BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

13 November 2014

BBC Homepage

Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Related BBC Sites

Contact Us

Local Heroes

You are in: Stoke & Staffordshire > History > Local Heroes > Captain Edward John Smith

The Titanic

Captain Edward John Smith

The name of Captain Edward John Smith is now synonymous with one of the most tragic events of the past century - the sinking of the Titanic - but Phil Bowers says it's unfair to tar the great man.

Captain Smith, a Potteries-born sailor, was the man who captained the Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912.

As we all now know, this trip would have an unfortunate outcome, but Smith remained until the last, going down with his ship on April 15th.

However, when the film, Titanic, was made in 1997, there was hardly a mention of Smith’s roots, leaving many filmgoers unaware of his Potteries background, and of the tribute to him that stands now in Lichfield.


Edward John Smith was born in Hanley on the 27th of January 1850. After leaving Etruria School at the age of 12, he spent 9 years working in a factory in Etruria, called the Etruria Forge.

Captain Smith

In 1871 he began to become interested in seamanship, and gained a masters certificate at the age of 24, allowing him to take to the ocean. His first command was that of The Lucy Fennel, and joined the White Star Shipping Line in March if 1880.

He served aboard the company's major vessel-freight liners to Australia, liners to New York-and quickly rose in stature. As the ships grew in size , so did the importance of Captain Smith's presence. He worked his way up through Adriatic, Celtic and Coptic, and Germanic, among others.

He was Majestic's captain for nine years commencing in 1895, during which period he was awarded the Transport Medal. In addition he was an honorary commander of the Royal Naval Reserve. Captain Smith was regarded as a 'safe captain' and, for the period, he probably was.

However, even he encountered problems. In command of the Germanic on 16 February 1899, she capsized at her New York pier from ice accumulations in her rigging and superstructure. He was also in command of the Olympic, Titanic's identical sister ship, when she had been damaged in collision with H.M.S. Hawke in September 1911.

Earlier, in June 1911, while manoeuvring Olympic into a New York pier, he had damaged a tugboat with the thrust from one of the liner's propellers. Smith was one of the new generation of captains that had to learn to deal with the vast pieces of machinery they had at their command.

He was awarded the Royal Distinction in 1910, before making the trip that would ultimately bring to an end a meaningful career. In 1912, Smith took the bridge of the ‘Titanic’ for her maiden voyage, and what should have been his last in charge of a White Star vessel.

Smith normally captained every maiden voyage for the company, but even he was not prepared for the circumstances that surrounded this fateful journey. After several stops to pick up additional crew and passengers, Smith’s ship set off.

At about 11:40 that night, he was woken following the Titanic's collision with the iceberg. The events that followed over the next 2 and a half hours are well documented, but Captain Smith's behaviour has been the cause of much debate.

Some historians have said that Smith panicked, isolating himself on the bridge or locking himself away in his quarters while the crisis unfolded around him. Others have said he was slow to react to the events at hand, causing needless loss of life.

Five years before the sinking of the Titanic, Smith had spoken of his confidence in modern shipbuilding, which lead to some people to ask whether or not he was overconfident when captaining a vessel:

"When anyone asks how I can best describe my experience in nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog the like, but in all my experience, I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort".

However, even considering this statement, it is unlikely anyone could have coped with the situation as well as he did. As the White Star Line's most experienced and valued captain, he was the ideal man to deal with the event.

What made Smith different from the rest of the crew is that he had to take responsibility for every soul on the ship. He knew that there were not enough lifeboats to save everyone, yet still had to make the best of the situation he was in.

Captain Edward John Smith died at the helm of the Titanic, having been 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 was never recovered.

The statue of Captain Smith

The memory of Smith lives on in Lichfield, where a statue of him now stands.

It seems that wherever Smith's legacy stands, he will always be remembered as a man whose achievements were overshadowed by the very vessel he sought to save.

It is doubtful however that any of his critics could have performed better when confronted with those circumstances.

(All photos used with kind permission of Mitch Kite's Titanic website)

Can you help? We've heard that Captain Smith's statue currently stands in Lichfield, only because it's claimed the people of Stafford turned down the chance to have the sculpture in their town...

Is this true? If you know, let us know now!  Just click on the link below to add a comment to our message board.

Here are some of your comments-

The captain did what he thought was best no body can fault him for that i dont think half of the world could do what he did in such a terrible time thats why i think that he is and still remains one of the greatest ship captain of all time

Captain E.J.Smith
Smith was one of the Greatest captain's to of ever sailed the sea's he should be more reconized

Captain John Edward Smith
He is the man who should have a statue in the Madame Tousauds museum; he sacrificed himself for women and children - he was a big man
John Eduard Smith Belgum SCHOTEN 

Capt Smith
I have been researching my family tree and found information that my great grandmother Sarah Harris( ne/Smith) was cousin to Captain Smith, her father was his father were brothers. I traced the Smith family back Bradley near Stafford (they were farmers then and married into the family of Tams (possibly the pottery people.Captain Smith father was a potter and so was Sarah's father..
Norma Williamson ne/ Harris
Bucknall, stoke-on-trent

besides captain smith who else from stoke on trent/staffordshire served on or was a passenger on the titanic any further information grateful
Ian Joines
Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire

I don't think Stafford had anything to do with rejecting Captain Smith's statue.
It was Hanley itself - Smith had no connection with Stafford, or Lichfield.
It was simply that Lichfield was at the time prepared to accept the statue of the "disgraced" captain, whilst Hanley was not.
Tim Beech

Smith Statue
The above statue was the work of Lady Kathleen Scott; widow of Captain R.F.Scott the Antartic explorer. It was unveiled by Captain Smith's daughter on 29th July 1914.
At the time this was controversial as Captain Smith had no connections with Lichfield; but Lichfield Council have since refused an offer to transfer it to Stoke on Trent at no cost to them.
No doubt that with all the recent attention to the Titanic in recent films, and the re-discovery of the wreck, it is now a tourist attraction to Lichfield.


captain edward john smith
My great grandmother(Sarah Harris ne. Smith) was cousin to him, bring his statue back to where it belongs, where he was born,his birth town, Hanley, where it belongs!
Norma williamson (ne' Harris)

Captain Smith
Hi Ian joines! Captain Smith connection with the Titanic is a well documented fact in local history But, There are a few more notable people hailing from Stoke on Trent who met there fate aboard the "Titanic" Leonard Hodgkinson, was the fourth senior engineer on the Titanic, He was also a Stoke man, and born in the West End of Stoke, As a boy he received his education at St. Thomas's School, Trent Vale. He served an apprenticeship with Messrs.

Hartley and Arnoux, whose works were acquired by Messrs. Kerr, Stuart, and Co. Later he became a marine engineer, He joined the White Star Line Company where he served for several years...His Job and fate would lead him to the Maiden Voyage of the Titanic where along with his fellow engineers died at his post as they tried to keep the lights burning and power to the radio room running until the very last moment...all engineers perished. Mr Leonard Hodgkinson was 46 years of age.

Rightfully so, a monument to these brave men resides in Southampton to this day...The fate of the engineers is documented in the Cameron Movie. Leading Stoker Frederick Barrett who's famous words of "Shut all the dampers" (referring to the boiler doors) echo in eternity, is believed to have been born in Hanley but proof of this cannot been substantiated and still hangs in the balance to this day, His famous words were also heard just after the collision scene in the Cameron movie Titanic. He escaped in lifeboat 13 and became a worthy witness in the American and English investigations into the Titanic disaster hearings.

A surprising edition to Titanic’s connection with Stoke on Trent is...Father Thomas Byles! Father Thomas Byles was born Roussel Davids Byles in Shelton on the 26th of February 1870, His name was changed to Thomas when he entered the Catholic Church, At the time his "protestant" father, Reverend Alfred Holden Byles was the congressional Minister of the St Marks Church in Shelton which still stands proudly today Even though Father Byles was seen many times in the presence of Captain Smith there is no record to indicate that either men were aware that they originated from the same town. let alone walking distances from each other’s homes, The brave Father was last seen giving absolution to more than a hundred people who had knelt at his feet, He also perished in the disaster but This snapshot in time was recreated in the James Cameron Movie "Titanic" He was 32 years of age. I Hope this is of some help to the local "budding" Titanic Historians, Chris.

Chris Mooney
Stoke onTrent

last updated: 06/04/2009 at 08:47
created: 10/04/2006

You are in: Stoke & Staffordshire > History > Local Heroes > Captain Edward John Smith

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy