Captain Edward John Smith 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 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 and joined the White Star Line 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 the Titanic on 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 7.00 am to prepare for the Board of Trade muster at 8.00 am. He immediately went to his cabin to get the sailing report from Chief Officer Henry Wilde.
Captain Smith filmed on the deck of the RMS Olympic, after her maiden arrival in New York, summer 1911.
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.
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.
Charles Lightoller was keeping watch and discussed the temperature with Smith for 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 First Officer William 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 deserted 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.