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How was EJ Smith chosen as Captain ?

Discussion in 'Captain Edward John Smith' started by Conan Power, Jul 20, 2018.

  1. Conan Power

    Conan Power Member

    Hi folks,

    So I've got one of those "family stories" that I've always been interested in finding the facts/truth of ...

    And its this ... my gr-gr-grand Uncle was John Breen, of Wexford, Ireland, who rose to Captain in the WSL, first of the Delphic and then the Zealandic, amongst others.

    The story goes that he, being one of the longest serving WSL Captains in 1912, could have been/was considered for the Titanic's captaincy, but ultimately not chose for whatever reason.

    How would I even go about researching more into this ? Thank you !

  2. Sam Brannigan

    Sam Brannigan Member

    Hi Conan,

    Many thanks for the information about your ancestor - there’s another snippet of information about him in the thread:

    Shuffling of positions in the White Star Line 1906

    In the third post down it mentions a J Breen as second officer of the Doric in 1891. It looks like Mr, later Captain, Breen had a fine career in the Australasian branch of White Star but Captain Smith was already four years a commander by 1891, and was building a wealth of experience on the Atlantic run where the seriously big, more glamorous ships plied their trade. Until his later travails with the Olympic class Smith was considered not only to be a safe Captain, but also beloved by passengers - he just had that all round aura of superb seamanship and charisma that paved a way to the top of White Star.

    If you look at Smith’s history he was White Star’s first pick to take out their latest, biggest and finest steamers in the early twentieth century but there was also a group of really first rate mariners behind him like Hayes, Bartlett and Haddock, as well as ambitious younger officers like Wilde and Murdoch.

    I suspect that Captain Breen was an expert on the Australian/New Zealand route (do you have more information about him?), perhaps he enjoyed the longer voyages, the camaraderie within that sector of White Star’s fleet, maybe it was more difficult for an Irishman to nudge in to the North Atlantic arm of the business, or simply he wasn’t as ambitious...either way, his career trajectory was completely different from Smith’s and I think it’s fair to say that at no point would he have been considered for the captaincy of the Titanic, or even the tier of ships below the Olympic class on the Atlantic route.
  3. Mark Baber

    Mark Baber Moderator Member

    That's not quite true, Conan. Capt. Breen was given his first command, on Delphic I, in 1901; all of the captains on White Star's New York ships in 1912, save one, had attained command before then: Titanic's E.J. Smith in 1887; Adriatic's Bertram Hayes in 1899; Baltic's J.B. Ranson in 1900; Cedric's Harry Smith in 1893; and Oceanic's Herbert Haddock also in 1893. Only Alexander Hambelton of Celtic (1903) became a commander after Capt. Breen. And although I haven't looked at the line's other 1912 captains, I know that at least one, William Finch of Arabic, had been a captain since 1896.

    Moreover, I've done some research on White Star's history over the years, and don't think I've come across an instance where a captain on the Australia or New Zealand services transferred to the North Atlantic as a captain. If I come across one, I'll mention it here, but I can't think of one off the top of my head. Harry Smith and Finch, though, were commanders on the White Star/O&O transpacific service who returned to the North Atlantic as commanders.
    Titanic was Smith's fourth "newest ship" MV in a row, after Baltic, Adriatic and Olympic. Curiously, though, the one before that was Haddock, on Cedric. I've never quite figured out why this is so.
    Wilde and Murdoch would have been nowhere close to commanding one of the top-of-the line ships.
    I think that's quite right, Sam.
  4. Sam Brannigan

    Sam Brannigan Member

    Hi Mark - very interesting about Haddock on Cedric...

    With regard to Wilde and Murdoch, of course they would have expected to drop back to lesser ships on receiving their first commands, but I would imagine they were at the lower end of a bubblingly ambitious chain of officers who were learning the particular aspects of the Atlantic service from those above them.

    The approach and manner of an Atlantic officer must have been very different from an Australasian officer, the length of trips, the climate, the more frequent turnarounds, the demands of passengers, crew needs etc would have been very specific to each run and both management and officers at White Star must have seen parachuting officers between these services as pretty drastic.

    I could imagine someone like Wilde being dismayed if someone like Captain Breen gained the captaincy of, say, the Majestic ahead of him, let alone the Titanic, even though he was technically the senior officer in 1912. It would have gone against the “channeling” of talent and hierarchy of the Atlantic service.
  5. Mike Spooner

    Mike Spooner Member

    Hi. I think the question been asked. How was EJ Smith chosen as Captain? I presume for the Titanic?
    I have feeling than Mark Baber may of covered this subject before in the past.
    I think in the past it was presume that Smith would become captain of Titanic. But things would start to change after his accident with Olympic and the war ship HMS Hawke in September 1911, were is the face a very nasty high court case. Were skilled barristers acting on behalf for the Admiralty would turn the case against him and WSL. He is branded as a dangerous carless captain not fit to be in charge of a passenger ship and too old for the job. They went to great lengths to prove the theory of hydrostatic were models of smaller ships produced. Were the draft of the hull from a bigger ship will pulled in a smaller ship. Over taking on the wrong side was well rub in as well. Truly made to feel as the guilty party and blamed for the accident. Even his service record with Royal Navy in the Boar war with awarded medals counted for nothing. Smith must of felt truly gutted as his over forty years successful service career has come to this. Smith is no fool he know ever day the Olympic is not sailing due the repair time and high cost of repairs to WSL prize ship of the fleet is not a good reflection for the company. After the costly repairs with a lost of three return crossing there is much ground to be made to get the ship back into profit again. Smith will now face the roughest Atlantic crossings in his career. These are tiring and fatigue will set in. Just when it couldn't get any worse 24 February 1912 a propeller blade will brake after second day leaving New York on the other side of the Atlantic. He known the only place for repairs is Belfast Thompson dry dock. With a badly vibrating ship on return crossing must of been a worrying time for him and he is in danger in doing further damage to the ship? Were he is now been question was he responsible for the damaged propeller blade being in uncharted waters? The return journey to Belfast with more lost time in sailing and repair costs. When you see that photo of Titanic (right) and Olympic (left) just entering the Thompson dry dock. One only got to cast your eye over Titanic and can see DECK A enclose windows have not been done yet! Only three weeks before the sea trails for Titanic. Pressure is mounting by the day for Titanic which already be reschedule at less once of not more. Now they have the national coal strike to deal with. After the propeller repair will make is last crossing with Olympic and must be thinking what else can gone wrong has the ship got the jinx on me? This must of have been very stressful times for Smith, I feel at this point the WSL senior management thinking of replacing Smith for a younger captain who has not had to face this dreadful stressful times. As on the 25th March 1912 captain Herbert James Haddock second most senior WSL captain is sent to Belfast to become the first captain of Titanic. To me that seem to be a wise choice as he is eleven years younger to the day as Smith, without all the stressful problems Smith had face for the last six months. Smith age of sixty two doesn't help the matters as life expectation in those days you can add on another ten years. As other companies seem to be retiring them off at the age of sixty due to the stress of the job. Haddock been in Belfast a week beforehand seem to be the right thing to do for the worlds biggest grandest ship were there is a loads of items to be check out and was the right choice for the captain of the Titanic maiden crossing. But for some extraordinary reason Smith was give very short notice to become the captain. Smith will only face more stress to pick the right crew which is what on the Olympic, and can only have some as they too require a crew for the next crossing were Haddock is rush down Southampton to take command of Olympic when Smith returns on the 30 March. Smith is only to face more stress as the sea trails set for Titanic early morning 1 April. The only chance of getting to Belfast in time is to catch a train to London change to another station for a train to Liverpool and take an overnight ferry to Belfast. He does get one slight relief as the sea trails is delayed for one day to the 2 April due too strong winds. But one has to ask want sort of management is he working for failing to understand the pressure and stress that poor man as been through the last six months. Who was that company Chairman at the time was thirteen younger that him and not meet those stress level yet? If that is not bad enough Smith is to face more by keeping his mouth shut with a coal bunker on fire! As whist in Southampton if the BoT inspectors got wind of the matter there chances of getting that all important sea worthy certificate which is require by law for paying passengers, could of well be postponed until the coal was remove from the bunker. That would of been logistic nightmare to remove and taken days. Then left with an empty coal bunker to refill from were?
    That is the case I put forward and feel very sorry for Smith by put him in this position by heartless WSL management who only thinking of them self. I am afraid this sort of management is a on going thing today with many companies too!
    Haddock was the right choice not Smith?
  6. Mark Baber

    Mark Baber Moderator Member

  7. At that time pilot Bowyer was in command. The wsl was able to see, despite the damage the ship was still floating, no one was hurt aboard Olympic.
    Who branded him as a careless captain?

    Loosing a blade was not very uncommon. Why should be the Captain made responsible for a lost blade? What is the source for the badly vibrating ship on the return crossing?

    Actually looking closer at the photographs it is visible that they were working on the froward part of A Deck. By end of March the windows were in place.

    Haddock was going to take over Olympic, aboard Titanic he was able to make familiar with the Olympic Class Liner.

    What is the source that Smith picked up the crew members? Most have already left the ship while Smith made his last trip with Olympic.

    What is the source that he was told to shut up? The smouldering coal was discovered shortly after she left the berth. Nothing uncommon.
  8. You have a passion for the subject and a vivid imagination, Mike, but your post illustrates the danger of inaccurate assumptions and straying too far from the evidence. A lot of what you've written is incorrect.

    In a letter written on 14 February 1912 (transcribed, I think, years back by Shelley Dziedzic), Captain Smith wrote: 'I leave this ship [Olympic] after another voyage and bring out Titanic on April 10 from Southampton'. We know that he had plenty of notice that he would transfer from Olympic to Titanic, as he knew about it at least c. two months prior to the maiden voyage.

    Haddock was available to take over Titanic in Belfast because his existing command, Oceanic, was laid up in Southampton and his next command, Olympic under Smith, had not yet returned from New York. Once Olympic did return, Smith was able to relieve Haddock and take command of Titanic whereas Haddock was able to take over Olympic for her 3 April 1912 departure from Southampton.

    Note that White Star never held Captain Smith to blame for the Hawke collision. Nor did they ever accept Olympic was at fault. Even though their ship was legally held to blame, the company's defence of compulsory pilotage succeeded. Nonetheless they tried to clear their ship entirely and exhausted their legal options. Sam Halpern and I wrote a detailed book about the Hawke collision where we cover the legal proceedings in great detail.

    Best wishes

  9. Conan Power

    Conan Power Member

    Thank you everyone for your responses - this forum is very interesting.

    Yes I am lucky enough to have a transcript of his life story, dictated to his wife in his retirement years - a fascinating insight into his life at sea. Thank you folks again.
  10. Mike Spooner

    Mike Spooner Member

    Hi Mark,
    Sorry I am late in replying back to you due to pressing matters of sorting out golf handicaps at a local club were just like the Titanic I need to see the evidence over the last six months before making any adjustments.
    Now what I have of said over the last few months may of not please you and consider my opinions may been exaggerating at time. I am not an expert author or writer as you are and I do respect your professional in writing some excellent books. But as members we are initial to our a pinion. Seeing only the subject of the FLEETS HAZE has draw so much attention for the sake of a sea mist! My god is sound like we trying to investigate the start of the universe? But never a less every member is initial to there opinion whether right or wrong.
    You may complain by saying but your post illustrates the danger of inaccurate assumptions! Yes may be right but that's only what I have read through books and articles. It's is only through been a member of Encyclopedia Titanica may learn nearer to the real truth. My evidences is through books, articles and website and not invented. I may express a pinion on the evident in front of me. As no doubt you do the same, but problem a lot better research than me and still may express your opinion on the matter. Its no different if some one give you a drink bill as evident.
    Yet two days later to say the price was wrong! Who is at fault? When reading the book ON A SEA OF GLASS you can see how controversial who say what.
    As for captain Smith reading biographies books as my evident I believe the man was not the right choice to be the captain of Titanic. Were did I hear he was given short notice to take command? Books again! Yes you well be right to say given two months notice beforehand which may be the standard practice for any shipping company. But come the day does not mean he is fit for the job.
    Through biographies books I believe Smith problems started at the age of 55 on. Were AGE BECOMES THE ENEMY.
    I can do a write up on the man, but it will not be a short one. Yes your book with Sam Halpern The Sting of the Hawke is an excellent technical book and full of useful information into the inquiry. There are other authors who have covered the inquiry to. My opinion I feel it was only to exhilarate the down fall for Smith has he be made the escape goat for others!
  11. Mike, I don't think anyone is displeased in any way, nor has anyone argued against all of us having the same rights to our views. We're discussing history and it's incumbent upon all of us to have a factual basis for what we're saying. If anyone says something which is factually inaccurate, then that will be pointed out by others. It's precisely the same for all of us. You've benefited insofar as you've learnt that what you said about Smith (the period of notice he was given) isn't true.

    Best wishes