Edward John Smith was born in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, to Edward Smith, a potter, and Catherine Hancock, née 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 went to Liverpool to begin a seafaring career. He apprenticed on the Senator Weber owned by A Gibson & Co., Liverpool.
On 12 July 1887, Smith married Sarah Eleanor Pennington. Their daughter, Helen Melville Smith, was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, in 1898. The family lived in an imposing red brick, twin-gabled house, named "Woodhead", on Winn Road, Highfield, Southampton.
Smith joined the White Star Line in March 1880 as the Fourth Officer of the SS Celtic. He served aboard the company's liners to Australia and to New York, where he quickly rose in stature. In 1887, Smith 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 "R.N.R."), qualifying as a full Lieutenant. This meant that in a time of war, Smith could be called upon to serve in the Royal Navy. Later, as a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, Smith's ship had the distinction of being able to wear the Blue Ensign of the R.N.R.; British merchant vessels generally wore the Red Ensign (also known as the Red Duster).
Smith was Majestic's captain for nine years commencing in 1895. When the Boer Warstarted in 1899, Smith and the Majestic were called upon to transport troops to Cape Colony. Two trips were made to South Africa, both without incident, and for his service, King Edward VIIawarded Smith the Transport Medal, showing the "South Africa" clasp, in 1903. Smith was regarded as a "safe captain".
As he rose in seniority, Smith gained a reputation amongst passengers and crew for quiet flamboyance. Eventually Smith became the commodoreof White Star Line, or one to whom all other captains reported. Some passengers would only sail the Atlanticin a ship commanded by him. He became known as the "Millionaires' Captain" because England's upper classwere usually the ones who requested he be in command of the ships they sailed on. After he became commodore of the White Star fleet in 1904, it became routine for Smith to command the line's newest ships on their maiden voyages. In 1904, he was given command of one of the largest ships in the world at the time, White Star's new Baltic. Her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York, sailing 29 June 1904, went without incident. After three years with the Baltic, Smith was given his second new "big ship," the Adriatic. Once again, the maiden voyage went without incident.
During his command of the Adriatic, Smith received the Royal Naval Reserve's long service decoration, along with a promotion to Commander. He would now sign his name as "Commander Edward John Smith, R.D., R.N.R.", with RD standing for "Reserve Decoration."
Olympic class command Edit
Smith had built a reputation as one of the world's most experienced sea captains, and so 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 harbor, it experienced a small incident which would foreshadow future events. Docking at Pier 59 under command of a harbor pilot, the Olympic was being assisted by twelve tugs when one got caught in the backwash of the Olympics starboard propeller. The tug was spun around, collided with the bigger ship, and for a moment was trapped under the Olympics stern, finally managing to work free and limp to the docks.
The Hawke incidentEdit
On 20 September 1911 Olympics 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 Olympics 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 Hawkeinto her side. On the bridge during this incident was Captain Smith.
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 the 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 & Wolff yet again had to pull resources from Titanic, delaying her maiden voyage from 20 March-10 April.
Despite the past trouble, Smith was again appointed in command of the greatest steamship when 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 Chronicleon 9 April 1912 stated that Smith would remain in charge of the 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 the Titanic at 7AM to prepare for the board of trade muster at 8:00AM. He immediately went to his cabin to get the sailing report from Chief Officer Henry Wilde.
After departure at 12:00PM, 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 the Titanic.Quick action from Smith helped to avert a premature end to the maiden voyage.
At 11:40PM on 14 April, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The ship sank two hours and forty minutes later, killing an estimated 1,500 people. Smith was one of those who died. His body was never recovered.
There are conflicting accounts of Smith's death. Some survivors said they saw Smith enter the ship's wheelhouse on the bridge, and die there when it was engulfed. Daniel Allen Butler writes: "if Smith did indeed go to the bridge around 2:10 a.m. as Steward Brown said, and took refuge inside the wheelhouse, that would explain why Trimmer Hemming did not see him when he went onto the bridge a few minutes later. Earlier, at nightfall, the shutters on the Titanic‘s wheelhouse windows would have been raised, to keep the lights of the wheelhouse from interfering with the bridge officers’ night vision: Trimmer Hemming would have been unable to see Captain Smith had the captain indeed been inside the wheelhouse, awaiting his end". The New York Herald in its 19 April 1912 edition quoted Robert Williams Daniel, who jumped from the stern immediately before the ship sank, in its 19 April 1912 edition as have claimed to have 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." Captain Smith himself made statements hinting that he would go down with his ship if he was ever confronted with a disaster; A friend of Smith's, Dr. Williams, asked Captain Smith what would happen if the Adriatic struck a concealed reef of ice and was badly damaged. "Some of us would go to the bottom with the ship." was Smith's reply. A boyhood friend, William Jones said: "Ted Smith passed away just as he would have loved to do. To stand on the bridge of his vessel and go down with her was characteristic of all his actions when we were boys together." Because of these factors as well as the accounts of Smith going inside the wheelhouse; this has remained the iconic image which has remained of Smith and has been perpetuated by film portrayals.
Initially, rumors that Smith was the officer who committed suicide by shooting himself in the last minutes of the sinking, an incident that was reported by several survivors, were reported by the Washington Times and the French paper L'Excelsior based off the survivor accounts of Ms. Gretchen Longley and Mrs. Washington Dodge; a boy who was one of the last to leave the ship also told Dr. J.F. Kemp, a passenger on the Carpathia, that "Captain Smith put a pistol to his head and then fell down." Surviving crewmen, however, vigorously denied this rumor. Also, Smith's appearance, with a full white beard, would have made him stand out, whereas not one of the witnesses described the officer concerned as having a beard. There is also no evidence of Smith ever having possession of a revolver or ever having fired a gun.
When working to free Collapsible B, Junior Marconi Officer Harold Bride said he saw Captain Smith dive from the bridge into the sea just as Collapsible B was levered off the roof of the officers' quarters, a story which was corroborated by first class passenger Mrs Eleanor Widener, who was in Lifeboat No.4 (the closest to the sinking ship) at the time. Also second class passenger William John Mellors, who survived aboard collapsible B, stated that Smith jumped from the bridge. Tim Maltin, author of 101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic - But Didn't! affirms that the witnesses "could here be mistaking Captain Smith for Lightoller, who we know did exactly this at this time, first swimming towards the crow's nest.".
Several accounts say that Smith may have been seen in the water near the overturned Collapsible B during or after the sinking. 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 some other survivors later claimed to have recognised 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 he could reach him. Hurst said he was certain this man was Smith. Some of these accounts also describe Smith carrying a child to the boat. Harry Senior, one of Titanic's stokers, and second class passenger Charles Eugene Williams, who both survived aboard Collapsible B, stated that Smith swam with a child in his arms to Collapsible B, which Smith presented to a steward, after which he apparently swam back to the rapidly-foundering ship. Williams' 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 news 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." These accounts are almost certainly apocryphal, according to historians. Lightoller who survived on Collapsible B never reported seeing Smith in the water or receiving a child from him. There is also no way in which survivors on Collapsible B would have been able to verify the identity of the individual concerned under such dimly lit and chaotic circumstances. It is more likely based upon wishful thinking that the person they saw was indeed the Captain. Captain Smith's fate will probably remain uncertain.
For many years, there were also conflicting accounts of Smith's last words. Newspaper reports said that as the final plunge began, Smith advised those on board to "Be British boys, be British!" Although this is engraved on his memorial, it was just a myth popularised by the British press at the time; Smith was an experienced transatlantic captain and a cosmopolitan, sophisticated man. Had he been prone to this type of jingoistic statement, he certainly wouldn't have been so popular with the prominent Americans and Canadians who preferred to travel on ships he captained and to dine with him while on board. If he said these words to anyone, it would have been to the crew, but not one of the surviving crew members claimed he said this. Since Steward Brown's account of Smith giving orders before walking onto the bridge was the last reliable sighting, this would make Smith's last words simply "Well boys, do your best for the women and children, and look out for yourselves.”