For a man who would spend most of his life conquering the ocean waves, and died upon the Titanic, Captain Edward John Smith, born 27 January 1850, began life in a place that was far removed from the sea – his birthplace was the landlocked town of Hanley in Stoke-on-Trent, in the heart of the North Staffordshire Potteries.
Smith’s ancestors on his father’s side had a long association with the town of Hanley, and had strong links to the pottery industry which had grown up in the area – Smith’s father and grandfather worked as potters, and the younger Smith seemed destined to follow them into the family business.
However, after leaving school at the tender age of twelve, the boy seemed intent on a sea-faring career. At thirteen, he was taken on as an apprentice with A. Gibson & Co of Liverpool. Smith quickly gained the necessary qualifications, and by 1869, he was serving onboard a clipper ship, the Senator Weber, an American-built vessel operated by his employers.
Having proved himself an eager and able seaman, Smith joined the White Star Line in March 1880, and was immediately given the post of Fourth Officer on the SS Celtic. This was the beginning a dazzling career with Thomas Ismay’s shipping company, which saw him quickly move up the ranks. For seven years, Smith served on various White Star vessels, including freighters to Australia and passenger liners to New York. Finally, in 1887, he was given his first command as captain of the SS Republic.
Over the years, Captain Edward Smith would take the helm of many of White Star’s vessels, including the Majestic, the Coptic, the Adriatic and the Olympic. By the time he took command of the Titanic in 1912, Smith was widely regarded as the White Star Line’s safest pair of hands. As a consequence, he was earning a salary of £1,250 per annum – a significant amount of money for the time.
The success of his professional career was mirrored in his personal life. On July 12, 1887, the same year that he took over the captaincy of the SS Republic, Smith married Sarah Eleanor Pennington. Their daughter, Helen Melville Smith, was born on 2 April 1898. The family lived a large, red-brick house called ‘Woodhead’ in Highfield, Southampton.
Aside from his career with the White Star Line, Smith also served in the British Navy. In 1888, a year after his marriage, he achieved his Extra Master’s Certificate, thus qualifying as Lieutenant. This enabled him to join the Royal Naval Reserve, and when, in 1899, he was called upon to serve in the Boer War, he did so with distinction, successfully completing two hazardous voyages to Cape Colony to transport troops. In 1903, he was awarded the Transport Medal by Edward VII for his efforts.
By the time Captain Smith took command of RMS Titanic, he was 62 years old, and his sea-faring career was drawing to a close. Titanic’s maiden voyage was to be Smith’s last before retirement – a triumphant entry into New York harbour on the world’s largest ship was to be a fitting end to the unblemished career of this master mariner. Fate, however, had other plans…
Edward John Smith did not survive the sinking of RMS Titanic – as was his duty as captain, he went down with his ship on that ill-fated night on 15 April 1912.
His body was never recovered.
‘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.’
Captain Edward Smith, 1907