Edward John Smith was born in Hanley, Staffordshire, England, on 27th January, 1850. The son of Edward Smith and Catherine Hancock, young Edward left Etruria British School at the age of 13 to join Etruria Forge to operate a steam hammer.
It was in 1867 that Edward secured an apprenticeship on the Senator Weber, an American clipper ship, which was owned by A Gibson & Co. of Liverpool. Smith spent many of his younger years quickly rising up the ranks, which eventually earned him a certificate as second mate in 1871. By 1873, he was a certified first mate, but it was in 1875 that he finally gained the title of master.
In March 1880, Edward Smith joined the White Star line as the Fourth Officer of SS Celtic. This was the vessel that helped him rise in seniority, which led him to receive command of the Republic liner in 1887. A year later he qualified as a full Lieutenant by earning the Extra Master’s Certificate and joining the Royal Naval Reserve. He could therefore be called up in the war to serve in the Royal Navy.
On top of a successful maritime career, Edward Smith was also lucky enough to have found true love in Sarah Eleanor Pennington, who he married at St Oswald’s Church in Winwick, Cheshire, on 13th January 1887. His wife gave birth to their daughter, Helen Melville Smith, on 2nd April 1902.
In 1902, Edward Smith took command of the Baltic, which was one of the largest vessels at the time and was his first passenger ship. During the three year stint as captain of the Baltic, he went onto serve as captain on numerous White Star Lines, and commanded the Majestic for 9 years from 1894 to 1904. During this time he also served in the British Royal Navy, making two trooping voyages to South Africa during the Boer War. As a result, he was awarded the Transport Medal for his bravery, and became an honorary commander of the Royal Navy Reserve. This ultimately provided him with warrant number 690, which allowed him the opportunity to fly the Blue Ensign on any of his commanded vessels.
In 1907, he left the Majestic for the Adriatic, taking her on her maiden voyage to New York. Up until this point, Captain Edward Smith, admittedly, had quite an uneventful career, which meant he was highly regarded at the White Star Line for being a safe captain. For this reason, he was commonly the first captain to take a vessel on its maiden voyage. He was also a popular captain with many North Atlantic travellers, with many only sailing on a ship commanded by Smith.
The HMS Hawke Collision
However, Captain Smith’s career became eventful when he took first command of the first of the new Olympic liners, also called RMS Olympic. He successfully took the vessel on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on 14th June 1911. However, on 20th September 1911 RMS Olympic collided with the HMS Hawke, a British warship, just off the Isle of Wight. As both the ships were running parallel with one another, RMS Olympic took Hawke by surprise when it suddenly turned starboard. The collision resulted in the creation of two large holes in Olympic’s hull.
The Hawke collision ultimately led to significant financial problems for the White Star Line, and the vessel returned to Belfast for repair. The incident also slowed down the production of RMS Titanic, as Olympic received one of her propeller shafts.
The RMS Titanic
The collision did not knock the White Star Line’s confidence in Captain Edward Smith, as he was transferred to the RMS Titanic. The new liner was the 18th ship that Smith had commanded for the RMS Titanic, and he took her on her maiden voyage from Southampton on 10th April 1912. The first four days of the voyage were like any other for Captain Smith, passing without incident.
However, on 14th April 1912, Captain Smith received a warning from the Caronia about ice in its path, which Smith delivered to the bridge. He also delivered the warning to the chairman of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay. Disastrously, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg at 11.40pm that night.
Immediately informed by William Murdoch, his First Officer, about the collision, Smith consulted the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, to identify the damage. It soon became apparent that RMS Titanic would sink in under three hours as five of the watertight compartments had been breached.
While Captain Smith is believed to have immediately order the preparation of lifeboats, many claimed he was paralysed with indecision, as he offered ambiguous instructions and failed to effectively manage the escape effort. There is very little account of Smith’s actions as RMS Titanic began to sink, as his leadership abilities and 40 years’ experience reportedly abandoned him.
It was reported that Smith was last seen on the bridge, offering the final order for all passengers and employees to “abandon ship”. He, however, made no effort to save his own life, choosing to go down with the vessel.
Following the disaster, there were reports that Captain Smith had planned to retire after the return voyage to Southampton. His daughter, Helen, also unveiled a large statue of her father on 29th July 1914 in Beacon Park, Lichfield, Staffordshire.