IN A DUSTY pink folder, amid the famous telegrams from JFK and correspondence from dignitaries around the world, a bunch of letters tell the real story behind the young President-in-waiting’s visit to Glasgow.

Eighty years on from the sinking of the TSS Athenia, a Govan-built cruise liner torpedoed by a German U-boat hours after it left Glasgow, the letters reveal the heartbreak and horror felt by survivors, many of whom were taken in by city families as they struggled to cope with the tragedy.

“I have staying with me a Mr George Gray, 74 years of age, a survivor of the Athenia tragedy who arrived yesterday and whose daughter Mrs Helen Flower is still missing,” writes David Taverock. “Mr Gray has practically only the clothes in which he stands…”

“Never will she forget the practical sympathy shown by the people of Glasgow,” writes Theo Barraclough, the brother of one of the American survivors, Florence Malik, while Rebecca Currie, who was on board the ship, writes: “I have lost 200 dollars, all my jewellery, all my clothes – I don’t mind it all now I have my life….”

The letters, held by Glasgow City Archives at the Mitchell Library, were written to Lord Provost at the time, Patrick Dollan, who set up the Athenia Disaster Fund to help survivors.

The fund raised £6000 - £2000 of that in 24 hours - and many city families responded by opening up their homes to help. Dollan kept a file of newspaper cuttings and letters, written by people appealing for money and support. It also includes telegrams from John F Kennedy, his father Joseph and President Franklin Roosevelt.

the fund assisted in housing survivors in hotels and went towards food, clothing and some spending money for those affected.

The young JFK was just 22 when he was sent by his father, then the American Ambassador to the UK, to meet American survivors at the Beresford Hotel on Sauchiehall Street and at the Western Infirmary.

After the visit, he sent thank you letters, which read: “I want to thank you for the wonderful way you all treated me yesterday…I told my father how much you had all done for the Athenia survivors and he wanted me to tell you how grateful we all are” adding that Glasgow had “the gratitude of all Americans.”

Archivist Michael Gallagher explains: “JFK’s visit was a big coup for Glasgow, but it was an even bigger deal for JFK. This was his first official engagement representing the US.”

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On a lighter note, the file contains a letter from legendary Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder’s niece Greta, who sent a £20 donation on behalf of her uncle, who gave a special performance for the rescued families.

Dollan replied: “Tell Uncle I am very happy to receive his cheque for £20 but more proud to be numbered among his friends. Some day when I get five minutes I will come out and eat your scones and drink your tea plus a wee drap oot o’ Harry’s special bottle.”

One mystery remains surrounding JFK’s visit to Glasgow.

At our recent Thanks for the Memories event in Baillieston, which is where Patrick Dollan grew up, local resident Pat Woods dropped in to share his thoughts on JFK’s meeting with the former Lord Provost.

Retired librarian Pat, who helped to build up much of the local history collection at Baillieston Library, explains: “When JFK visited Glasgow, he went to the City Chambers with Dollan and presented him with an American flag – is it still there? Where did it go?”

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Glasgow City Archives have not managed to locate the flag. “It is not in our collection, and sadly, when JFK visited the Chambers, he did not sign the visitor’s book,” says Michael Gallagher.

The telegrams, letters and photos are all that remain of JFK’s visit – unless Evening Times readers know better? Email or write to Ann Fotheringham, Evening Times, 200 Renfield St, Glasgow G2 3QB.

Photographs of JFK arriving at the City Chambers and newspaper clippings from the visit are held in Glasgow’s Special Collections, based at the Mitchell Library. Anyone can request access to a wealth of local and family history, newspapers, maps, photographs, rare books and some artworks on a wide range of subjects.

Riverside Museum, Glasgow has a display dedicated to the ship and tells the story of the sinking. For more information visit