Edward Smith

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Captain Edward John Smith
Photo from Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic by Marshall Everett, 1912
Born 27 January 1850(1850-01-27)
Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, United Kingdom
Died 15 April 1912 (aged 62)
RMS Titanic (sunk) Atlantic Ocean
Occupation Ship captain
Spouse(s) Sarah Eleanor Pennington
Children Helen Melville Smith
Parents Edward Smith
Catherine Hancock

Captain Edward John Smith, RD, RNR (27 January 1850 – 15 April 1912) was a British naval reserve officer, and ship's captain.[1] He was the captain in command of the RMS Titanic; he died on board when the ship sank in 1912. There is a statue to his legacy in Beacon Park, Lichfield, England.[2]

Personal life

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.


Ship captain

Smith joined the White Star Line in March 1880 as the Fourth Officer of the 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 (or Red Duster).

Bigger commands

Smith was Majestic's captain for nine years commencing in 1895. When the Boer War started 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 VII awarded 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 commodore of White Star Line, or one to whom all other captains reported. Some passengers would only sail the Atlantic in a ship commanded by him. He became known as the "Millionaires' Captain" because England's upper class were 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

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 Olympic's starboard propeller. The tug was spun around, collided with the bigger ship, and for a moment was trapped under the Olympic's stern, finally managing to work free and limp to the docks.

The Hawke incident

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 for the incident, alleging that her massive size generated a suction that pulled HMS Hawke into 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 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 to 10 April.

RMS Titanic

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 Chronicle on 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.


It is not known how Smith died on the night of the sinking. In Robert Ballard's book, The Discovery of the Titanic, he claims that Smith went into the bridge at 2:13AM, ten minutes before the final sinking. Working near Collapsible B, Junior Marconi Officer Harold Bride reported seeing Smith dive into the sea from the open bridge minutes before the final plunge began. One story states he carried a child to the overturned collapsible B after the sinking and swam off to freeze in the water.


Smith was first portrayed on film by the German actor Otto Wernicke in the 1943 Nazi propaganda movie Titanic. He was then portrayed by Brian Aherne in the 1953 film of the same name. Following that, he was played several times, including Laurence Naismith (A Night to Remember), Harry Andrews (S.O.S. Titanic) and by George C. Scott in the 1996 mini-series. In 1997's Titanic Smith, played by Bernard Hill, refuses the crew's help in leaving the ship and locks himself in the bridge, where he dies when the bridge goes under water and floods when the windows break due to the pressure. In James Cameron's 2003 documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, he was played by John Donovan.


External links

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