Edward Smith (sea captain)

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Edward John Smith
R.D. R.N.R.
Edward J. Smith.jpg
Captain E.J. Smith
Born (1850-01-27)27 January 1850
Hanley, Staffordshire, England
Died 15 April 1912(1912-04-15) (aged 62)
Atlantic Ocean
Cause of death
Sinking of the RMS Titanic
Resting place
41°43′32″N 49°56′49″W / 41.72556°N 49.94694°W / 41.72556; -49.94694
Nationality British
Occupation Ship Captain
Employer White Star Line
Known for Captain of RMS Titanic
Spouse(s) Sarah Eleanor Pennington (m. 1887–1912)
Children Helen Melville Smith
(1898–1973) (aged 75)
Parents Edward Smith
Catherine Hancock (nee Marsh)
"Be British"
(Popularly believed to be Captain Smith's last words to the crew)



Captain – White Star Line

Honorific Rank of Commodore, because of his being the White Star Line's most senior Captain

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.[1] He is best known as the captain of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, which struck an iceberg and sank on 15 April 1912; Smith and over 1,500 others perished in the sinking. There is a statue of him in Beacon Park, Lichfield, England.[2]

Early life[edit]

Edward John Smith was born on 27 January 1850 on Well Street, Hanley, Staffordshire, England[3] 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.[4] He began his apprenticeship on Senator Weber, owned by A Gibson & Co. of Liverpool.

Marriage and children[edit]

On 13 January 1887, Smith married Sarah Eleanor Pennington at St Oswald's Church, Winwick, Cheshire. Their daughter, Helen Melville Smith, was born in Waterloo, Liverpool on 2 April 1898. The family lived in an imposing red brick, twin-gabled house, named "Woodhead", on Winn Road, Highfield, Southampton.


Early commands[edit]

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, receiving a commission as a Lieutenant, which entitled him to add the letters "RNR" after his name. This meant that in a time of war he could be called upon to serve in the Royal Navy. Later, after he had been promoted a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, Smith's ship had the distinction of being able to fly the Blue Ensign of the RNR; British merchant vessels generally flew the Red Ensign.

Bigger commands[edit]

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 in 1903, for his service, King Edward VII awarded him the Transport Medal, showing the "South Africa" clasp. Smith was regarded as a "safe captain". As he rose in seniority, he gained a reputation amongst passengers and crew for quiet flamboyance.[clarification needed] Some passengers[who?] 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 what was then the 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 long service Decoration for Officers of the Royal Naval Reserve (RD) along with a promotion to Commander.[citation needed]

Olympic class command[edit]

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.

Photograph of a bearded man wearing a white captain's uniform, standing on a ship with his arms crossed.
Edward J. Smith, on Olympic, in 1911

The Hawke incident[edit]

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, 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.

RMS Titanic[edit]

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 all of the first five of the ship's watertight compartments had been breached and that Titanic would sink in under two hours. During the evacuation, Captain Smith, aware that there were not enough lifeboats for all of the passengers and crew, appeared to have become emotionally paralyzed by indecision as he began to realize the enormity of what was about to happen. He did not issue a general call for evacuation, failed to order his officers to load the lifeboats, failed to supervise and coordinate the evacuation effort, did not adequately organize the crew, withheld crucial information from his officers and crewmen, and gave sometimes ambiguous and impractical orders; in one example in 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[5]

There are conflicting accounts of Smith's final fate. Second officer Charles Lightoller last saw Smith walking across the bridge.[5] Some survivors[citation needed] said Smith quietly wandered off towards the bridge at 2:10 am, ten minutes before the final sinking, locked himself inside the ship's wheelhouse, and died clinging to the ship’s wheel when the wheelhouse windows broke due to 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."[6] These accounts (although the accounts by Daniel may be apocryphal) are supported by Robert Ballard's book The Discovery of the Titanic, and some Titanic historians[citation needed] and has remained the iconic image which has remained of Smith.

Later when working to free Collapsible B, however, Junior Marconi Officer Harold Bride reported seeing Smith dive into the sea from the starboard side of the bridge just as the water began flooding the open bridge,[7] 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.[8] It has been suggested 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, but it could seem unlikely that Bride, who knew both Moody and Smith, would have mistaken the officer's identity. Also second class passenger William John Mellors and fireman Harry Senior, who both survived aboard collapsible B, stated that Smith jumped from the bridge.[9] Accounts of Smith carrying a child to a lifeboat (possibly the overturned collapsible B) after the sinking before swimming towards his sinking ship or freezing in the water are almost certainly apocryphal, according to historians featured in the A&E Documentary Titanic: Death of a Dream. However, several survivor reports may suggest that Smith was actually able to swim over to collapsible B before dying from hypothermia. Jack Thayer, a first class passenger who survived aboard collapsible B, later reported that “questions and answers were called around — who was on board, and who was lost, or what they had been seen doing? One call that came around was, “Is the chief aboard? ” Whether they meant Mr. Wilde, the chief officer, or the chief engineer, or Capt. Smith, I do not know. I do know that one of the circular life rings from the bridge was there when we got off in the morning. It may be that Capt. Smith was on board with us for a while. Nobody knew where the “Chief ” was”.[10][11] 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.".[12] Gracie did not see this man, nor was able to identify him, but some other survivors later claimed to have recognized this man as Smith.[13][14] 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”.[15] One of the collapsible B survivors, fireman Walter Hurst, tried to reach him with an oar, but by this time the man was floating dead.[15] Hurst said he was certain this man was Smith. Captain Smith's fate will probably remain uncertain.

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 water began to flood the bridge, Smith's 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 statue of Captain Smith in Beacon Park Lichfield, Staffordshire, England

A statue, sculpted by Kathleen Scott, wife of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, was unveiled in July 1914 at the western end of the Museum Gardens in Beacon Park, Lichfield. The pedestal is made from Cornish granite and the figure is bronze.[16] Lichfield was chosen as the location for the monument because Smith was a Staffordshire man and Lichfield was the centre of the diocese.[17] The statue originally cost £740 (UK£60,000 with inflation[18]) raised through local and national contributions.[17]

The plaque below his memorial statue states;[19]

Capt. of R.M.S. Titanic

In 2010, as part of the 'Parks for People' programme, the statue was restored and the green patina removed from its surface at a cost of £16,000.[17] In 2011 an unsuccessful campaign was started to get the statue moved back to Captain Smith's home town of Hanley.[20]

Smith had already been commemorated in Hanley's Town Hall with a plaque reading:

This tablet is dedicated to the memory of Commander [sic] Edward John Smith RD, RNR. Born in Hanley, 27th Jany 1850, died at sea, 15th April 1912. Be British.

Whilst in command of the White Star SS Titanic that great ship struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean during the night and speedily sank with nearly all who were on board. Captain Smith having done all man could do for the safety of passengers and crew remained at his post on the sinking ship until the end. His last message to the crew was "Be British."[21]

The plaque was removed in 1961, given to a local school and then returned to the Town Hall but remounted in the interior of the building in 1978.[22]


As a member of the Royal Naval Reserve, Smith wore his two decorations when in uniform: the Decoration for Officers of the Royal Naval Reserve and the Transport Medal.

Royal Naval Reserve Decoration.PNG  Reserve Decoration
Transport Medal BAR.svg  Transport Medal


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.[23] 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.[3]


The detail of the statue of Captain Smith in Beacon Park Lichfield


  • Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith, G.J. Cooper ISBN 978-0-7524-6072-7, The History Press Ltd, 2011


  1. ^ birth/death dates and parents at the International Genealogical Index
  2. ^ "Smith information at". Titanic-titanic.com. Retrieved 2012-11-06. 
  3. ^ a b "Plaque for Titanic captain's house in Stoke-on-Trent". BBC News. 20 March 2012. Retrieved 26 March 2012. 
  4. ^ Emma Kasprzak (15 March 2012). "Titanic: Captain Edward John Smith's legacy". BBC News. Retrieved 15 April 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Testimony of Charles Herbert Lightoller
  6. ^ Spignesi, Stephen (2012). The Titanic for Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. p. 207. Retrieved November 6, 2012. 
  7. ^ Testimony of Harold Bride at the US Inquiry
  8. ^ Mrs. Eleanor Widener, first class passenger
  9. ^ Shots in the dark
  10. ^ 17 Year-Old Titanic Survivor’s Story
  11. ^ Chief Officer Wilde
  12. ^ The Truth About the Titanic
  13. ^ Cries in the Night
  14. ^ Captain Edward John Smith
  15. ^ a b A Night to Remember
  16. ^ Noszlopy, George T. (2005), Public Sculpture in Staffordshire & the Black Country, Liverpool University Press, ISBN 978-0-85323-999-4 
  17. ^ a b c Kerr, Andy (3 November 2011). "Captain of the Titanic is here to stay despite no local connection". Lichfield Mercury (Lichfield). p. 29. 
  18. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2014), "What Were the British Earnings and Prices Then? (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  19. ^ "Photo of Plaque: Commander Smith of The RMS Titanic". Panoramio. Retrieved 2012-11-06. 
  20. ^ Titanic Captain Smith statue Hanley move campaign, BBC News, retrieved 26 August 2011 
  21. ^ Barczewski 2011, p. 172–3.
  22. ^ Barczewski 2011, p. 175.
  23. ^ Gary Cooper (31 October 2011). Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith. History Press Limited. pp. 300–. ISBN 978-0-7524-6777-1. "In 1931, Eleanor was ... knocked down by a taxi cab in Cromwell Road, dying a short while ... A verdict of accidental death was returned by the coroner." 
  24. ^ "The Time Tunnel: Rendezvous with Yesterday" at the Internet Movie Database

External links[edit]