large red banner added. The little ship still looked elegant but, as the deepwater harbour neared completion in 1933, her purpose was becoming increasingly questionable.

SS Nomadic worked tirelessly throughout WW2, during which time her sister ship was sadly scuttled. Credit: Facebook/SSNomadic

Another war, another country

Six years later, in September 1939, how Nomadic was being utilised changed again, as did the country within which she resided. The call came from across the English channel in Southampton, where SS Nomadic – still in possession of her French name Ingenieur Minard – was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in July of the following year.

During her residence in Great Britain, the little ship was moved from Southampton to Portsmouth, serving as an accommodation ship twice as well as periodic cleaning and maintenance duties in between. The little tender’s five years in L’angleterre were far from glamourous but she survived her tenure, finally returning to Cherbourg in June 1945.

SS Traffic, known in France as Ingenieur Reibell, had not been so fortunate – she had been sunk in Cherbourg by the German Navy, who then used her metals for their own war effort.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were only two of culture's famous faces to board SS Nomadic. Credit: Shutterstock/RRM

The end of the transatlantic line for Cherbourg

Having survived yet another World War, the French welcomed Minard (as they affectionally referred to her) back to Cherbourg with open arms. Once more, she took up her tendering position.

However, as the world recovered and pushed forward from memories of the war, there was even less need for what Minard could offer than when the development of the deepwater harbour first began to threaten her employment.

Unhelpfully, the dominance of air transport in the 1960s, led to further decline in what remained of transatlantic shipping. In 1962, some 50,000 passengers travelled on the ocean liners.

Of those still loyal to crossing the Atlantic via ocean liner, it was primarily the rich and famous who remained. In October 1964, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were photographed disembarking from little Minard. Big names or not, it was only a matter of time and, by 1966, passenger numbers dwindled down to 20,000 a year.

In September 1967, the merger of Cunard White Star Line withdrew RMS Queen Mary while, little more than a year later, RMS Queen Elizabeth also bid Cherbourg farewell in November 1968. Now Cherbourg was no longer part of the Southampton-New York transatlantic line. Times had very much changed.

The local press tapped into the prevailing mood. "Sadness, melancholy and very keen anxiety on the part of the people of Cherbourg who see their source of work plunge into crisis" reported Ouest France newspaper on November 5, 1968, the morning after RMS Queen Elizabeth had departed the town for the last time.

Two days later, Cunard White Star closed their Cherbourg office and Minard was sold to the Societe Maritime Industrielle de Recuperation scrapyard. The little tender’s days appeared to be numbered.

Could this picture of SS Nomadic as a restaurant be any more French? Credit: Facebook/Twitter/SSNomadic

Dodging scrappage via the culinary circuit

Astonishingly, Minard narrowly avoided scrappage when Rowland Spinnewyn, a French businessman, purchased her with the intention of converting her into a floating restaurant. She left the scrap merchants with a tow to Le Havre, Rouen and then Conflans-Sainte-Honorine.

In doing so, she gave up some of her flying bridge in-order to pass under bridges on the Seine but it seemed a justified compromise in exchange for survival. Her funnel, mast, wheelhouse and davits remained on board, relocated but out of harm’s way. Some other metals were scrapped while her engine and boiler rooms were removed.

As the little ship awaited better days, while eventually moored up on the Oise River, looters removed what had been Nomadic’s bronze bell as well as other original fixtures.

Once a regular of the Parisian riverside, pressure mounted to move SS Nomadic elsewhere. Credit: Facebook/Twitter/SSNomadic

She passed hands, this time to Yvon Vincent, a Parisian estate agent. From 1974, for three years, she served as a meeting and reception centre upon the Seine. It was a very different existence from before but, in 1977, the little ship regained something important – her original White Star Line name – and she was once more the Nomadic.

The Shogun Asian restaurant then made use of her as well as another eatery called Le Colonial, among others.

Shortly after James Cameron’s film Titanic was released in 1997, Nomadic’s restaurant became Le Transbordeur du Titanic. Briefly, Nomadic enjoyed a wave of increased visitors thanks to her connection to RMS Titanic.

Unfortunately, like the doomed liner she’d once tendered, this new career came to an abrupt end when the operating license of the restaurant was withdrawn in 2000, and her owners quickly descended into bankruptcy.

Photographed in Paris during the year 2000, it wasn't long before SS Nomadic would be sold. Credit: Wikicommons

Ireland throws their hat into the ring

Despite their fondness for what had once been a vessel nicknamed Minard, France struggled to repurpose SS Nomadic. To the country’s credit, what do you do with a former tender that lacks most of her running gear while also being an 89 year old vessel?

The French Ministry of Culture temporarily listed Nomadic on the Heritage Register. Enquiries came forth but primarily from tyre-kickers. Pressure mounted to move Nomadic on from the crowded Port of Paris; but who would save her?

In April 2003, Nomadic was towed back to Le Havre where she was evaluated and found to still be in great shape. However, without a buyer, her impressive condition was not enough to justify her continuation. Or certainly not within given circles.

However, over in Northern Ireland, in Belfast – the hometown that built SS Nomadic – interest in rescuing one of their own was crystal clear. The city founded the Nomadic appeal, which brought heritage and maritime enthusiasts to the fore and raised funds in an attempt to secure her future.

SS Nomadic made her way back home to Belfast after being purchased for a single Euro over the guide price. Credit: Facebook/SSNomadic

Those who were aware of her plight in France also supported the cause. After all, little Minard had performed dangerous minesweeping duties in France that ships twice her size would not covet.

The campaign gained governmental support and, in January 2006, Northern Ireland’s Department for Social Development made a successful bid of 250,001 Euro for ownership of SS Nomadic. Towed out via the English Channel and the Irish Sea, Titanic’s former tender returned to Belfast Harbour on July 15, 2006.

To oversee a comprehensive restoration about to get underway on the ship, the Nomadic Charitable Trust was established while Harland & Wolff were also commissioned to undertake elements of her repair. History was about to repeat itself as SS Nomadic soaked up her homecoming within the very dry dock she had been fitted out almost a century earlier.

Finally, on May 31, 2013 – carefully timed to coincide with the anniversary of Titanic’s launch in May 1911 – SS Nomadic was proudly opened as a local tourist attraction and what seemed like most of Belfast came out to see their little tender.

In our humble opinion, ships rarely become more culturally significant than SS Nomadic. Credit: Picryl

The cultural significance of SS Nomadic

At over a century old and having survived two World Wars, simultanously providing reliable, long-term service as a tender – even in the occasional unglamorous scenario – Nomadic has a great deal to be proud of.

She provided the first elegant impression of the White Star Line before serving France for several decades, subsequently assisting Great Britain during World War II. In her latter years, she provided fine cuisine atop the same decks that bombs were once defused.

Now, SS Nomadic provides a genuine and physical connection to the glory days of transatlantic shipping. By stepping onboard, you are following in the footsteps of many infamous names who boarded the RMS Titanic while being able to say you are visiting the last White Star Line vessel in existence.

SS Nomadic, Ingenieur Minard, Minard, Titanic’s little sister – whatever you choose to call this humble little ship, you can’t argue that this vessel doesn’t carry significant cultural significance. SS Nomadic may be small, but she is as proud a reminder of the busy shipbuilding years in Belfast as she is a heritage icon.

Small yet plucky, a workhorse and yet brave, SS Nomadic is a hero in her own right who defied expectations of what she truly was. Nomadic is the closest you’ll ever get to understanding the almost mythical je ne sais quoi that the grand ocean liners possessed.

Even in the depths of the Atlantic, what remains of RMS Titanic on the ocean floor, continues to fascinate and inspire even now while mostly ruined and unreachable. Which modern-day items can you nominate that would carry the same magnetism and faded elegance if subjected to the same fate?

There’s a reason why we still talk about these great ships today. Why movies are still made and books are still written about them. It is perhaps why you’re reading this very article. SS Nomadic, or France’s little Minard, will most certainly help you find it.

SS Nomadic photographed alongside RMS Olympic, as she steams towards North America. Credit: Picryl
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About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

Starting out on Classic Car titles for Bauer's extensive portfolio, Gillian has since moved onto a successful freelance career covering all manner of heritage aspects as both writer and photographer. She is currently involved with the RNLI's bicentenary and was a proud part of the new Land Rover Defender's launch campaign.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.