Edward John Smith

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Edward John Smith, RD, RNR (27 January 1850 – 15 April 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. Smith was one of the best captains of his time. When he died, he left a widow, Eleanor Smith, and one daughter, Helen.

"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."
    - On the maiden voyage of the Adriatic in New York, 1907

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,[1] 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 15 April 1912; Smith and over 1,500 others perished in the sinking.

Early Days and Joining White Star Line

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. His father was a potter, and his mother was Catherine. He was a member of the Etruria Methodist Church, which was built in 1805. The church still stands today looking much like it did when Smith attended it as a boy. As a boy, he owned a fighting cock named Big Red. 

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 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."
    - William Jones

Edward John 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 Captain 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.

CaptainSmith OnBridge

Capt. Smith on the bridge of another ship

Among these ships was the Adriatic. In 1907 having brought her safely to New York on her maiden voyage, he confidently spoke to the press, "When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experiences in nearly 40 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 of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea - a brig, the crew of which were taken off in a small boat in charge of my third officer. I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. You see, I am not very good material for a story."

Little did Captain Smith know that his photograph would one day make the front pages of newspapers around the world.

One of his friends, Dr. Williams, recalled this quote when Smith commanded the Adriatic.

"We do not care anything for the heaviest storms in these big ships. It is fog that we fear. The big icebergs that drift into warmer water melt much more rapidly under water than on the surface, and sometimes a sharp, low reef extending two or three hundred feet beneath the sea is formed. If a vessel should run on one of these reefs half her bottom might be torn away."

According to Williams, he pointed out the inadequacy of the Adriatic's lifeboats and 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 the captain's whimsical reply.

Olympic and Titanic

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, 20 September 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.

"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."
"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."

A friend of Captain Smith's, Glen Marston, said that while returning from Europe on the Olympic, he remarked to the Captain on the small number of lifeboats carried by such a large passenger steamer. It was then that the Captain spoke of the life preserving equipment on the Titanic, which was then under construction. Marston quoted Smith as saying he thought the lack of equipment for saving lives was not due to a desire of the steamship owners to save money, but rather because they believed their ships to be safe. Lifeboats were thought to be required only in cases in which passengers were to be landed." It was the Captain's opinion, according to Marston, that enough lifeboats and rafts should be carried to insure safety to every passenger in case of an accident.

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.

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Captain Smith on the Titanic.

Charles Lightoller, one of his officers, related, "I had been with him many years, off and on, in the mail boats, Majestic, mainly, and it was an education to see him con his own ship up through the intricate channels entering New York at full speed. One particularly bad corner, known as the South-West Spit, used to make us fairly flush with pride as he swung her round, judging his distances to a nicety; she heeling over to the helm with only a matter of feet to spare between each end of the ship and the banks."

"Though I believe he's an awful stickler for discipline he's popular with everybody," wrote Titanic's Sixth Officer James Moody to his sister.

"The crew knew him to be a good, kind-hearted man," a steward shared, "and we looked upon him as a sort of father."

Among the passengers, the veterans of the smoking room swore by him. He enjoyed the confidence alike of millionaires and bishops ('he never took a risk, was the considered opinion of the Bishop of Willesden). Children, too, adored him, and were sure of being noticed by him. He was known affectionately as "E.J." among more than a generation of ocean travelers.

On account of E.J.'s popularity it became a custom for the company to appoint him to the command of each of their finest ships as it came into operation. A maiden voyage without Captain Smith in command was almost unthinkable.

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 E.J. 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.

Although it is accepted from sources that Smith had made plans to retire after the return voyage to Southampton, the Haliafax Morning Chronicle on 9 April said that Smith would remain in charge for a few more years before the White Star Line decided to let him retire. He had earlier took command of Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic and was actually filmed inspecting the vessel. When Titanic left Southampton, she displaced so much water that she caused the laid-up liner SS New York to break her moorings and swing towards her. Captain Smith's quick action and experience helped to prevent a premature end to the maiden voyage.

During the voyage, Smith had been given several ice warnings from other ships in the Atlantic, telling him that there was a huge ice field in the Titanic's path. He handed one of the warnings to the chairman of White Star, J. Bruce Ismay, who was on board as a First Class passenger.

Smith normally took meals at a small table in the dining saloon or in his cabin, attended by his personal valet, or "Tiger", Arthur Paintin. On the night of April 14, however, he attended a dinner party held in his honour by George Widener and his family. The party was attended by the cream of 1912 society as it was represented on the Titanic. However Smith was possibly concerned that the ship was entering the ice zone about which he had received ample warnings during the weekend. He excused himself early and went to the bridge.

Lightoller was keeping watch and discussed the temperature with Smith far a while. Smith told Lightoller to alert him immediately if he was at all concerned. He then retired to bed.

Sinking of the Titanic

Promenadedeck smith

The last known photo of Capt. Smith walking on Titanic's Promenade Deck

When the Titanic hit the berg shortly after 11:40 P.M., Smith was asleep in his cabin. He was woken by the collision and rushed to the bridge where he was told by First Officer William Murdoch that the ship had just collided with an iceberg. Worried, he ordered Fourth Officer Boxhall to go on a quick inspection to see how much damage the ship had reviced. He came back and said he didn't find any serious damage, but right after the carpenter and a postal clerk rushed onto the bridge. "She's taking on water, quickly", the carpenter said. Jago Smith said: "the mail room's flooding". Then Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, also arrived on the bridge. "Do you think the ship is seriously damaged?" Captain Smith replied: "I am afraid she is."

Smith then went on inspection himself with the ship's designer, Thomas Andrews. The news Andrews gave was shocking and horrifying. Five of her watertight compartments had been flooded. She was designed to float with her first four compartments flooded but not five. With this amount of underwater damge, Titanic could not stay afloat and she would sink in less than 3 hours. The impending disaster dawned on Captain Smith. He had never been in a situation like this before and his career seemed to have been shattered by the fate of his ship. However, he and the other crew members did their best to get everyone off the ship.

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 John "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."

At 2:10 a.m., 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. A few minutes later Trimmer Samuel Hemming found the bridge apparently empty, because Smith was in the wheelhouse. He has a brief conversation with Thomas Andrews before the latter jumped off. A few minutes later, the ship disappeared beneath the ocean. Smith perished that night along with 1495 others, and his body was never recovered.


There are conflicting accounts of Smith's death. Some survivors said they saw Smith enter the wheelhouse on the bridge, and die there when it was engulfed. 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 Eleanor Widener, who was in Lifeboat 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 featured in the A&E Documentary Titanic: Death of a Dream. 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 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.”


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."


Statue dedicated to Captain Smith at Litchfield, United Kingdom

Daniel Allen Butler, described Smith as "Solidly built, slightly above medium height, he was handsome in a patriarchal sort of way. His neatly trimmed white beard, coupled with his clear eyes, gave him a somewhat stern countenance, an impression immediately dispelled by his gentle speaking voice and urbane manners. Respectfully and affectionately known as 'E.J.' by passengers and crew alike, he was a natural leader, radiated a reassuring combination of authority, confidence, and good humor."

Second Officer Lightoller remembered him years after the disater as "the best captain he ever knew."

A big 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.


Titanic - Character portal - Smith

Captain Smith in the 1997 Film Titanic

Captain Smith is obviously the most important person of the entire disaster. He is portrayed in every single movie.

In the 1997 Film Titanic, he was portrayed by Bernard Hill.


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