Birthplace of Captain Smith


Stephen George Bott

To whom it may concern...

I have monitored for some time the spread through printed media and on the internet of the theory that Captain Edward John Smith's birth, on 27 January 1850, took place at number 51 Well Street, Hanley. I have been unable to ascertain who was responsible for establishing this as a 'fact' in the first place and who first disseminated the information, but I understand the idea may have come originally from the entry for the Smith family in the 1851 census (HO107 2004/139). The source is not Edward Smith's birth certificate, which does not record a house number.

My own research into this subject has concluded that, if the 1851 census is indeed the source, an error has been made, and that whoever first examined this particular document (seeking the whereabouts of Edward Smith as a one-year-old infant) mistook the enumerator's schedule number placed in the extreme left hand column - '51' - for a house number. Comparison of the wider neighbourhood in Well Street between the 1841, 1851 and 1861 censuses shows that the Smith family appear to have occupied the same house in relation to their neighbours during this entire twenty year period, and that that house was always number 17, which is recorded in 1861 as a 'Grocer's Shop' (RG9 1932/7. The reference for 1841 is HO107 0990/10/29.)

Apart from the error itself (which I suppose is not an uncommon one made by researchers unused to interpreting the census as a historical document), what concerns me is the ease with which unreliable information becomes disseminated by modern communications technology and how rapidly the source of such information gets lost. Were this to have been more formal historical research one would have hoped it would have been undertaken with more rigour, undergone some sort of peer review, have been properly written up and have been referenced and verified before being published. Sadly, much 'local' and 'family' history research doesn't undergo any such monitoring. Instead, what is published very often turns out to be little more than hearsay - hearsay which, nevertheless, spreads far and wide and bears all sorts of consequences, not least of which (in this case) has been the placing of a memorial plaque on a house in Well Street, Hanley purporting to mark the birthplace of Captain Smith, but which probably is not. His likely birthplace (which cannot be verified, as no document has so far come to light which records it) was house number 17 in Well Street, and that house was demolished a long time ago.

Anyone interested in following up this matter should consult the original sources and beware of information in forums which do not publish traceable references. I would be interested to hear of any source which yet shows Edward Smith to have been born at number 51 Well Street, but I doubt it exists.

Stephen G. Bott - Stoke on Trent, 1 January 2006
Hello Stephen

I discovered that it was not 51 Well Street a couple of years ago. I decided not to upset the owners of number 51 where the plaque is situated at the moment, although I thought it likely that it would come out in due course.

Did you consider discussing it with the owners of the property first, before revealing it in public? That would have been my approach.

It's was not number 17 either - not in 1850 anyway. So you must dig deeper, my friend.

It's quite true that errors in original research get perpetuated because people rely on the original researcher - sometimes a long time dead.

I would think it a pretty fruitless task checking everything. I spotted it purely by chance when I was researching another branch of the family.

[Moderator's Note: This subtopic has been moved here from the topic where it was originally posted. MAB]
An acquaintance in the Potteries sent me a page extract from this week's local paper the 'Sentinel'. The writer of a letter to the Editor says that E.J. lived in 86, 17, and 30 Well Street which have now been demolished. That's nearly right but my researches indicate that it was one and the same house renumbered over the years as the estate developed. The good news is that the plaque has been removed from number 51. It was apparent to anyone who bothered to check that on the 1851 census it was the census enumerators place number, not the house number. Another of the Titanic myths finally laid to rest.