Captain Edward John Smith

Edward John Smith

Edward John Smith (EJ Smith), 62, was born at Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent on 27 January 1850, the son of potter Edward Smith and Catherine Smith. His parents later owned a shop1.

Edward John Smith attended the Etruria British School until the age of 13 when he went to Liverpool to begin a seafaring career. He apprenticed with Gibson & Co., Liverpool. He joined White Star in 1880 gaining his first command in 1887. Among the ships he would command were the first Republic, the Coptic, Majestic, Baltic, Adriatic and Olympic.

Smith served with distinction in the Boer war by commanding troopships to the Cape.

As he rose in seniority Smith gained a reputation amongst passengers and crew for quiet flamboyance. Some passengers would only sail the Atlantic in a ship commanded by him. After he became commodore of the White Star fleet in 1904, it became routine for Smith to command the line's newest ships on their maiden voyages. It was therefore no surprise that Smith took Titanic in her maiden voyage in April 1912. This responsibility was rewarded with a salary of £1,250 per year and a no-collision bonus of $200. Because of his position as a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve Smith had the distinction of being able to fly the Blue Duster of the R.N.R., most ships flew the Red Duster of the merchant marine.

Smith was married to Eleanor and they had a young daughter Helen Melville. The family lived in an imposing red brick, twin-gabled house "Woodhead" on Winn Road, Portswood, Southampton.

On April 10 1912 Edward John Smith, wearing a bowler hat and a long overcoat, took a taxi from his home to Southampton docks. He came aboard the Titanic at 7 am to prepare for the board of Trade muster at 8.00. He immediately went to his cabin to get the sailing report from Chief Officer Henry Wilde.

After departure at 12:00 the wash from the propeller caused the laid-up New York to break from her moorings and swing towards the Titanic. Quick action from Smith helped to avert a premature end to the maiden voyage. The unfortunate incident was seen by some as an ill omen and it was reminiscent of the Hawke incident in 1911 when that vessel collided with the Olympic which was under the command of Captain Smith.

EJ Smith Film Captain Smith Movie
Captain Smith on the bridge of the Olympic

During the voyage Smith normally took meals at a small table in the dining saloon or in his cabin, attended by his personal valet, or "Tiger", Arthur Paintin. On the night of April 14, however, he attended a dinner party held in his honour by George Widener and his family. The party was attended by the cream of 1912 society as it was represented on the Titanic. However Smith was possibly concerned that the ship was entering the ice zone about which he had received ample warnings during the weekend. He excused himself early and went to the bridge.

Lightoller was keeping watch and discussed the temperature with Smith far a while. Smith told Lightoller to alert him immediately if he was at all concerned. He then retired to bed.

About 11.40 p.m.Captain Smith was awakened by the collision and rushed to the bridge. He received the report of the accident from Murdoch and then made a quick inspection of the ship with Thomas Andrews. He immediately ordered the boats prepared but wavered when it came to giving the order to load and lower them Lightoller had to approach him for the order which he eventually gave.

Surprisingly little is known about Smith's actions in the last two hours of the ships life. His legendary skills of leadership seem to have left him, he was curiously indecisive and unusually cautious.

He was last seen in the bridge area having given the final order to abandon ship. He appears to have made no attempt to save himself. His body, if recovered, was never identified.

A large statue of Captain Smith was unveiled by his daughter Helen on 29 July 1914 in Lichfield, England. The sculptor was Lady Kathleen Scott (b. 1870, d. 1947) widow of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, "Scott of the Antarctic." A plaque which was placed on Hanley Town Hall in his memory in 1913 was later removed to Etruria Middle School.

Smith's widow Eleanor Sarah was born 17 June 1861, after her husband's death she remained in Southampton for a time but later moved to London. She died after being knocked down by a taxi outside her London home on 28 April 1931.

Their daughter Helen Melville Smith, known as Mel, was born in Liverpool and later moved to Southampton with her parents. She was (probably) first married to Captain John Gilbertson of Liverpool, England. Gilbertson died of black water fever on a voyage home from India on board his first command a ship called the Morazan of the Bibby Line. At the time of his death Captain Gilbertson was the youngest captain in the British Merchant Navy. Helen married Sidney Russell-Cooke (b. 12 December 1892, d. 30 July 1930) in 1922 at St. Mark's Church, Mayfair, they had twin children born at Bellcroft, London on 18 June 1923: Simon, who never married and was killed in action in World War II on 23 March 1944 and Priscilla who married in 1946 to a lawyer named John Constantine Phipps but died from Polio in Scotland on 7 October 1947. Sadly for "Mel" her second husband was killed in 1930 in a hunting accident and her mother died the following year. In spite of her misfortunes Helen Melville Smith led an adventurous life, she drove sports cars and became a pilot. She came to the set of A Night to Remember in the winter of 1957-8 and remarked that Lawrence Naismith, who played her father, bore a striking resemblance to him.

Helen Melville Smith moved to Leafield, Oxfordshire in 1934, she died there in August 1973 and was buried close to her mother and husband.

Phillip Gowan, UK
Mark A. Neels, USA
Richard Thornburgh, UK
1. Local knowledge holds that what is now simply a corner house was indeed the shop which Smith's mother (and later father) kept. Some locals can still recall witnessing the conversion of the shop into a house. In the 1851 Hanley Directory, Edward Smith of Well Street is listed as a shopkeeper. What used to be an alleyway (a "back") alongside the shop is now an open narrow road since the rest of the street has been demolished and flats built. The address is: 51 Well Street, Hanley.
2. From the 1851 Census:

Edward Smith: Head of Household: Married: Age 46: Potter: Born Hanley
Catherine Smith: Wife: Married: Aged 42: Grocer: Born Stoke
Edward John Smith: Son: Aged 1: Born Hanley
? Hancock: Daughter: Aged 16: Milliner and Dressmaker: Born Tunstall
References and Sources
The Times (London) 29 April 1931, Death Notice (Eleanor Smith)
Death Certificate of Eleanor Smith
British Census 1851


Captain Smith and barzoi
Captain and Crew
Die Woche (Germany), April 20 1912
Captain Smith committed suicide
Titanic leaving Belfast
Captain Smith and launch of Titanic
Mrs Smith, Captain Smith's widow
Captain Edward John Smith
Captain Smith and Jack Phillips
Captain Edward John Smith on Olympic
Portrait of Captain Edward John Smith on RMS Olympic
Captain Smith on board the Majestic
Captain Smith's Signature
Captain Smith with Purser McElroy
Captain Smith in the 1890s
Captain Smith on the Bridge of the Titanic
Captain Smith with Lord Pirrie of Harland and Wolff
Henry Wilde and Captain Smith
Captain Smith's Extra Master Certificate
Smith in Starboard Bridge Wing Cab
Captain Smith and boy on bridge
Edward John Smith with dog
Captain Smith on bridge of Olympic or Titanic
Last known photograph of Captain Smith

Articles and Stories

Washington Herald (1912) 
The Sun (New York) (1910) 
New York Times (1911) 
Chicago Inter Ocean (1912) 
The Sun (New York) (1912) 
The New York Times (1912) 
New York Times (1912) 
The Evening Post, Wellington, New Zealand (1890) 
Newark Star (1912) 
New York Times (1907) 
The Witney Gazette (1912) 
Chicago Examiner (1912) 
The Toronto Daily Star (1912) 
The Poverty Bay Herald (1907) 
Highland News (1912) 
Town and Country (1902) 
Western Morning News (1912) 
The Times (1913) 
The Mathews Journal (Mathews Court House, Virginia) (1912) 
Asbury Park Evening Press (1912) 
New York Times (1907) 
Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith
Titanic Review (2012) 
[There are 82 more items in the Edward John Smith document archive]


Film of Captain Smith
Film of the Olympic

External Links

Titanic Town - Crosby, Merseyside's links to the Titanic and other ships TITANIC TOWN - CROSBY, MERSEYSIDE'S LINKS TO THE TITANIC AND OTHER SHIPS  
Link and cite this biography
(2017) Edward John Smith Encyclopedia Titanica (ref: #1374, updated 24th July 2017 21:00:02 PM)
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