Captains William and Henry Smith

  • Thread starter John K. Schlosser
  • Start date

John K. Schlosser

Has anyone read anything about Captain William M. Smith (1850-1932), a White Star Line captain in the 1880s and '90s? (He was my great-great uncle.)

According to the Lloyd's Captains Registers he was captain of the following White Star ships:

1881 Adriatic

1882 Britannic
1883-85 Germanic
1885-86 Baltic
1886 Germanic
1886 Baltic
1887 Gaelic
1888 Arabic
1889-94 {blank)
1895 Oceanic
1895-99 Tauric

According to some old newspaper clippings saved by my grandparents, W.M. Smith was perhaps best known for being master of the Oceanic when the journalist Nelly Bly was a passenger aboard her for the Hong Kong-San Francisco leg of her around-the-world journey.

He may have had a role in the Titanic saga, as he was working in the White Star offices in New York in 1912. According to an article in the Commercial News Daily of March 18, 1921, he retired that month after 43 years' continuous service for White Star. The article states that Smith "officiated at the launching of the second 'Oceanic' in 1899, and was appointed Marine Superintendant at New York of the White Star Line." I'd be very interested to know if anyone knows what position he held in April 1912.

I'll post the entire article if folks are interested.

Mark Baber

Staff member
Does this help, John?

Hudson Observer, 22 April 1912

They Are Ordered to Remove Stars and Stripes and British Naval
Reserve Flag at Half Mast
The controversy in uptown Hudson street, Hoboken, over the appearance at
the rear of the apartment house at 938 Hudson street, of British and
American flags floating at half mast, threatened to cause serious
complications yesterday, when Mrs. A. Weller, owner of the building,
ordered Captain W. M. Smith, superintendent of the White Star Line
docks, to take the flags down. Other tenants in the house, it was said,
had lodged objections to the appearance of the British naval reserve
ensign alongside the Stars and Stripes.

Captain Smith and Alexander Arthur Gordon, a retired engineer officer of
the White Star Line, who now occupies a prominent land position with
another British shipping company, occupy the same apartment in the
house. Mr. Gordon's brother-in-law, Robert C. Heskith, second engineer
on board the Titanic, was among the victims of the disaster. All three
sailed together in one of the ships of the British Naval Reserve, and
when news of the sinking of the vessel reached the Hoboken apartment
Captain Smith and Mr. Gordon decided to show their sympathy by flying at
half mast from the rear of their home the American flag and the ensign
of the British Naval Reserve.

During the week they were subjected to a considerable degree of
criticism from residents in the neighborhood, and they have felt very
keenly the unjustifiable comments. Yesterday afternoon Mrs. Weller,
owner of the house to whom the neighbors had gone with their complaints,
called up Captain Smith on the telephone. To Mrs. Smith, who answered
the telephone, she demanded that the flags be taken in. According to
Mr. Gordon, she gave no reason for her demand, and although the flags
wer [sic] his property, he refused to pay any attention to the request.
Mrs. Smith, however, not willing to make any serious trouble, took them
down under protest.

Mr. Gordon was indignant and he communicated with officials in Hoboken
to ascertain whether there was any law against the flying of flags.
Obtaining no satisfaction, he has taken the matter up with the
British Consul in New York.

Subsequently, an agreement was reached with Mrs. Weller to allow the
flags to float in the breeze until to-day, when they were taken in.

Mrs. Smith, who rents the house in which Captain Smith and Mr. Gordon
are boarders, said that the whole matter was most distasteful to her,
and she asked that the whole matter be dropped.

Mrs. Weller also thought that the controversy should not be allowed to
proceed further and she declined to say whether she had interfered in
any way with the two Englishmen flying any flags they saw fit.
According to her the objection was not so much on account of the fact
that one of the flags was British so much as that the flags interfered
with the clothesline of the tenant below, and it was her business as
owner of the house to see that each one received fair treatment.


Mark Baber

Staff member
These two articles are all that I have at hand at the moment about Capt. Smith. Since he died in Hoboken, I can easily get the obituaries that appeared in local papers, and will try to get them within the next couple of weeks.

The New York Times, 10 December 1932

Had Charge of Troopships Here During War and Saw Gen. Pershing Off to
Served as Marine Superintendent of White Star Line Until He Retired In
Captain William M. Smith, for twenty-two years marine superintendent of
the White Star Line in New York, died yesterday at his home, 922
Bloomfield Street, Hokoben, [sic] in his eighty-third year, after an
illness of several weeks.

Captain Smith was one of the best-known figures along the Chelsea
waterfront and during the World War had control of the arrival and
departure of the troop ships and munition ships taking supplies over to
England and France. One of the ships which Captain "William," as he was
popularly known, loaded and saw depart was the Baltic, in April, 1917,
when General Pershing and his staff left with the first contingent of
American troops for the Western front.

He was born in Halifax, N. S., and served his early days in the
"Bluenose" clipper ships, starting at the age of 14. He joined the White
Star Line in 1876 when the Germanic, the crack ship of the fleet, was
put into service. He spent several years sailing from San Francisco to
Japan and China and commanded the single screw steamer Gallic.

In the China seas he was known as "Typhoon Bill" because of the skillful
and daring seamanship he displayed bringing his ship safely through the
storms in Far Eastern waters while much larger vessels were kept at
anchor in Hongkong, [sic] Shanghai and Kobe.

He gave up the sea after thirty-six years in 1899 to become marine
superintendent of the White Star here and held that position until
March, 1921, when he retired. His youngest son, Captain Robert A. Smith,
is master of the Panama Pacific liner California, now on her way from
San Francisco to New York. Another son, Arthur M., is in the shipping
business in Liverpool, England. Captain Smith's eldest son, William, had
not been heard from for many years and was believed by his father to
have died.


John K. Schlosser

Long Beach Press-Telegram Sunday, January 8, 1933


A drama of the seas that has few parallels in the annals of American shipping occurred aboard the bridge of the Panama Pacific liner California shortly after dawn January 4, when Captain Robert Smith, master of the electric liner, read the burial services of his father and then hurled the ashes into the sunlit waters of the Gulf of California.

Captain William Smith, father of the California's skipper, was a retired port captain of the White Star Line. He died at his home in Hoboken, N.J., December 29. The body was cremated and the ashes reposed in a bronze casket until they were cast into the sea in one of the sunniest and most placid areas on the intercoastal run.

Captain William Smith was a native of Halifax and the son of a British Army officer. He began his sea career in 1868 and served five years apprenticeship on sailing ships engaged in the East Indian and Cape Horn trade. In 1878 he was appointed first officer of the White Star liner Britannic in the Liverpool-New York trade and served the line continuously until his retirement forty-three years later. He was appointed superintendent of the White Star Line at New York in 1899.

Surviving Captain Smith are three sons, Robert, master of the Californian; Arthur, who is employed in the Cunard Line offices at Southampton; and William, a Chicago railroad man.

The California sailed from New York with more than 200 passengers, of whom 156 were booked for California ports. In addition to passengers, she brought 3500 tons of express freight, including 160 autos and fourteen sacks of mail for this port.

John K. Schlosser


Nellie Bly,


from Chapter XII

The second day after my arrival, Captain Smith, of the Oceanic, called upon me. I expected to see a hard-faced old man; so, when I went into the drawing-room and a youthful, good-looking man, with the softest blue eyes that seemed to have caught a tinge of the ocean's blue on a bright day, smiled down at me, I imagine I must have looked very stupid indeed. I looked at the smooth, youthful face, with its light-brown moustache, and I felt inclined to laugh at the long iron-gray beard my imagination had put upon the Captain of the Oceanic. I caught a laughing gleam of the bluest of blue eyes, and I thought of imaginary stern ones, and had to smother another insane desire to laugh. I looked at the tall, slender, shapely body, and recalled the imaginary short legs, holding upright a wide circumference under an ample waistcoat, and I laughed audibly.

"You were so different to what I imagined you would be," I said afterwards, when we talked over our first meeting.

"And I could not believe you were the right girl, you were so unlike what I had been led to believe," he said, with a laugh, in a burst of confidence. "I was told that you were an old maid with a dreadful temper. Such horrible things were said about you that I was hoping you would miss our ship. I said if you did come I supposed you would expect to sit at my table, but I would arrange so you should be placed elsewhere."

From Chapter XIV

SHORTLY after my return to Hong Kong I sailed for Japan on the Oceanic. A number of friends, who had contributed so much towards my pleasure and comfort during my stay in British China, came to the ship to say farewell, and most regretfully did I take leave of them. Captain Smith took us into his cabin, where we all touched glasses and wished one another success, happiness and the other good things of this earth. The last moment having come, the final good-bye being said, we parted, and I was started on my way to the land of the Mikado.

The Oceanic, on which I traveled from Hong Kong to San Francisco, has quite a history. When it was designed and launched twenty years ago by Mr. Harland, of Belfast, it startled the shipping world. The designer was the first to introduce improvements for the comfort of passengers, such as the saloon amidships, avoiding the noise of the engines and especially the racing of the screw in rough weather. Before that time ships were gloomy and somber in appearance and constructed without a thought of the happiness of passengers. Mr. Harland, in the Oceanic, was the first to provide a promenade deck and to give the saloon and staterooms a light and cheerful appearance. In fact, the Oceanic was such a new departure that it aroused the jealousy of other ship companies, and was actually condemned by them as unseaworthy. It is said that so great was the outcry against the ship that sailors and firemen were given extra prices to induce them to make the first trip.

Instead of being the predicted failure, the Oceanic proved a great success. She became the greyhound of the Atlantic, afterwards being transferred to the Pacific in 1875. She is the favorite ship of the O. and O. line, making her voyages with speed and regularity. She retains a look of positive newness and seems to grow younger with years. In November, 1889, she made the fastest trip on record between Yokohama and San Francisco. No expense is spared to make this ship comfortable for the passengers. The catering would be hard to excel by even a first-class hotel. Passengers are accorded every liberty, and the officers do their utmost to make their guests feel at home, so that in the Orient the Oceanic is the favorite ship, and people wait for months so as to travel on her.

John K. Schlosser


You were kind enough to provide some good information regarding my ancestor, White Star Line Captain William M. Smith, last year. I just stumbled across a couple of entries in the New York Passenger Lists that make me wonder if William's younger brother, Henry Smith, was also a White Star captain. After his retirement, William visited his brother several times at his home in the Muswell Hill area of London, and on one occasion gave his name as "Captain Henry Smith."

I note that a Captain Henry Smith was the master of the Oceanic on her ill-fated voyage of Aug. 1914, when she ran aground off the Isle of Foula. (He was exonerated by a court martial.) Would you have access to any biographic material about that Henry Smith that could help me determine whether he is William M. Smith's brother? All I know about the Henry Smith I'm related to is that he was born in Aldershot, Hampshire, England, the son of British Army officer Robert Smith, on June 11, 1847. In 1924 he resided at 63 Collingwood Ave., Muswell Hill, London.

Thanks again for your most helpful info last year and for anything you can provide on this topic.

Regards, John

Mark Baber

Staff member
Hello, John---

Although I've come across his name quite a few times, I've never come across any biographical details for Henry (Harry) Smith; there seems not to be either an obituary or a pre-retirement write-up for him in The New York Times like those which are the main sources of such info for other commanders. (In fact, I don't think I've ever seen any references to him which postdate Oceanic's being wrecked, so I take it that the war ended his civilian career, even though in May 1914 he was being described as White Star's senior commander.)

If I happen across something, I'll post an update here.

John K. Schlosser


Thanks. I figure if an expert such as yourself don't know more about Henry's career it will be pretty hard to uncover much else, what with the White Star Line records having been destroyed in WWII.

I'm now pretty sure William M. Smith's younger brother Henry Smith was indeed the Captain Henry Smith of the Oceanic. In Dec. 1925 Henry traveled first class aboard the Majestic to visit his brother, and his occupation was listed on the passenger list as "retired master mariner."

These Smiths were quite a nautical family. One of William M. Smith's sons, Robert A. Smith, was master of the S.S. California in the 1930s. I now see why my grandfather, Leslie H. Smith, nephew of William M. and Henry, was such an enthusiast of passenger liners. As a longtime member of the Long Beach, CA, City Planning Commission, my grandfather was one of those who pushed for the deal that brought the Queen Mary to Long Beach and was on her final voyage.


Rod Marchant-Smith

Hi John & Mark,

Henry Smith was my Great Grandfather... The facts you mention about Aldershot and Muswell Hill all sound correct to me... Unfortunately the one who would know everything, my Grandmother, passed away some years ago. I'm also pretty sure that his Father, Robert, was originally from Northern Ireland and was married in Liverpool. My Grandfather was born in San Francisco in 1899 (?) while Henry was working the US-China route for the White Star Line. All records were lost in the fire at the repository (?) in SF when the quake struck. This caused some unexpected problems later on when my Uncle tried to join the Army as his Brother (my Father) and Father had. He was born in Pakistan during WW2 and the checks the Army did were decidedly unhappy about no birth records for his Father.


Mark Baber

Staff member
Hello, Rod---

I've continued, on and off, to try to find more details of Henry Smith's White Star career, but don't know much more now than I did when I wrote what appears above.

I know that by 1895 he had command of ships on the North Atlantic, and in particular that he commanded Georgic I on her maiden voyage. He was also mentioned in the 1910-1912 time frame as a putative commander of one of the Olympic-class ships once E.J. Smith retired, whenever that was to be, although I don't remember what ship he was on at that time. And, as noted above, he was the civilian commander of Oceanic II when she was wrecked in 1914.

Would you happen to have any information as to when he retired or died? That might help me track down something more detailed.

BTW, John hasn't visited the board since he posted the message immediately above yours, almost a year ago.

Rod Marchant-Smith

Hi Mark,

A couple of things...

I have in my possession a very nice silver desktop writing set. Inscribed on the top are the following words...

"To Captain Harry Smith, DSO, RD, RNR,
on his promotion and transfer from Belfast,
3rd October 1917"

Surrounding these words, and also on the 2 sides and the front, are 16 signatures that I imagine are those of his fellow officers of the time.

Also, and this may be completely wrong, I believe he was in New York at the time of the sinking of the Titanic. I think this came from my Grandmother but time may have conspired with both hers and my memory...!

BTW I don't suppose you'd know what the middle initial of William M Smith stood for...? I know that my Grandfather changed his name from Harry Smith to Harry Marchant-Smith while out in India during WW2... apparently there were rather a lot of Smiths and he was fed up with it... My father was always very vague about this although I do know that at school he was a Smith but enrolled in the army as a Marchant-Smith...


John K. Schlosser

Hello Mark -

You prodded me into responding. Yes it's been a good while since I've logged in. Between retiring from the government, finding a private sector job and trying to hold on to it, it's been a busy year.

Rod -

It's good to be in touch. We are cousins. Harry Smith's brother Robert Smith was my great-grandfather.

The "M" in William M. Smith was for Marchant. Robert, Harry and William's father, Capt. Robert Smith, British Army, married Susan Marchant (sometimes spelled Merchant) while posted in Malta.

Since my last posting on the ET Message Board I have learned more about Harry Smith through another cousin, Cathy Lansley of Australia.

The following passage is from The Mathews Family Genealogy, sent me by Cathy several months ago:

Captain Harry Smith (father of Doris ‘Nan’)

He was married to Lizzie Josephine Fearon Clark (he 32, she 25) in Liverpool in 1889, the son of Robert Alexander Smith and father of Doris, Josephine, Harry and Eileen. Born in Aldershot in 1857.

His father Robert Alexander Smith was a soldier and later lived in Armagh in Northern Ireland. An officer in the 97th Regiment of Foot, he fought in the Crimean War and later took part in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny/Uprising, including the relief of Lucknow.

Harry Smith was a captain with the White Star Line. He served with the line for 32 years. After serving as a junior officer on the North Atlantic, he took command of his first ship Cufic in June 1893. He spent ten years sailing on the Far East run from San Francisco and in 1906 transferred to the Atlantic from Liverpool and Southampton. He commanded a number of the company’s most important ships on the, including the Britannic, Doric (he was on the Doric when the earthquake hit San Francisco), Teutonic, Megantic and finally the Oceanic.

It was another Captain Smith who commanded the Titanic.

In 1912, in command of the Megantic, he delivered the murderer Dr Crippen and his mistress Ethel Le Neve back to Britain from Montreal. The couple had tried to escape to North America on the SS Montrose but were suspected by the captain who used his Marconi radio to telegraph his suspicions. Crippen had murdered his wife and buried her in a cellar. He was later hanged.

The Times 29 August 1912 The ‘Megantic’

Another, more unfortunate, incident in Captain Smith’s career came in September 1914 when the Oceanic went aground on the island of Foula to the west of the Shetlands and subsequently broke up.

He had commanded the Oceanic since May 1912 and on the outbreak of war, the ship was converted for Royal Navy use and mounted with guns. A Royal Navy captain, William Slayter, was assigned in overall command though Harry Smith, a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, also acted in an advisory capacity. There was therefore a division in the chain of command.

The ship’s task was to patrol between the Shetlands and the Faroes. Captain Slayer ordered the ship to zigzag to avoid submarines but Captain Smith felt she was too big to do this while close to land. While west of the Shetlands near the island of Foula just two weeks into her new service, the navigator David Blair miscalculated the position. Smith ordered a course for the open sea but was countermanded by Shayler. In the confusion, the Oceanic ran aground on Foula. One of the officers on board was Charles Lightoller who had survived the Titanic disaster. Again he helped supervise the lowering of lifeboats.

The Oceanic broke up in a storm soon afterwards, disappearing almost overnight.

At the subsequent court martial both captains were cleared and Blair was given a reprimand. The incident was kept secret. It would not have been good for morale for news to have got out that such a large ship had been wrecked in calm waters without enemy action.

Happier days: Harry Smith was captain of the Oceanic from May 1912 to Sept 1914
and might well have been in command when this postcard was issued.

Harry Smith was awarded the DSO in 1917 “in recognition of his services on vessels of the auxiliary patrol between 1st February and 31st December 1916. He came out of retirement after the war in 1919 to take Australian troops home on the Ypiranga, a German ship transferred to Britain as part of war reparations. His final voyage was in 1920.

Subsequently he and his wife moved to Muswell Hill in North London to be near their daughter Doris and her husband Jack Mathews and family.

He died in August 1935, aged 78. His funeral service was taken by the Rev Eric Cordingly, who was engaged to Captain Smith’s granddaughter Mary Mathews.

Mathews Family Genealogy v. 3, pp. 11-14 provided courtesy Cathy Lansley of N.S.W., Australia

Rod, I will contact you offline as I have considerably more information about the Smiths that likely will be of interest to you.


Rod Marchant-Smith


I'm stunned... what can I say... Look forward to hearing from you...!


Mark Baber

Staff member
Welcome back, John. Some great stuff you posted here.

But, with reference to the statement that the Oceanic incident was kept secret, I offer the following tidbit:

The Times, 21 November 1914

At Devonport yesterday, the Naval Court-martial acquitted Commander
Henry Smith, R.N.R., who was charged with stranding the armed merchant
cruiser Oceanic, of which he was commander when she was in the White
Star service. The accused argued that he had no authority from the
Admiralty to take charge of the ship after she had been taken over by
the Admiralty, the Navy regulations having laid down that under such
circumstances a naval reserve officer was not entitled to assume charge.

A third Court-martial was opened for the trial of Captain William
Slayter, R.N., who was commanding the Oceanic when she was wrecked.
Lieutenant David Blair, R.N.R., the navigating officer, has already been
found guilty and ordered to be reprimanded for his share in the
stranding of the vessel.


Mark Baber

Staff member
A couple of more comments:

I believe he was in New York at the time of the sinking of the Titanic.

Yep. He was in command of Cedric when she arrived in New York from the Mediterranean on 11 April according to the ship manifest on Cedric sailed for Liverpool on 18 April.

I don't suppose you'd know what the middle initial of William M Smith stood for.

I do now, thanks to John.


In 1912, in command of the Megantic, he delivered the murderer Dr Crippen

That was in 1910, not 1912.