I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.
~ Edward Smith, talking about the maiden voyage of the Adriatic in New York, 1907.

Edward John Smith (January 27th, 1850 - April 15th, 1912) was an English naval reserve officer. He served as commanding officer of numerous White Star Line vessels. He is best known as the captain of the RMS Titanic, perishing when the ship sank on its maiden voyage.

Raised in a working environment, he left school early to join the Royal Naval Reserve. After earning his master, he entered the service of the White Star Line, a prestigious British company. He quickly rose through the ranks, and graduated in 1887 his first command aboard the SS Celtic. He served as commanding officer of numerous White Star Line vessels, including the Majestic (which he commanded for nine years) and attracted a strong and loyal following amongst passengers.

In 1904, Smith became the commodore of the White Star Line, and was responsible for controlling its flagships. He successfully commanded the Baltic, Adriatic and the Olympic. In 1912, he was the captain of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, which struck an iceberg and sank on April 15th, 1912; Smith and over 1,500 others perished in the sinking.

Early life

Edward John Smith was born in the landlocked town of Hanley, Stoke, England, at 51 Well Street on the January 27th, 1850, he was an only child. 

Smith married Sarah Eleanor, daughter of William Pennington, at St. Oswald's Church in Winwick. They would first live at Spar Cottage in Winwick. They had one daughter Helen Melville Smith born in Liverpool, England in 1898.

Per his schoolfellow, William Jones, of Edmund-street, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Smith was "a genial and good schoolfellow; one always ready to give a kind of helping hand in any way to his mates." He was a scholar at Etruria, the school which the great and the good Wedgwood, the potter of worldwide fame, established and maintained in Staffordshire.

"My memory," says Mr. Jones, "brings back many happy days spent with him at school, and also many happy hours before and after school time. There were six of us in those days - six firm friends who stuck together, and Smith was the staunchest of us all. I remember how Vincent Simspon used to call on me first, and how we would call for Johnny Leonard. Then the three of us would knock at Ted Smith's door, and having collected the others we would run down Mill-street and Etruria-road to school." "He was a brave soul as a boy. He was always ready to help and give of his best."

Smith went to sea at age of thirteen. He became an apprentice on a clipper ship, the Senator Weber, in 1869, an American built sailing vessel owned by A. Gibson & Co of Liverpool. He served as the Fourth Officer on the Celtic in 1880.


Joining the White Star Line in 1886, Smith served aboard the company's major vessels - freighters to Australia, liners to New York - he quickly assumed command. In 1887, he was appointed the captain of the Republic.

As the ships grew in size, so did the importance of Smith. He was the Majestic's captain for nine years starting in 1895, during which period he made two trooping voyages to South Africa during the Boer War. For this service he was awarded the Transport Medal. In addition, he was an honorary commander of the Royal Naval Reserve and, as such, had been granted warrant number 690 allowing him to fly the Blue Ensign on any merchant vessels he commanded. His career would lead him to command 17 more White Star vessels. Among these ships was the Adriatic.

Smith was ranked highly by the White Star Line. Since the Baltic of 1904 he had taken out the company's newest liners on their maiden voyages. After Baltic came Adriatic in 1907, then Olympic in 1911.

Captain Smith was regarded as a "safe Captain" and, for the period, he probably was. Yet he had been in command of the Germanic when on 16 February 1899, she capsized at her New York pier from ice accumulations in her rigging and superstructure. There was a fire aboard the Baltic in 1904 as well as this same ship running aground in 1909. Although, the report of this was in the New York Times, the officers denied that it happened. They had insisted it must be some other ship. In June 1911 while maneuvering the Olympic into her New York Pier, the ship had damaged a tugboat with the thrust from one of the its propellers. It seemed that Captain Smith - along with most contemporary liner captains - had much to learn about the displacement effects of the ship's huge hulk. The incident was therefore written up as a minor scrape, although the tug's owner did sue White Star for $10,000, prompting a counter suit from the company. Ultimately, both cases were dropped because of lack of evidence.

It was not the only mishap with the Olympic. On Wednesday, September 20th, 1911; the Olympic set off from Southampton on her fifth voyage, under the command of Captain Smith. As she made her way down the Solent and headed out to pass the east end of the Isle of Wright, she got up to a speed of 18 knots. She was nominally under the direction of George Bowyer, a very experienced Trinity House Pilot. As she turned to starboard to round the Bramble bank, speed was reduced to 11 knots but the wide radius of her turn surprised the commander of the HMS Hawke, a 7,000 ton cruiser, who was unable to take sufficient avoiding action.

The two ships collided, the cruiser's steel and concrete bow ram burying itself deep into the starboard quarter of the great liner. Baggage stowed in the hold of the Olympic spilled out onto the deck of the Hawke.

Fortunately nobody was killed and both ships remained afloat, the Olympic making it back to Southampton on one engine, despite two major watertight compartments being completely flooded. Although the blame was legally placed on the Olympic, and the White Star Line faced with large legal costs as well as the costs of repairing the ship and the losses resulting form the disruption of services, the solace was that the ship had survived a major collision (the Hawke, after all, was designed to sink enemy ships by ramming them) and had remained a float and stable despite serious flooding.

"The commander of the Hawke was entirely to blame," a young officer on board the Olympic had complained, "He was 'showing off' his war ship before a throng of passengers and made a miscalculation." Captain Smith probably smiled enigmatically at the theory advanced by his subordinate, but made no comment as to this view of the mishap. He Also had a tumor in his right foot. 


The Olympic is unsinkable, and Titanic will be the same when she is put in commission." He continued, "either of these two vessels could be cut in halves and each half would remain afloat almost indefinitely. The non-sinkable vessel has been reached in these two wonderful craft." "I venture to add," concluded the Captain, "that even the engines and boilers of these vessels were to fall through their bottoms, the vessels would remain afloat.
~ Edward Smith.

Over the years, White Star Line had built up a clientele of passengers who would not dream of crossing the Atlantic on a liner commanded by anyone other than Edward John Smith. In later years, the description of Smith would be an avuncular man with a gray beard and a barrel chest, he was the epitome of an old sea dog. He may have looked fearsome, but in truth he was soft-spoken, gentle and a leader in whom passengers and crews had great confidence. He had a pleasant, quiet voice and a ready smile. A natural leader and a fine seaman, Captain Smith was popular alike with officers and men.

U.S. Congressman, William Alden Smith and his son had made a North Atlantic voyage aboard the Baltic in 1906. The American congressman, six years later, would lead the US Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic. As a U.S. Congressman, he had been invited to dine at the captain's table, Captain Smith. The conversation had turned from railway regulation to steamship safety. Subsequently, EJ had invited him to the bridge, where he viewed the mechanism that activated the watertight doors. The captain had then conducted the Congressman and his son on a tour through the ship, explaining everything in detail. William Alden was duly impressed - as impressed as he was later dumbfounded - "EJ was no fool, nor was he 'reckless'" as some editors would suggest after the Titanic disaster.

In 1912, Smith took command of the RMS Titanic. At that time, he was aged 62.

On April 10th, Smith took a taxi from his home to Southampton docks. He came aboard Titanic at 7 am. He immediately went to his cabin to get the sailing report from the Chief Officer. 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 April 14th, the ship had just collided with an iceberg. It was soon apparent that the ship was seriously damaged; designer Thomas Andrews Jr. reported that five of her 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, did all in his power to prevent panic and did his best to assist in the evacuation; Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club said "He was doing everything in his power to get women in these boats, and to see that they were lowered properly. I thought he was doing his duty in regard to the lowering of the boats". Robert Williams Daniel, a first class passenger also said:

Captain Smith was the biggest hero I ever saw. He stood on the bridge and shouted through a megaphone, trying to make himself heard.

Just minutes before the ship started its final plunge, Smith was still busy releasing Titanic's crew from their duties; he went to the Marconi operators room and released Junior Marconi Officer Harold Bride and senior wireless operator Jack Phillips from their duties. He then carried out a final tour of the deck, telling crew members: "Now it's every man for himself." As the water reached the deck, Steward Edward Brown saw the captain approach with a megaphone in his hand. He heard him say "Well boys, do your best for the women and children, and look out for yourselves.” He saw the Captain walk onto the bridge alone just seconds before the ship took its final plunge.

Smith did not survive the sinking. Captain Smith’s body was never recovered.


Second Officer Lightoller remembered him decades after the disaster as "the best captain he ever knew."

A message from Captain Smith's wife was later posted outside the White Star offices in Southampton. It read: "To my poor fellow sufferers - my heart overflows with grief for you all and is laden with sorrow that you are weighed down with this terrible burden that has been thrust upon us. May God be with us and comfort us all. Yours in sympathy, Eleanor Smith."

Senator Alden Smith paid tribute to the career of Captain Smith, "Captain Smith knew the sea and his clear eye and steady hand had often guided his ship through dangerous paths. For forty years, storms sought in vain to vex him or menace his craft. Each new advancing type of ship built by his company was handed over to him as a reward for faithful services and as evidence of confidence in his skill. Strong of limb, intent of purpose, pure in character, dauntless as a sailor could be, he walked the deck of this majestic structure as master of her keel". Smith added that the Captain's "own willingness to die was the expiating evidence of his fitness to live."

In 1914, a statue of the captain was put up in Lichfield, England (the diocese where he was born). Many important people attended the unveiling of this statue, including relatives of passengers who perished with the captain.

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