Edward John Smith, the future captain of RMS Titanic, was born far away from the sea in the North Staffordshire Potteries, an area encompassed today by the city of Stoke-on-Trent. This district, like so many others across Britain, had sprung up during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and as its popular nickname implies, the production of pottery and other ceramic wares was the main industry, though mining and iron working were also important trades. By the latter half of the 19th century these industries had produced a grim urban landscape, wreathed in smoke and dominated by slag heaps and the ubiquitous 'bottle ovens', the bottle-shaped pottery kilns. The district was also notable for growing not so much from a central hub as being a string of small towns and villages, often separated from each other by farmers' fields or uncultivated moorland that followed the clay and coal reserves that had allowed the pottery industry to prosper. This gave rise to another nickname, the Six Towns, later immortalised as 'the Five Towns' in the novels of another local boy, Arnold Bennett. Each town had its own distinct character and place in the Potteries: Tunstall in the far north was noted for its tile manufactories; Burslem had the distinction of being the 'mother town' of the Potteries, where many early manufacturers had set up business; Stoke-upon-Trent was to become the administrative centre of the region and the main rail terminus; Fenton, the smallest of the six towns and the town Arnold Bennett forgot, was a conglomeration of a few smaller settlements that grew together to form the town; Longton in the far south of the city had also grown up from a humble nest of villages to become the centre for the production of bone china. Roughly in the middle of the district though, sat Hanley, by far the largest of the pottery towns and the commercial heart of the district which today forms the city centre of Stoke-on-Trent. The picture below shows Hanley in 1905, little changed since Smith's boyhood. For it is in Hanley that Captain Smith's story begins.
The Smith family had lived in Hanley for at least 40 years before Captain Smith was born there in 1850. They were a working-class family, just ordinary pottery workers like most of their neighbours. Captain Smith’s grandfather Edward Smith (1775-1838) originally came from the Stafford area. In 1798, he married Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Tams at Ranton near Stafford and moved to Well Street in Hanley in the early 1800’s. Here Edward began working as a potter. The couple appear to have had about seven children, though only three of these can be positively linked through other documents: Captain Smith’s father Edward, who was born in about 1805; Jane born in 1816; and George, the youngest, born in 1822. (1)
Their father, Edward senior, died in 1838 and their mother Elizabeth died in 1841, leaving the house with the younger Edward. A couple of months later Edward Smith married Catherine Hancock, a widow who lived a couple of doors away with her two children, Joseph and Thyrza. The 1841 census reveals that Edward worked as a pottery presser at this time and Catherine worked as a transferer on a pot bank. Within a few years, though, Catherine had started working as a grocer, eventually opening up their family home as a small grocer’s shop, though the business was listed under her husband’s name. This seems to have given the family some financial security that they were later able to build upon. The couple, though, had to wait eight years before they had their one and only child. Edward John Smith, the future captain of the Titanic was born at the family home on 27th January 1850. Both of his parents were by this time in their 40’s.
It was previously thought that Captain Smith was born at 51 Well Street - the number 51 appears before their household in the 1851 census. This, though, is not the house number, but the schedule number, in other words the 51st building visited by a census enumerator that day. The waters were further muddied as over the following decades the houses were renumbered on at least two occasions probably as Well Street and the surrounding estate expanded. That this was indeed the case rather than the family simply moving house, is borne out by the fact that the Smith's and many of their neighbours occupied the same houses relative to one another over this period. Thus, by 1861, the Smiths' home had become number 17 Well Street and by 1871, the last occasion that Edward John Smith was included on a census in his native town, his old family home had become 30 Well Street. The clue to the real number of the house where he was born can be found in the 1851 edition of Slater's Classified Directory for Birmingham, Worcester and the Potteries. Though Edward’s address had no number, two grocers on either side were numbered. Totting up the numbers in between, it seems that in 1850 the Smiths actually lived at number 86 Well Street. As further confirmation, when Edward’s brother George Smith got married a couple of years later he gave his address as 86 Well Street where he was still living with his brother and his new family. (2)
Though no baptism record has yet been found, young Ted Smith, as he was known in his youth, was probably a Methodist. He certainly attended the Methodist Etruria British School located in the nearby village of Etruria. It was a monitorial school where the teacher taught the lesson to a group of monitors, who then taught the lesson to larger groups of younger children. The headmaster of the Etruria British School was one Alfred Smith, a native of Derbyshire. He was an apparently inspirational teacher and it seems a fiery patriot, imploring his pupils to love “God, Queen and Country” and telling them stories of British daring-do. This would make a deep impression on many a lad. A school friend of Smith's, Joseph Turner, who would himself later go to sea wrote, ‘I have often thought that there are few schools in our country that produced the number of soldiers and sailors that the Etruria British School did, and this was in a great measure owing to the patriotic fervour of our schoolmaster.’ (3)
After the Titanic disaster, several of Ted Smith’s old school friends recalled something of his youth. William Jones remembered how he and half a dozen others including Ted Smith, used to run to school every morning after calling for one another (4) . Others remembered Smith as a quiet and respectable lad who acted like a big brother to the younger boys. Joseph Turner was enemies with Ted at first and as he notes here they had numerous scraps before they became good friends.
‘Ted Smith quarrelled with me many times and used to punch my head, and I returned the obligation. These quarrels became so incessant that our dear old schoolmaster cautioned us before our class that they must be stopped, but if we wanted to cudgel ourselves, we must go out in Hall Fields and cudgel each other to our hearts’ content. I am sorry to say that we both took such advice and met after close of school. My second was Herbert Greatbach. Ted Smith’s was my brother Edward. After the fight had progressed for some time with sword sticks, I inadvertently struck Ted Smith on the neck, and this so infuriated Smith that he rushed on me, put down my guard, and thrashed me until I howled.’ (5)
Ted’s half-brother Joseph had joined the Merchant Navy in 1850 and had steadily worked his way up through the ranks since then. Joseph had seen his fair share of adventure, such as in 1856 when the ship Hymen, on which he was serving as second mate, was captured by Riff pirates off the coast of Morocco. For twenty days, Joseph and the other members of the Hymen’s crew were kept as prisoners inland, but after a few were released the remainder were rescued by a force drawn from two Royal Navy ships which raided the pirate camp. (6) This alarming adventure had not dented Joseph’s love of the sea, though, and having obtained a new certificate within a few months he was back aboard ship once again, this time on a year round trip to Australia and back. On his return, Joseph married his sweetheart Susanna Wrench and soon afterwards Thyrza married an engineer named William Harrington. Within a couple of years children were born to both couples and young Ted Smith became an uncle.
It was not all good news at this time, though, as Ted’s father Edward died as a result of Phthisis on 7th October 1864, being buried in Hanley Cemetery a few days later. It was at about this time too that Ted left school and went to work at the Etruria Forge, a large metal foundry not far from Josiah Wedgwood’s Etruria works. Here he operated a Nasmyth steam hammer which was used to shape the largest of wrought iron components. He was, though, just biding his time, because he wanted to go to sea like his half-brother who had prospered in his career and was now a captain of a sailing ship. Ann O’Donnell, a childhood friend of the Smiths, who later emigrated to the States, later recalled in more detail how keen Ted had been on the idea.
‘His half-brother was Captain Hancock, who sailed the seven seas from Henley (sic) and the youngster was stirred by the stories told by the elder man and determined to go to sea. There was no denying the lad, and rather than force him to run away from home and sail with strangers, his brother shipped him in his 16th year’. (7)
Early in 1867, Ted Smith gave up his job at the Etruria Forge and on 5 February, actually a little over a week after his 17th birthday, accompanied by a group of friends, one of whom was Joseph Turner, Ted arrived in Liverpool. He had made an appointment to meet his half-brother Joseph, who was by then the captain of an American-built sailing ship the Senator Weber which was then loading across the Mersey at Birkenhead’s West Float Dock. Joseph Turner noted in his recollections that he got so excited that he too tried to enlist there and then, ‘…but was greatly disappointed at Captain Hancock’s refusal to take me, as he said I had no outfit or my parent’s consent, and he could not take me under such conditions.’ (8)
Crestfallen, Joe Turner and the others had to return to the Potteries. Ted meanwhile was taken to the head offices of Messrs’ Andrew Gibson & Co. at 4 King Street, Liverpool, where he was officially apprenticed and signed on as ‘Boy’ aboard the Senator Weber. (9)
Joseph’s vessel, the Senator Weber, was a 1,297 ton sailing ship then being loaded across the Mersey at Birkenhead’s West Float Dock and Ted was to be one of the crew of 26 men and boys. There were three ships boys, another of them, Thomas Foster, also came from Hanley, so perhaps Ted was not the only boy that Joseph had inspired. (10)
This first voyage was a long one to Hong Kong a round the world voyage via the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. The Suez Canal would not be open for two years, so there was a long haul around Africa, past India and up through the South China Sea. It, therefore, took five months to reach Hong Kong. There was a ship’s log for the voyage but there are no entries in it until the Senator Weber reached Hong Kong. Then, there are numerous entries noting desertions and bad behaviour amongst the crew. Amongst the small knot of persistent troublemakers was one named Edward Smith, but this was not our Ted Smith, but an able seaman with the same name, a 20 year old man from Scarborough who annoyed Joseph so much that he eventually flogged him and then had him jailed for six weeks, by the end of which time the Senator Weber had sailed on leaving him behind.
From Hong Kong the ship moved on to San Francisco, pausing only when a sickly passenger, Henry K. Jones, died mid-Pacific and was buried at sea. At San Francisco 14 men including Thomas Foster from Hanley deserted and had to be replaced. At this point (according to his own records), Ted was unofficially promoted to 3rd mate, probably to help the existing 3rd mate to get the new crew in line. From San Francisco, the ship sailed south to Callao, the principal port of Peru. Then to the nearby Chincha Isles, to take on a cargo of guano which was its final cargo. The ship then sailed around Cape Horn and a couple of months later returned to Europe.
Ted’s second voyage on the Senator Weber was again to the far side of the world but this time to Yokohama, Japan, which nation had only opened its ports to foreigners in 1854. Ted served as the official 3rd mate for this voyage which was even longer, the ship being away for 19 months, which is surprising as the Suez Canal was now open and there is little indication of where the ship went. Its final destination, though, were the Lobos de Afuera islands, another group of guano islands off the coast of Peru. Guano seems to have been a real money spinner for Andrew Gibson and Co. and it is also interesting to note that the future captain of the glamorous White Star Line began his career aboard ships transporting ossified bird dung.
After this voyage, Ted Smith set out on his own as an able seaman aboard a couple of other ships, the Amoy and the Madge Wildfire, sailing to North America. By now he had started lodging at the Sailors Home in Liverpool with occasional trips home to the Potteries. He and Joseph were in Well Street for the 1871 census, but this is the last time either were listed on a local census return.
In 1871, Ted Smith applied for his 2nd mate’s certificate of competency which he gained after sitting and passing the required exams and over the next two years he served in that capacity aboard the ships Record, Agra and N. Mosher. As a 2nd mate he still served as a seaman, but as a sort of qualified foreman he had his own cabin at the rear of the ship and was in charge of the starboard watch looking after the ropes on the starboard and rear of the ship. In 1873, he passed his exams for 1st mate giving him charge of the port watch in charge of the port ropes and the bow of the ship. As mate, he no longer worked in the rigging, he was instead the captain’s executive officer - he saw that the skipper’s orders were carried out. In this capacity he served for three voyages on the ship Arzilla, under Captain C. E. Durkee. Then in 1875, at the age of 25, Smith sat and passed his master’s certificate of competency. This enabled him to command his own ship. To commemorate his success, he was presented with a loving cup dedicated to ‘Captain E. J. Smith’, the first time he had ever been called by this title. He had to wait for a year though, before he got a ship of his own.
Smith’s first command was the 1,040 ton sailing ship Lizzie Fennell, which he took on a ten month trip to Callao in Peru, again returning with a cargo of guano. The voyage does not seem to have been troubled by the mass desertions suffered by the Senator Weber, though there were some deaths. An Italian crewman died off the coast of Chile and three Scandinavians all drowned off Peru in October 1876, but details of how and why they died are lacking as no ship’s log has survived.
For the next three years, Captain Smith and the crew of the Lizzie Fennell led a blameless existence transporting cotton, roisin, deal boards and other assorted goods between Britain, Canada and the United States, the numerous arrivals and departures being noted in the shipping sections of various newspapers as shown here. (11) In later life Smith seems to have had fond memories of his time aboard the Lizzie Fennell, during which time he made a number of valued acquaintances whom he still remembered many years later. He seems, though, to have become interested in moving on. The big, new transatlantic passenger steamers run by the prestigious White Star line had caught his attention. On seeing the White Star ship SS Britannic in dock in Liverpool, Smith commented to his nephew J. W. S. Harrington, who was serving in his crew, that he would happily accept a junior position to serve on such a fine vessel. (12) A few days later he managed to get a tour of the Britannic, which made his mind up for him. Quitting his job as the captain of the Lizzie Fennell, he left the employ of Andrew Gibson and Co. and joined the White Star line.
Ted Smith did not get his longed for berth on the Britannic for a few years, serving from March 1880 to March 1882, as fourth and later third officer aboard a much smaller vessel the SS Celtic commanded by Captain Benjamin Gleadell. (13) Though Smith had a master’s certificate, so too did many others in the White Star line and promotion to the coveted captaincy had to be earned. Steamships also demanded a different set of skills in an officer than a sailing ship and these had to be learnt. The steamers were passenger liners rather than cargo vessels. They carried mostly emigrants, but also many wealthy passengers, whose continued goodwill had to be cultivated, so good social skills needed to be honed. The first few years with White Star were in effect a second apprenticeship for Smith.
He did advance pretty quickly as it turned out. After the Celtic, from March 1882 to March 1884, he served in the Pacific on the San Francisco-Yokohama-Hong Kong run, aboard the SS Coptic as its second officer under Captain William Kidley. Then from March 1884 to July 1885, he was second officer aboard his favourite ship the Britannic under the command of Captain Hamilton Perry, before becoming first officer from July 1885 to April 1887, aboard the SS Republic under Captain Peter Irving. These were all ships he would later command.
He was by this time living permanently in Liverpool and apart from some cousins and nephews, most of his immediate family had also left the Potteries. His mother, half-sister, and brother-in-law now lived in Runcorn and Joseph Hancock would leave the sea in a few years and going into partnership he would set up as a ship’s stores dealer in Birkenhead.
Ted was also on the verge of his own settled family life for in January 1887 at Winwick parish Church near Warrington, Edward John Smith married a farmer’s daughter, Sarah Eleanor Pennington. They initially set up home nearby in Tuebrook, but soon moved to one of the wealthier parts of Liverpool to be nearer the docks. The couple seem to have maintained a good, loving relationship thereafter, despite Ted’s long periods at sea. Eleanor, as she preferred to be called, referred to her husband as ‘Ted’ or ‘Teddy’ and Smith spoke of his wife as ‘my only dear one.’ Shown here is the only extent photo of Eleanor with her infant daughter Melville seated on her lap. The photo was printed in several newspapers after the Titanic disaster.
Almost as a wedding present, from April to August 1887, Smith was given temporary command of the SSRepublic before being transferred back as first officer on the Britannic, staying with the ship until February 1888. That month he applied for and gained his Extra Master Mariners certificate of competency, albeit on the second attempt, having failed the navigation section on his first try, while in August he added to his qualifications by joining the Royal Naval Reserve, undergoing the required training early the next year. As a lieutenant in the Reserve he and any ship under his command could be called upon to serve in times of war and provided that enough members of the crew were also in the Reserve his ships could fly the Blue Ensign of the RNR. As a result of these feathers in his cap, from April to May 1888, Smith took on his first permanent command, the now ageing SS Baltic and so became a fully-fledged White Star line captain. (14)
Though something of a new boy on the shipping scene, from the beginning of his White Star captaincy, Smith began to gain a firm following amongst the ocean-going smart set. Mr and Mrs John Thallon were an American couple who were thoroughly impressed by the new, young White Star skipper and their comments written after his death reveal something of the bond that grew up between Smith and many of his regular passengers.
‘We sailed with Captain Smith on the little ‘Baltic’ of the White Star Line, the first transatlantic Steamer which he ever commanded; and since then, a period of nearly thirty years, we have followed him from ship to ship; and had we not sailed from Naples April 5, 1912, we should undoubtedly have been with him on the ‘Titanic’ instead of crossing at the same time on the ‘Cincinatti’. We always felt so safe with him, for one knew how deeply he felt the responsibility of his ship and of all on board. He has been a deeply cherished friend on sea and land all these years, and we hold him in love and veneration, and are proud that we could count so noble a man among our closest friends.’ (15)
Smith went on to captain many more White Star ships over the next few years: Adriatic; Britannic; Cufic, a cattle transporter that he took out for her maiden voyage; Celtic, followed by Coptic in the Australian service (16) ; Runic; and Germanic, the identical sister of Britannic.
The 1890’s were a time of both sad and happier events in Ted’s life. In 1893, his mother Catherine died in Runcorn whilst Smith was at sea, while in 1895 first his brother-in-law, William Harrington, died in the Potteries on 1st March, and on 1st May his half-brother and former captain, Joseph Hancock, collapsed and died of a heart attack in the street in Liverpool. (17) On a happier note, it seems to have been in 1895, that Smith made a visit back to the Potteries for a school reunion in honour of his old schoolmaster Alfred Smith. Then in 1898, he and Eleanor had a baby girl, their only child, whom they named Helen Melville Smith. She like her mother later preferred to use her second name Melville, or ‘Mel’ for short. Though he was often away, Smith doted on his daughter, whom he called his ‘Gillie’ (‘girly’) or ‘Babs’ (‘baby’) sending her little notes from abroad when he was away and buying presents and organising parties for her on his brief periods ashore. (18)
The longest single command of Captain Smith’s career was that of SS Majestic, from July 1895 to November 1902. He would take a break to command the Germanic from December 1902 to May 1903, whilst Majestic underwent a refit, but then returned to his former command from May 1903 to June 1904. His time aboard the Majestic coincided with the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa. Because of his rank in the Royal Naval Reserve, he could be called upon to serve in times of war and he now did so. Captain Smith twice took the Majestic to South Africa, transporting troops to the seat of war and bringing wounded men home. For his work during the war, Smith like all transport captains later received the Transport Medal, which he henceforth wore proudly on his uniform.
During the years of his captaincy of Majestic, Smith earned a fine reputation amongst both his crews and the passengers who regularly sailed the Atlantic. Despite the white beard and grizzled looks, he was softly-spoken and easy going, though he was a noted stickler when it came to ship’s discipline and had been known to bark out an order that brought many an errant seaman back to his duty with a bump. Increasingly, more and more passengers chose to sail with Captain Smith rather than any other because of his affability and because he was an excellent host. Also, though he was known for pushing his ships hard through all weathers, thereby earning the nickname ‘the Storm King’, by the standards of the time he was an excellent sailor and considered a ‘safe captain’.
Amongst his regular passengers, he now numbered British aristocrats such as the Duke of Sutherland and the Earl and Countess of Rothes and American millionaires such as John D. Rockefeller, George Widener, John Jacob Astor and J. Pierpont Morgan, the latter becoming a good personal friend, whom he visited with during his stopovers in the States. Such stellar passenger lists became so regular a feature on his ships that by 1900 Smith had become popularly known as ‘the millionaire’s captain’. Indeed, many of the first class passengers who later sailed aboard Titanic had travelled with Captain Smith on more than one occasion.
Smith also met or knew many other famous people of the day as they crossed the Atlantic. Rudyard Kipling and his family travelled on Majestic, as too did Henry Morton Stanley, the man who had ‘presumed’ so famously when he found Dr Livingstone in Africa. Other notable figures who sailed with Smith included the Joseph Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies; the Fleet Street journalist W. T. Stead, who is said to have included Smith in several of his short stories. The publisher, J. E. Hodder Williams of the publishers Hodder and Stoughton, left an interesting pen portrait of Smith as he held court on one of his ships.
'We crossed with him on many ships and in many companies, through seas fair and foul, and to us he was and will ever be, the perfect sea captain … He read widely, but men more than books. He was a good listener, on the whole, although he liked to get in a yarn himself now and again, but he had scant patience with bores or people who ‘gushed.’ I have seen him quell both … He had an infinite respect - I think that is the right word - for the sea. Absolutely fearless, he had no illusions as to man’s power in the face of the infinite. He would never prophesy an hour ahead. If you asked him about times of arrival, it was always ‘if all goes well.’ I am sure now that he must have had many terrible secrets of narrowly averted tragedies locked away behind those sailor eyes of his … An inspiring man to meet was our friend Captain Smith, an inspiring man to serve under, if need be, to die with.' (19)
Another notable passenger, the American writer Kate Douglas-Wiggin, the authoress of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, described in her autobiography how during his earlier captaincy of the Britannic, Captain Smith had played the matchmaker and introduced her to her future husband. (20) She also left a briefer description of her friendship with Captain Smith.
‘I knew Captain Smith from the time of the old ‘Britannic’ until the day of his death. The routine of life on the smaller, slower ships of earlier years made it possible to form real friendships, made it possible to know the man by whose side you sat three times a day for a voyage of considerably more than a week. This was my pleasure and privilege, season after season, for I crossed the ocean with Captain Smith twenty times or more.
There were no electric lights then, no ‘Georgian’ or ‘Louis XIV’ suites, no gymnasiums or Turkish baths, no gorgeous dining saloons with meals at all hours, but there were, perhaps, a few minor compensations, and I can remember certain voyages when great inventors and scientists, earls and countesses, authors and musicians and statesmen, made a ‘Captain’s table’ as notable and distinguished as that of any London or New York dinner.
At such times Captain Smith was an admirable host; modest, dignified, appreciative; his own contributions to the conversation showing not only the quantity of his information, but the high quality of his mind.
My knowledge of him was furthered from time to time by informal meetings at my own house in America, or at his home in England, where I saw him in his happy and delightful family life.
One did not need so many opportunities as these to divine the character of the man. His face, his manner, his voice, the grasp of his hand, showed simplicity, directness and strength. There was never any variableness about him ‘neither shadow of turning.’ He never flattered or curried favour with any one, or indulged in any small talk of policy, but his blunt, straightforward, seamanlike speech, his keen sense of humour, his essential kindness, his sunny smile - all these seemed to be just so many visible expressions of a character intrinsically upright and trustworthy. A kind of steady loyalty, to his profession, his duty, his friends, and his own ideal, always seemed to me the compass by which his life was set.’ (21)
Because of such a wide acquaintance, Smith enjoyed a lively social life ashore, especially in New York visiting his friends such as Pierpont Morgan, Kate Douglas-Wiggin and her husband, attending fetes and parties and according to one newspaper report, he was also a regular at many of New York’s clubs and societies. For instance, he was on friendly terms with several actors at New York’s Lambs Club and as related here, he attended at least one function there around the turn of the century.
‘Captain Ted Smith, the lost commodore of the White Star fleet, was a very popular man in New York clubdom. Strangely enough, William Faversham was telling stories about him to a select party of Bohemians two or three nights before the Titanic disaster shocked the world. One of the stories concerned a dinner given at the Lambs Club in honor of Forbes Robertson. Captain Smith was there and so were Faversham and John Drew. It was a hilarious dinner party and John Drew who was on the list of speechmakers had fully absorbed the enthusiasm of the occasion. The result was that instead of delivering one of his famous after-dinner talks he devoted himself to a highly eulogistic address to his friend "Favvy" as he called Faversham. It was such a lengthy and superlative panegyric that everybody, including "Favvy" became very uneasy and wondered when Drew would get through. Finally Drew took his eyes off the object of his celebration and caught the amused glance of Captain Smith. "Well, well," he exclaimed, "there’s my dear old friend Ted Smith. Captain Smith transports people - and so does "Favvy." With that Drew sat down.’ (22)
On a personal level, Smith was noted as being well read and extremely well informed on current events, which was hardly surprising given his wide and influential acquaintance. (23) He was a smoker, preferring cigars, which he smoked through a holder and his daughter later recalled that she would only be let into the room if she promised to be good and not disturb the cloud of blue smoke that hung around her father’s head. Smith enjoyed a drink too, though never on duty. At home, he was extremely fond of his pet dogs and enjoyed many hours ashore out walking with them, though they seem to have been a nuisance to his wife whilst he was away at sea. (24) According to waterfront gossip in 1909, he was also something of an art collector in his spare time ' ... Captain Ted Smith of the Adriatic has a small fortune in old prints. His collection at home in Southampton, and indeed the prints that adorn his cabin, includes many of exceptional rarity.' (25)
In 1904, the third in a quartet of newer, bigger White Star ships, popularly known as the ‘Big Four’, was launched. RMS Baltic weighed in at 23,000 tons and was the epitome of Edwardian elegance. By this time, after his many years plying the North Atlantic, Captain Smith, though he had been overlooked for command of the first two ships Celtic and Cedric, had advanced in seniority and was now given command of this new vessel for her maiden voyage. The next year in July 1905, with his career technically on the wind down towards retirement, Smith requested and was retired from the R.N.R with the rank of commander, which rank he henceforth used aboard his White Star ships. (26)
Between 1905 and 1912, Smith wrote a number of letters to his nephew Frank Hancock in the United States. These give an interesting if brief view off the man prior to the Titanic disaster. In them we find him grumbling mildly about how sea travel brought out the worst in people, or talking about family life, though much of it is obscure. Though brief, they certainly present him in a different light to the PR officer he is often seen to be in newspaper interviews. (27)
In 1907, the last of the ‘Big Four’, the new RMS Adriatic, made her debut with Smith again at the helm for the maiden voyage. It was whilst in command of Adriatic, though, that the Smiths had to leave Liverpool and move to Southampton, where the excellent deep-water harbour provided better mooring for these larger ships and offered easier access to London and the continent for Atlantic travellers. Their new home, 'Woodhead' in Winn Road, Westwood Park, was in an elegant area on the outskirts of the New Forest. (28)
It was also in 1907, that the White Star management met and planned the construction of three even larger ships to rival Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauritania that had just arrived on the scene. These three new ships were initially christened Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic, though the latter was eventually renamed Britannic after the Titanic disaster. The design having been approved, construction began immediately and in 1911, Smith (now sporting a RNR Long Service Medal awarded in 1910, alongside his Transport Medal), was given command of the first of this trio, RMS Olympic. (29)
Contrary to what is popularly believed, it was Olympic, not Titanic, that was the new White Star wonder ship, praised for her size, her elegant interiors and which was examined in detail by newspapers and journals; the Titanic only outshone her elder sister after she sank. Indeed, many of the pictures used to illustrate books on Titanic are actually pictures of Olympic. (30)
Smith took Olympic out for her maiden voyage and commanded her until her younger sister came along. For the most part, his journeys with her were run-of-the-mill, though there were two accidents with her. These were the first serious incidents in an otherwise blameless career and can perhaps be put down to Smith and other sailors of the time being unfamiliar with ships of this size. The first accident occurred in New York harbour at the end of her maiden voyage, when a tug, O. L. Hallenbeck, got caught in the ship’s backwash and nearly sank. The second, much more serious incident, though, at the beginning of her fifth voyage, caused serious damage to Olympic when on 20th September 1911, whilst in the Solent on her way out of Southampton, she was struck by a navy cruiser, HMS Hawke.
The Hawke had been trying to overtake Olympic, but so great were the hydrodynamics caused by these new monster liners as they moved through the water, that if smaller vessels got too close they were literally thrown about like rag dolls. This, in essence is what happened to HMS Hawke, which was suddenly pulled off course and her bow rammed into Olympic. No one was injured in the accident, but Olympic was left with a large hole punched in her side and Hawke suffered major damage to her bow, most of which later had to be amputated.
There was an inquiry which found in favour of the Royal Navy, much to the displeasure of White Star and Captain Smith. (31) However, because the accident had occurred while the ship was under the guidance of the Southampton pilot, Smith’s reputation remained undamaged with his bosses and the travelling public. An indication of this may be seen when in December that year some of his wealthy friends held a dinner in his honour at the Metropolitan Club, the so-called 'Millionaires’ Club’ in New York. (32)
In January 1912, Commander Edward John Smith turned 62 years old. (33) Since as early as 1910, there had been rumours circulating about his possible retirement, but his standing with White Star and the line’s wealthy passengers was such, that had fate been kinder it seems very likely that he would have ended his career by captaining all of White Star’s big three. Fate, though, was not kind and Titanic was waiting.
Titanic was slightly heavier than her elder sister and was, temporarily at least, the largest ship in the world. The differences between the two, though, were superficial. Her maiden voyage had originally been set for March 1912, but Olympic had lost a propeller as a result of the collision with HMSHawke and one of Titanic’s was taken as a replacement, so the new ship had to wait for another propeller to be made. Further delays were threatened by a miner’s strike that year which brought on a coal shortage that affected many shipping lines, though enough coal was eventually made available for Titanic’s maiden voyage.
Smith took command of Titanic in Belfast and put through her paces at her sea trials in Belfast Lough, then sailed her to Southampton. The ship then rested in port for a week before Captain Smith and his crew went aboard the new ship on her sailing day 10 April. Also travelling with them for the maiden voyage was the White Star line’s managing director J. Bruce Ismay and Thomas Andrews, the managing director of the ship’s builder, Harland and Wolff. Ismay was probably taking the journey to promote the ship, while Andrews with a small group of men was aboard to check the ship over and make sure that she was running properly. It would be a fateful journey for both of them. Ismay would survive the disaster, though his reputation would be left in tatters; Andrews, like Smith, would perish with the ship.
Having taken on her passengers, Titanic then set off on her maiden voyage. There was no fanfare at her departure, again contrary to legend. There was anyhow, a slight delay at Southampton, when there was nearly a repeat of the Olympic-Hawke incident. As Titanic was cruising past the liner New York, the latter broke free of her moorings and swung out towards Titanic, but nearby tugs moved in and just averted the collision.
As normal there were two stops before crossing the Atlantic, first Cherbourg in France, then Queenstown in Ireland where mails and passengers were exchanged. Estimates vary as to the number now aboard, but including crew there were over 2200 people on board Titanic, well below her full capacity, but twice as many as could be safely accommodated in her 20 lifeboats. Despite the furore that followed about the lack of lifeboats aboard the Titanic, White Star ships tended to be better provided for than other shipping lines. Titanic actually had four more boats than was demanded by the Board of Trade regulations - by this time woefully out of date - which required ships of over 10,000 tons, to carry only 16 lifeboats. The Titanic weighed in at 46, 328 tons.
For the next few days the voyage went smoothly. Captain Smith went about his normal duties, such as the daily inspection he carried out, as seen here in a picture taken aboard the Adriatic some years earlier. Titanic was performing well and what niggles there were, were under control. For instance, there was a minor bunker fire down in the coal hold and at one point the Marconi wireless broke down, but by Sunday 14 April all was well, the fire was out and the wireless was working again. (34) The weather, though, had become much colder as they approached the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. It was April, the time of year when masses of icebergs and field ice, spawned by warm spring thaws drifted south from Greenland. During the voyage, Titanic had been receiving regular ice reports from other ships, but this was all expected.
Much has been made of the fact that despite these ice reports, Captain Smith did not slow his ship down. He has been accused variously of ignoring the warnings, of racing his ship through an ice field against the accepted wisdom. Some claim that this was done at the behest of Mr Ismay, keen for a fast crossing, but there is little evidence to support this story. In fact, all but one of the ice reports were plotted by Smith and his officers. At the time of the collision, Titanic was travelling at 22½ knots. Compared to the 26 knots that the Lusitania and Mauritania could manage, this was hardly racing, nor indeed was it Titanic’s top speed, it was simply the speed she had to go at to reach New York on time. Also, in 1912, it was standard practice if the sea was calm and the weather was clear, to take ships through ice fields at speed and a number of experienced captains from other shipping lines testified to this at the disaster inquiries. The only ships that stopped that night were those whose captains could not find a navigable route through the ice in the dark.
The details of events on the night of 14th April are fairly well known. The ship was following her normal routine, everyone was happy with how things were going. Captain Smith felt easy enough that evening to attend a passengers’ party in the first class saloon, but at 9 p.m. well before the ship was due to enter the ice region, he returned to the bridge where he spent the next few hours working nearby in his chart room, or standing at the door chatting to the officers on the bridge. He was not asleep in his cabin as is so often assumed. (35)
Smith was not on the bridge, though, when at 11:40 p.m. the lookouts reported an iceberg directly in their path. The officer of the watch, First Officer Murdoch did what he could, ordering the ship hard to port and reversing the engines, but it was too close. The ship struck the small berg a glancing blow, which scored a line along six of her forward compartments, causing massive flooding in five of them.
Smith was on the bridge almost as soon as the collision occurred and after hearing Murdoch’s report, he ordered an inspection. The first few reports were disturbing enough for Smith to stop the ship and go for a more detailed look himself. At some point he was joined by Thomas Andrews, the Harland and Wolff managing director, who had also gone to assess the damage.
After the inspection, Andrews informed Smith that the damage was fatal and Titanic would sink in about an hour and a half. On hearing this stunning news Smith immediately ordered the boats uncovered and the passengers roused. He then ordered the Marconi operators to send distress signals and a little later when a light was spotted on the horizon he had rockets launched from the bridge. It would turn out, however, that there were no ships in wireless contact and close enough to render immediate assistance and for the next two hours as Titanic sank slowly lower in the water there was the desperate scramble to get as many of the passengers as they could into the boats and away from the ship. Smith and his officers were of course well aware that there was not enough room in the boats for all on board; if no other ship came to their rescue they would simply have to get as many into the boats as they could and perhaps more importantly get the boats into the water before the ship sank. To do this panic had to be avoided at all costs and as a result the captain did not give the direct order to abandon ship, as this may have resulted in the panic he feared. Instead the crew were at first instructed to make light of the accident, telling the passengers that they were simply loading the boats as a precautionary measure. The most vulnerable, the women and children were to go in first, as experience had shown with other shipwrecks, that when panic broke out, the ones least likely to get a place in the boats were the women and children. (36)
After ordering the evacuation, Smith had surprisingly little to do. He had no boat station, though he sometimes appeared at the lifeboats to give his men a helping hand with the passengers; otherwise he kept out of his officers’ way while they did their jobs. He and First Officer Murdoch were seen at one point early in the evening telling a large gathering of first class passengers to put their life preservers on and it was probably on the captain’s orders that the ship’s band started playing on the deck in an effort to keep things calm. It was doubtless Captain Smith who also later ordered the ship’s firearms to be distributed to the officers to use in case panic took hold. Apart from that, though, he appears to have stayed very much in the background until near the end, shuttling between the engine rooms and the bridge with reports that the Marconi men then transmitted to the half a dozen ships now racing to their aid. His apparent lack of visibility at this time compared to that of his officers has led to the assumption by some authors that he had suffered some kind of mental breakdown, but when he came into his own again at the end Smith was still giving perfectly cogent orders. One first class passenger saw him ordering a bunch of sailors to get out of a lifeboat where they had squirreled themselves away; a third class passenger claimed she saw Smith standing at the head of the stairs holding his gun and telling a panicking group of male passengers that he would shoot if they tried to get in the boats before the women; another third class passenger recalled seeing the captain at the door to the engine room, giving orders to the brave engineers, trimmers and stokers fighting the flood down in the bowels of the ship. Numerous crewmen recalled the skipper calling out orders to the very end.
This was now not far away. By 2.15 a.m., on the morning of 15 April Titanic’s bow was deep under water and her stern was rising up out of the sea. Most of the lifeboats had gone, leaving the vast majority of the passengers and crew still aboard Titanic, and only now did Smith give the order he had been trying to avoid all night - the final order to abandon ship. This came not a moment too soon as at this point, the vessel began its final plunge due it seems to her hull beginning to break apart. Smith was last seen on or near the bridge, telling his men to save themselves while they could. One of the Marconi operators, Harold Bride and a second class passenger William Mellors, were probably the last people to see Smith as the captain dived into the rising sea as the bridge went under. Other unsubstantiated stories had Smith calling out “Be British!” to steady his crew, shooting himself in despair, or rescuing a baby in the water. Whatever the case, he was never seen again.
Hardly had Smith dived into the sea than the slow lingering death of the Titanic reached its climax with a violent burst of action. First the forward funnel collapsed, killing dozens of people in the water. Moments later all the ship’s lights went out and then with a terrific roar Titanic broke in two. The stern section where the passengers now gathered fell back into the water before being dragged aloft again as the forward section, still attached at the keel, pulled the rest of the ship after it. It was at about 2.20 a.m. on the morning of Monday 15 April that Titanic finally sank beneath the Atlantic taking over 1500 people into the water with her.
In those last moments many people jumped. Some were lucky enough to scramble onto nearby lifeboats or aboard two of the collapsible boats that had been washed off the ship, but most were not so fortunate and those who were not drowned as they were pulled down with the ship soon froze to death in the ice-cold sea. Most of the lifeboats floating nearby did not return to pick up survivors for fear of being swamped. The one boat that did go back only managed to rescue three people, one of whom later died.
The next morning the first ship to reach the scene, the Cunard steamer Carpathia, picked up 705 survivors from the lifeboats; approximately 1,522 people were missing. (37)
When news of the disaster got out, it shocked the world and there were terrible scenes of grief outside the White Star offices on either side of the Atlantic. There were public subscriptions and collections in aid of the survivors and the families of the victims. There were also two inquiries after the disaster, first in the USA where the survivors were landed, then in Britain for those who returned home.
Though both inquiries were criticised for their many shortcomings, they did agree on several important points that needed addressing. These included lifeboat provision for all on board a ship as opposed to the vessel’s tonnage; the manning of wirelesses 24 hours a day; and they argued for the creation of what eventually became the International Ice Patrol, which today polices the ice fields of the North Atlantic.
The attitudes displayed towards Captain Smith after the disaster were mixed. Newspapers on either side of the Atlantic made him out to be a hero, but not everyone was of that opinion. In Southampton, from where most of the crew has come he was almost vilified and in Hanley the reaction was muted, the locals for the most part not relishing the area’s connection with this terrible maritime disaster. Only Smith’s old friends and wealthy passengers made any attempt to commemorate him. The only memorial raised to him in Hanley, was a brass plaque still housed today in Hanley town hall.
Captain Smith’s wealthier friends eventually erected a statue to him. This was sculpted by Lady Kathleen Scott, the widow of Scott of the Antarctic and was raised in Lichfield in 1914, much to the annoyance of many of the locals there, as Smith had no obvious connection with the city. There may have been a couple of reasons for this curious decision, Hanley was not interested and Lichfield as well as being in Staffordshire was the capital of the diocese that covered Hanley. It was also, it has to be said, a much prettier place than Smith's home town. To expect dapper millionaires and their well-dressed ladies to face the industrial Potteries in full blast might have been asking just a little too much. (38)
It had been a proud day for Smith’s relatives, but with that his family gradually faded from the limelight. Smith’s half-sister Thyrza died in 1921 and Eleanor Smith, the captain’s widow was knocked down by a taxi in London in 1931. Their daughter, Melville married and gave birth to twins, Simon and Priscilla. However, Simon, a pilot in the RAF, was killed in the Second World War and Priscilla died from polio three years later; neither of them had children. Their mother, Mel died in 1973. (39)
Mel like her mother before her was buried in the grounds of the London Necropolis at Brookwood. Smith’s daughter had, though, lived long enough to see a change in how the public and history regarded her father. In the 1950’s, the story of Titanic had been rediscovered and its profile was further boosted in 1985, when the broken wreck of the ship was finally discovered 13,000 feet down on the Atlantic seabed. Over the century since Titanic sank thousands of books and articles have been published about the ship and the people who sailed aboard her. These books have in turn lent themselves to novels, plays, television dramas and movies and as a major character in the story Captain Smith figures prominently in these. (40) As a result of these retellings and the continued debate into what went wrong on that fateful voyage, Smith’s part in the disaster has been re-examined. Though some still see him as the chief cause of the disaster, today others take a more charitable view that Captain Smith like the other 1500 people lost in the disaster was a tragic victim of circumstances largely beyond his control.
(1) George Smith's baptismal record on 1st December 1822, at the Charles Street Wesleyan Chapel, Hanley names his mother and father, telling us his mother's maiden name and a little of her ancestry. LDS records note that the mother's name is 'Toms', though a look at the actual church record show that this was simply mis-transcribed. The history of the Smith family was traced by Mrs Norma Williamson, a descendant of George and Thirza Smith, who was good enough to share her research with me and provide fair copies of the much more detailed church records.
(2) cf. Slater's Classified Directory for Birmingham, Worcester and the Potteries 1851 pp. 446 and 458, for the addresses of William Sedgley and Samuel Sneyd who lived on either side of the Smiths. The mistake over the number 51 was brought to my attention by Ernie Luck who was researching the Smiths' link to the Mason family of potters. Having de-bunked this myth, Ernie then went out of his way to trace the actual number of the house where E.J. Smith was born, finding the Slater's Directory and George Smith's marriage in 1853.
(3) Staffordshire Sentinel, 24th April 1913.
(4) Daily Sketch, 25th April 1912.
(5) Staffordshire Sentinel, 24th April 1913.
(6) Copies of Joseph's certificates of competency (ticket numbers 14721 and 15310) can be obtained for a small fee from the National Maritime Museum and these reveal that he had two separate 2nd mates certificates, one paper noting that this certificate had been granted because the first had been lost when his ship was captured by pirates. Details of his two certificates are held under BT127, boxes 8 and 9 in the National Archives, Kew, and give the name of the ship as the Hymen. Accounts of the loss of the Hymen and the freeing of the hostages were carried in The Times on 12th and 19th June 1856.
(7) Oakland Tribune, 19th April 1912. Ann O'Donnell was her married name; there is no indication of her maiden name.
(8) Staffordshire Sentinel, 24th April 1913.
(9) Smith's certificates of competency (number 14102) can be purchased from the National Maritime Museum. These detail his early service, noting the date he was signed on aboard the Senator Weber, as too do the ship's records.
(10) Senator Weber crew agreement, 1867. The details of Smith's early voyages under sail are drawn almost exclusively from the information contained in the crew lists and occasionally the logs of each voyage. These are for the most part stored in Canada, in the Maritime History Archive at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and copies can be purchased for a small fee. The registers can be searched online (see the 'Links' page) though details of various voyages for individual ships can only be accessed by inputting the ship's registration number. A few crew lists and logs are also held at the National Archives, Kew.
(11) When the ship docked in Liverpool, the Lizzie Fennell's cargoes (and those of the other vessels Smith served aboard) were recorded in the local Customs Bills of Entry. Microfilm copies of these can be searched for free at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool.
(14) Smith's R.N.R records including details of his training can be found under reference ADM240/3 at the National Archives, Kew.
(15) Captain E.J. Smith Memorial: A Souvenir of July 29th, 1914, (Riverside, 7C's Press, n.d.) pp.10-11.
(16) Smith actually took command of the Coptic shortly after another captain had grounded the ship outside Rio de Janeiro. Later, when Smith became everyone's favourite 'ill-fated' captain to tag an accident onto, the tale of the Coptic's grounding transferred to him. The true story was dug up by Titanic researcher Mark Baber who was good enough to supply me with his research and a copy of his article 'E. J. Smith, Coptic Aground and Rio...Two out of three ain't bad?' Link: http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/e-j-smith-coptic-aground-and-rio---two-out-of-three-aint-bad-11534.html
(17) Accounts of Joseph's demise were carried in the Liverpool Mercury 2nd May 1895, p.6 and Liverpool Daily Post 2nd May 1895, p. 5.
(18) ‘The Captain’s Daughter: Helen Melville Russell-Cooke “Mel” 1898-1973’ by John Pladdys. Titanic Historical Society Commutator Vol.17, No.2 1993, p.61-64.
(19) Captain E.J. Smith Memorial: A Souvenir of July 29th, 1914, pp.30-31.
(20) Kate Douglas Wiggin, My Garden of Memory (Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Co., n.d.) pp. 263-275.
(21) Captain E.J. Smith Memorial: A Souvenir of July 29th, 1914, pp. 32-33.
(22) Oakland Tribune 20th April 1912, p. 8. Faversham, Drew and Forbes Robertson were notable actors of the time. John Drew was an ancestor of the Barrymore acting dynasty.
(23) Captain E.J. Smith Memorial: A Souvenir of July 29th, 1914, p.30.
(25) Sunday Magazine Of the New-York Tribune, 26 December 1909. Courtesy of Mark Baber.
(26) The notice confirming this appeared in The Times, 15th July 1905, p.11.
(28) According to the entry in the 1911 census, the Smith's home was a substancial place and not including hallways and corridors, comprised 13 rooms. They filled it with Edwardian mod cons, including a telephone - Southampton 1400. The family did not live here alone, their maid, Annie Brett, made the journey with them down from Liverpool and once they had settled in the Smiths hired a live-in cook, Mabel Lucy Inkpen. Both of these young women later contributed money to Smith's memorials. The house, though (which appears to have been named 'Woodhead' after Eleanor's family's farm) did not survive, being destroyed in an air raid during the Second World War. A small block of flats now occupies the site.
(29) Though too long to relate here, the history and misadventures of the Olympic-class sisters are well charted in Mark Chirnside's book, The Olympic-Class Ships: Olympic Titanic Britannic (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2004).
(31) The proceedings of the court of inquiry into the Olympic-Hawke collision can be found under reference ADM 116/1163 in the National Archives, Kew. Smith's private grumble over the case can be seen in his letter to Frank Hancock dated 14th February 1912 (see note 2 above).
(33) White Star's retirement age was 60, but the line often fudged the issue in official documents or newspaper reports with a few judicious white lies, sometimes listing Smith's age as 59 rather than his actual age of 62.
(34) Marconi wirelesses had first appeared on several White Star vessels, including Smith's then command, the RMS Baltic, in 1906. My thanks to Parks Stevenson for this snippet.
(35) At both the American and British inquiries into the disaster, Fourth Officer Boxhall was quite clear on this point, having spent the evening making stellar observations and reporting his findings to Smith, whom he saw throughout the evening right up until the time of the collision. As well as checking on the ship's navigation, Smith may have been working his way through the pile of official documents he would have to present on reaching New York.
(36) Two perfect examples of this were etched into White Star history, the loss of RMS Tayleur in 1854 ,and the loss of the SS Atlantic in 1873. Both of these disasters resulted in heavy loss of life and the women and children suffered badly. Of the 100 or more women aboard the Tayleur only three survived and only one child out of 345 women and children survived the sinking of the Atlantic.
(37) To this day, estimates still vary as to how many were killed in the Titanic disaster. Some modern accounts now place the number as high as 1,523.
(38) Both the unveiling of the plaque in Hanley and the statue in Lichfield were overshadowed by bigger stories. The plaque was unveiled during a visit by the King and Queen to the Potteries and was thus relegated to the inner pages of the local paper. The unveiling of the statue took place on 29th July 1914. Fighting had already broken out on the continent and Britain's entry into World War One was less than a week away. As a result there were many notable absentees from the ceremony.
(39) ‘The Captain’s Daughter: Helen Melville Russell-Cooke “Mel” 1898-1973’ by John Pladdys. Titanic Historical Society Commutator Vol.17, No.2 1993, p.61-64.
(40) See the following link for a list of the films, TV programmes and documentaries in which Smith appears as a character and the actors who have played him; http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0002347/ .