- Category : Maritime
- Type : GE
- Profile : 6/2 - Role Model / Hermit
- Definition : Split - Large
- Incarnation Cross : LAX The Alpha 2
Edward John Smith, RD, RNR (27 January 1850 – 15 April 1912) was an English naval reserve officer who served as commanding officer of numerous White Star Line vessels. He was best known as the captain of RMS Titanic and died when the ship sank in 1912. There is a statue of him in Beacon Park, Lichfield, England.
Edward John Smith was born on 27 January 1850 on Well Street, Hanley, Staffordshire, England to Edward Smith, a potter, and Catherine Hancock, born Marsh, who married on 2 August 1841 in Shelton, Staffordshire. His parents later owned a shop.
Smith attended the Etruria British School until the age of 13, when he left and operated a steam hammer at the Etruria Forge. In 1867, aged 17 he went to Liverpool in the footsteps of his half-brother Joseph Hancock, a captain on a sailing ship. He began his apprenticeship on Senator Weber, owned by A Gibson & Co. of Liverpool.
On 13 January 1887, Smith married Sarah Eleanor Pennington at St Oswalds church, Winwick, Cheshire. Their daughter, Helen Melville Smith, was born in Waterloo, Liverpool on Saturday 2 April 1898. The family lived in an imposing red brick, twin-gabled house, named "Woodhead", on Winn Road, Highfield, Southampton.
Edward Smith joined the White Star Line in March 1880 as the Fourth Officer of SS Celtic. He served aboard the company's liners to Australia and to New York City, where he quickly rose in status. In 1887, he received his first White Star command, the Republic. In 1888, Smith earned his Extra Master's Certificate and joined the Royal Naval Reserve (thus entitling him to append his name with "RNR"), qualifying as a full Lieutenant. This meant that in a time of war, he could be called upon to serve in the Royal Navy. Later, as he was a commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, Smith's ship had the distinction of being able to wear the Blue Ensign of the RNR; British merchant vessels generally wore the Red Ensign (also known as a Red Duster).
Smith was Majestic's captain for nine years commencing in 1895. When the Boer War started in 1899, Majestic was called upon to transport troops to Cape Colony. Smith made two trips to South Africa, both without incident, and for his service King Edward VII awarded him the Transport Medal, showing the "South Africa" clasp, in 1903. Smith was regarded as a "safe captain". As he rose in seniority, he gained a reputation amongst passengers and crew for quiet flamboyance. Some passengers would sail the Atlantic only in a ship he captained. He became known as the "Millionaires' Captain" because England's upper class usually chose to sail on ships that he commanded.
From 1904 on, Smith commanded the White Star Line's newest ships on their maiden voyages. In 1904, he was given command of the then-largest ship in the world, the Baltic. Her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York, sailing 29 June 1904, went without incident. After three years with Baltic, Smith was given his second new "big ship," the Adriatic. Once again, the maiden voyage went without incident. During his command of Adriatic, Smith received the Royal Naval Reserve's long service decoration, along with a promotion to Commander. By virtue of his receiving the long service decoration, he would now be referred to as "Captain Edward John Smith, RD, RNR", with RD standing for "Reserve Decoration."
Olympic class command
As one of the world's most experienced sea captains, Smith was called upon to take first command of the lead ship in a new class of ocean liners, the Olympic – again, the largest vessel in the world at that time. The maiden voyage from Southampton to New York was successfully concluded on 21 June 1911, but as the ship was docking in New York harbour, a small incident took place. Docking at Pier 59 under the command of Captain Smith with the assistance of a harbour pilot, Olympic was being assisted by twelve tugs when one got caught in the backwash of Olympic, spun around, collided with the bigger ship, and for a moment was trapped under Olympic's stern, finally managing to work free and limp to the docks.
The Hawke incident
On 20 September 1911, Olympic's first major mishap occurred during a collision with a British warship, HMS Hawke, in which the warship lost her prow. Although the collision left two of Olympic's compartments filled and one of her propeller shafts twisted, she was able to limp back to Southampton. At the resultant inquiry, the Royal Navy blamed Olympic for the incident, alleging that her massive size generated a suction that pulled Hawke into her side. Captain Smith had been on the bridge during the events.
The Hawke incident was a financial disaster for White Star, and the out-of-service time for the big liner made matters worse. Olympic returned to Belfast and, to speed up the repairs, Harland and Wolff was forced to delay Titanic's completion, in order to use one of her propeller shafts and other parts for Olympic. Back at sea in February 1912, Olympic lost a propeller blade and once again returned to her builder for emergency repairs. To get her back to service immediately, Harland and Wolff again had to pull resources from Titanic, delaying her maiden voyage from 20 March to 10 April.
Despite the past trouble, Smith was again appointed to be in command of the newest ship in the Olympic class when the RMS Titanic left Southampton for her maiden voyage. Although some sources state that he had decided to retire after completing Titanic's maiden voyage, an article in the Halifax Morning Chronicle on 9 April 1912 stated that Smith would remain in charge of Titanic "until the Company (White Star Line) completed a larger and finer steamer."
On 10 April 1912, Smith, wearing a bowler hat and a long overcoat, took a taxi from his home to Southampton docks. He came aboard Titanic at 7 am to prepare for the Board of Trade muster at 8:00 am. He immediately went to his cabin to get the sailing report from Chief Officer Henry Wilde. After departure at noon, the huge amount of water displaced by Titanic as she passed caused the laid-up New York to break from her moorings and swing towards Titanic. Quick action from Smith helped to avert a premature end to the maiden voyage.
The first four days of the voyage passed without incident, but shortly after 11:40 pm on 14 April Smith was informed by First Officer William Murdoch that the ship had just collided with an iceberg. It was soon apparent that the ship was seriously damaged; designer Thomas Andrews reported that five of her watertight compartments had been breached and that Titanic would sink in under two hours. During the evacuation, Captain Smith failed to manage and coordinate the evacuation effort, and gave ambiguous and impractical orders (an hour after the collision, Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall was still unaware that the ship would sink). Smith perished that night along with around 1,500 others, and his body was never recovered. At 2:10 am, ten minutes before the final sinking, Second officer Charles Lightoller saw Smith walking towards the bridge, before it was engulfed by the sea. This was the last reliable sighting of him.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened to Smith. Some survivors reported seeing him lock himself inside the ship's wheelhouse, and die clinging to the ship’s wheel when the wheelhouse windows broke under the pressure. Robert Williams Daniel, a first class passenger who jumped from the stern immediately before the ship sank, told the New York Herald in its April 19, 1912 edition how he had witnessed Captain Smith drown in the ship's wheelhouse. "I saw Captain Smith on the bridge. My eyes seemingly clung to him. The deck from which I had leapt was immersed. The water had risen slowly, and was now to the floor of the bridge. Then it was to Captain Smith's waist. I saw him no more. He died a hero." These accounts are supported by Robert Ballard's book, The Discovery of the Titanic, and Titanic historians, and this scene is the iconic image which has remained of Smith.
Later when working to free Collapsible B, Junior Marconi Officer Harold Bride reported seeing a crewman who he believed was Smith dive into the sea just as the water began flooding the bridge, a story which was corroborated by first class passenger Mrs. Eleanor Widener, who was in Lifeboat #4 (the closest to the sinking ship) at the time. It has been affirmed that the man who Bride and Mrs. Widener saw jump from the bridge may have been Sixth Officer James Moody, who was seen jumping at this time.
Second class passenger William John Mellors and fireman Harry Senior, who both survived aboard collapsible B, stated that Smith jumped into the sea and swam to Collapsible B with a child in his arms. Smith presented the child to a steward, after which he apparently swam back to the rapidly-foundering ship. Williams's account differs slightly, claiming that after Smith handed the child over to the steward, he asked what had become of First Officer Murdoch. Upon hearing of Murdoch's demise, Smith "pushed himself away from the lifeboat, threw his lifebelt from him and slowly sank from our sight. He did not come to the surface again." Colonel Archibald Gracie reported that an unknown swimmer came near the capsized and overcrowded lifeboat, and that one of the men on board told him "Hold on to what you have, old boy. One more of you aboard would sink us all,"; in a powerful voice, the swimmer replied "All right boys. Good luck and God bless you." Gracie did not see this man, nor was able to identify him, but heard that some other survivors later claimed to have recognized this man as Smith. Another man (or possibly the same) never asked to come aboard the boat, but instead cheered its occupants saying “Good boys! Good lads!” with “the voice of authority”. One of the collapsible B survivors, fireman Walter Hurst, tried to reach him with an oar, but the rapidly rising swell carried the man away before Hurst could reach him. Hurst said he was certain this man was Smith. The details of Smith swimming to the overturned collapsible B after the sinking or handing over a child to it occupants are, however, almost certainly apocryphal, according to historians featured in the A&E Documentary Titanic: Death of a Dream. Despite conflicting accounts, it is most likely that Smith stood in the wheelhouse and went down with his vessel.
There are also conflicting accounts of Smith's last words. Reports said that as the final plunge began, Smith shouted to his crew "Be British boys, be British!" Although this is engraved on his memorial and portrayed in the 1996 TV miniseries, it was likely a myth made up by the British press at the time, as not one member of the surviving crew claimed he said anything like this. James McGann said that as Smith was locking himself in the wheelhouse, his last words were "'Well boys, you've done your duty and done it well. I ask no more of you. I release you. You know the rule of the sea. It's every man for himself now, and God bless you."
The plaque below his memorial statue in Lichfield states:
Capt. of R.M.S. Titanic
EDWARD JOHN SMITH R.D. R.N.R.
BORN JANUARY 27 1850 DIED APRIL 15 1912
BEQUEATHING TO HIS COUNTRYMEN
THE MEMORY & EXAMPLE OF A GREAT HEART
A BRAVE LIFE AND A HEROIC DEATH
A wax figure of Captain Smith was unveiled at Madame Tussauds in London in 1915. It was destroyed in a fire in 1925.
His family gradually faded from the limelight. Smith’s half-sister Thyrza died in 1921 and his widow, Sarah Eleanor Smith, was hit and killed by a taxi in London in 1931. Their daughter, Helen Melville, married and gave birth to twins, Simon and Priscilla. Simon, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, was killed in World War II. Priscilla died from polio three years later; neither of them had children. Helen died in 1973.