Captain Edward John Smith
Edward John Smith, was the son of a Staffordshire potter who became the commodore of the prestigious White Star Line and the captain of the ‘Titanic’ on its ill-fated maiden voyage. As soon as he found out that the liner was doomed and knowing that there was insufficient lifeboats for all of the passengers and crew, he would have known that he was to go down with his ship. After he gave the order, “every man for himself”, he went back to the bridge to await the inevitable. His body was never recovered.
He was born on 27th January 1850 in Hanley, Stoke On Trent and was the son of Edward Smith (born c1803 Hanley) and Catherine Hancock, nee Marsh (born c1809 Stoke), who married in 1841.
At the time of the census on 30th March 1851, when Edward was just 14 months old, the family was living in Well Street, Hanley, with Edward senior described as a potter and his wife as a grocer. Catherine’s 16 year old daughter, Thyzya Hancock, who worked as a milliner and dressmaker, lived with them.
The family was still living in Well Street in 1861 and it appears that Edward senior had given up his work as a potter and had joined his wife in the grocery shop at number 17. George F Hancock, aged 2, described as ‘grandson’, and 22 year old Ellen Piriot, described as ‘niece’, are also listed at the property.
Edward attended the Etruria British School until he was 13 years old, when he left Staffordshire for Liverpool, and served his apprenticeship with the shipping company Gibson & Co.
By the time of the 1871 census Edward senior had died and widowed Catherine, 62, continued to run the grocery shop in Well Street. Edward was visiting his mother at the time of the census. His half brother and sister, Joseph and Thyzya, were also recorded at the property, together with Thyzya’s children. Joseph was a seaman and it seems likely that he could have influenced Edward’s choice of career.
Edward joined the White Star Line in 1880, as the fourth officer on the ‘Celtic’. By the time of the census in 1881 he was recorded as lodging at 20 Berkley Street, Toxteth Park, Liverpool.
He spent the next few years serving aboard the company’s liners to Australia and New York, and received his first command, the ‘SS Republic’, in 1887. On 12th July of the same year, he married Sarah Eleanor Pennington, who was born in Newton Le Willows, Lancashire, in 1861.
The following year he earned his Extra Master’s certificate and joined the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), qualifying as a full lieutenant.
It appears that Edward was away at sea in early April 1891, at the time of the census. His wife was recorded as living at their home at 4 Marina Crescent, Waterloo, Lancashire, kept company by the couple's two Scottish servants. Edward was the captain of the ‘Majestic’ from 1895 to 1904 and it was during this time that he became a father. Edward & Sarah's daughter Helen Melville Smith was born in 1898 in Waterloo, Lancashire.
When the Boar War started in 1899, Edward and his ship the ‘Majestic’ were called upon to transport troops to the Cape Colony. He made two trips to South Africa, for which King Edward VII awarded him the Transport Medal, showing the South Africa clasp, in 1903.
On census night 1901, Edward, Sarah and Helen were guests in the house of Thomas Jones, a spirit merchant of Runcorn, Cheshire. Edward’s occupation was given as 'master mariner (Leut R.N.R)'.
Captain Smith was rising in seniority at the White Star Line and became the company’s commodore in 1904. He had such a reputation amongst the passengers that they would only travel in a ship under his command. His position gave him command of the company’s newest ships on their maiden voyages – the ‘Baltic’ in 1904, the ‘Adriatic’ in 1907, the ‘Olympic’ in 1911, and the ill-fated ‘Titanic’ in 1912.
It was whilst he was in command of the ‘Adriatic’, that the company promoted him to the rank of commander and he received a long service medal from the Royal Naval Reserve.
However, it was his command of the ‘Olympic’ which proved to be eventful. The liner nearly sank a tug in New York harbour after its maiden voyage in June 1911, and in September of the same year it was in collision with HMS Hawke off the coast of the Isle of Wight, with two of the ship’s watertight compartments filling with water. It was after this incident that the ship had to return to the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast for repairs, putting work on its sister ship, the ‘Titanic’ behind schedule.
The family were by now living in Southampton. The 1911 Kelly’s Directory of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight lists:
Smith Commander Edwd. Jn. R.N.R. Woodhead, Winn Road, Southampton
Early in the morning of 10th April 1912, he took a taxi from here to Southampton docks, to board the ‘Titanic’, never to return.
It is said that Edward planned to retire after commanding the 'Titanic' on it's maiden voyage, to spend more time with his family, Although it was also reported at the time that he would retire after the maiden voyage of the 'Gigantic', the last of the three White Star Line Olympic class liners. Either way, it wasn't to be. In 1907 he was asked to describe his career, this was his reply:-
"When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident, or any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort".
© Velma Dinkley 2008
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