Born In: Hanley, Staffordshire, England
Edward Smith was a British naval officer who is best recognized as the captain of RMS Titanic on her doomed maiden voyage in April 1912. Raised in a working class environment, he had left school early to join the merchant navy, and later, the Royal Naval Reserve. He started apprenticeship on Senator Weber, owned by A Gibson & Co, but later joined the White Star Line as the Fourth Officer of SS Celtic. He quickly graduated and received his first command, the Republic, in 1987. Since then, he served as commanding officer of numerous White Star Line vessels including Majestic which helped transport troops to Cape Colony during the Boer War in 1899. As one of the most experienced sea captains, he was responsible for controlling the liner’s flagships like Baltic, Adriatic and Olympic. He went down with the ship when Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, killing over 1500 people. He has become an icon of British "stiff upper lip" spirit and discipline for his stoicism and fortitude.
Also Known As: Edward John Smith
Died At Age: 62
Spouse/Ex-: Sarah Eleanor Pennington
father: Edward Smith
mother: Catherine Hancock
siblings: Joseph Hancock, Thyrza Hancock
children: Helen Melville Smith
Born Country: England
place of death: Newfoundland, Canada
Cause of Death: Drowning
Edward John Smith was born on January 27, 1850, on Well Street in Hanley, Staffordshire, England to Edward Smith, a potter who later became a grocer, and Catherine Hancock.
He attended Etruria British School but left at 13 to operate a steam hammer at the Etruria Forge and went to Liverpool in 1967 following in the footsteps of his half-brother Joseph Hancock, a captain.
At the age of 17, Edward Smith signed on to the crew of Senator Weber, owned by A Gibson & Co. of Liverpool, and roseup the ranks and qualifications in the following years. He became a second mate in 1871, a first mate in 1873, and in 1875, received his master’s certificate, which was required to serve as captain.
He then commanded his first vessel, the Lizzie Fennell, a 1,000-ton ship that transported goods to and from South America. In March 1980, he shifted towards passenger vessels by joining the White Star Line as the Fourth Officer of SS Celtic and again rose up the ranks quickly.
He received his first White Star command, the Republic, in 1987, and the following year, joined the Royal Naval Reserve, receiving a commission as a Lieutenant, which allowed him to add RNR to his name. This also allowed his ships to fly the Blue Ensign of the RNR, as opposed to most British merchant vessels that flew the Red Ensign.
Edward Smith commanded the White Star steamship RMS Majestic for nine years between 1895 and 1904. During this period, he was called on to transport troops to Cape Colony after the Boer War started in 1899 and received the Transport Medal from King Edward VII in 1903 for his service.
As he became White Star’s senior captain, he was often given the responsibility of commanding the Line's newest ships on their maiden voyages. He gained the reputation of being a "safe captain" among many loyal wealthy passengers who preferred to sail the Atlantic in his ships, which also earned him the nickname "Millionaires' Captain".
He was given command of the Baltic, the largest ship in the world at the time, on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York on June 29, 1904. He stayed with the Baltic for three years before being given the command of the new "big ship", the Adriatic, on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York on May 8, 1907.
He remained in command of the Adriatic until 1911, and during this period, he received the long service Decoration for Officers of the Royal Naval Reserve (RD). He had previously retired from the Royal Naval Reserve in 1905 with the rank of Commander.
To compete with the Lusitania and Mauretania owned by Cunard Line, which held the prestigious Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic voyage, the White Star Line planned two grander ships: Olympic and Titanic. Olympic was again the largest ship of the time which Smith commanded on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, facing only a small incident while docking in New York harbor in June 1911.
However, he experienced a major shipping mishap while commanding Olympic on September 20, 1911, when her massive size generated a suction that pulled in British warship HMS Hawke, which lost her prow in the collision. Olympic returned to Southampton with two of her compartments filled and one of her propeller shafts twisted, but was out of service for a long time and had to use Titanic's parts for repairs.
Titanic's maiden voyage had to be delayed again when Olympic lost a propeller blade and needed her parts for emergency repairs, but Edward Smith was again appointed to command her on her maiden voyage. While some sources indicate that he had planned to retire following this journey, other sources quoted him saying he would remain in charge until a bigger vessel arrived.
He witnessed the vessel’s first sea trials in Belfast on April 2, 1912, and on April 10, he came aboard Titanic at 7 a.m. to prepare for the Board of Trade muster at 8:00 a.m. Immediately after departure at noon, quick action from him prevented a mishap after the huge amount of water displaced by Titanic caused the laid-up New York to break from her moorings and swing towards her.
On April 14, 1912, he altered course after receiving six radio warnings of drifting ice from other ships, but continued to steam at 22 knots, just two knots shy of her maximum speed. While he was later criticized as reckless for not slowing down, it was standard practice at the time as North Atlantic liners prioritized time-keeping above all other considerations and disastrous ice-related accidents were rare.
That night at 11:40 p.m., he was informed by First Officer William Murdoch that the ship had just collided with an iceberg, and designer Thomas Andrews reported that the ship will sink in two hours. There are conflicting reports about what he did afterwards, with some asserting that he actively assisted in the evacuation and tried his best to prevent panic, while others claimed that he became paralyzed by indecision.
It was similar for his death; some survivors claimed that he was last seen entering the ship's wheelhouse on the bridge and went down with the ship. However, others claimed to have seen him in the water near the overturned Collapsible B during or after the sinking, and handed over a child he was carrying before pushing himself away from the boat.
Edward Smith married Sarah Eleanor Pennington on January 13, 1887 at St Oswald's Church, Winwick, Lancashire, and they had a daughter named Helen Melville Smith in 1898.
His widow was hit and killed by a taxi in London in 1931, and while his daughter lived until 1973.
Edward Smith has been portrayed by several actors in films and documentaries over the years, most notably by Bernard Hill in James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. However, the film inaccurately shows Titanic attempting to set a transatlantic speed record, which the White Star Line had made a conscious decision not to do.
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