Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 16 September 2019

Smith, Edward Johnfree

  • Anita McConnell

Edward John Smith (1850–1912)

by E. Harrison and Son, c. 1912

The Warrillow Collection, Keele University Library

Smith, Edward John (1850–1912), merchant seaman and master of RMS Titanic, was born on 27 January 1850 at 51 Well Street, Hanley, Staffordshire, the son of Edward Smith (1805–1885), a potter, and his wife, Catherine, formerly Hancock, née Marsh (1809–1893), both Primitive Methodists. Catherine had two children by an earlier marriage; her son Joseph Hancock (1833–1893) was in the merchant navy when Edward was born. In the early 1850s the senior Edward Smith moved along Well Street and took over a shop that may have belonged to his mother, the enhanced prosperity raising the family into the middle class.

Schoolboy to master mariner

Smith was educated at the British School, Etruria, established and maintained by Wedgwood Potteries and located within the confines of the Wesleyan chapel. After his death, one of Smith's classmates recalled that 'Teddy was a genial and good schoolfellow, one always ready to give a kind of helping hand in any way to his mates' (Daily Sketch, 25 April 1912). Smith left school at twelve and was employed at Etruria Forge, but in 1865 he and a group of friends went to meet his half-brother Joseph Hancock, by this time captain of an American sailing-ship, the Senator Weber. On 5 February 1867, with his parents' consent, he was taken on the books of the owners, Andrew Gibson & Co. of Liverpool, and signed on the Senator Weber as an ordinary sailor. He spent over three years on the Weber, rising from ‘boy’ to third mate; in October 1870 he signed on the Halifax-registered Amoy as an able-bodied seaman. Five months later he transferred to the Liverpool-registered Madge Wildfire. During these years he studied hard and in July 1871 passed his competency examination as second mate. After service on several other Gibson ships he obtained his first mate's certificate in 1873, and in March 1875 his master's certificate. In January 1880, while an officer on board the square-rigger Lizzie Fennel, he saw the White Star liner Britannic. He was so impressed that he declared his willingness to step down a grade if he could serve aboard her and in time rise to command. Several days later he was able to tour the vessel and in March 1880 he joined the White Star Line.

Initially Smith had to relearn his trade, and for the first time he had to deal with passengers. His first posting was in the Celtic, then as second officer on the cattle-boat Coptic, running to New Zealand and South America. He achieved his ambition when he became second officer on the Britannic on the North America run, and in 1885 was first officer on the Republic. On 13 January 1887, at the parish church, Winwick, Lancashire, he married (Sarah) Eleanor (1861–1931), the daughter of William Pennington, a farmer. They set up house at 39 Cambridge Road, Seaforth, Liverpool; shortly after the birth of their only child, Helen Melville Smith (1902–1972), they were living at 17 Marine Crescent, Waterloo, Liverpool. Smith continued to progress, gaining his extra master's certificate in 1888, the year that he joined the Royal Naval Reserve as a full lieutenant, and secured his first command, in the old Baltic.

Smith later asserted, notably in an interview with a New York Times reporter in 1907, that he had never experienced any problems at sea. Such remarks to the press ran counter to the White Star Line rule 2, posted on the bridge of their vessels: 'Overconfidence—a most fruitful source of accidents, should be especially guarded against.' Several accidents had in fact occurred under Smith's captaincy. On 27 January 1889, off Sandy Hook on the approach to New York, the Republic was grounded for almost five hours. Then after landing her passengers at New York, a furnace flue fractured, killing three men and injuring seven. Smith reported only that damage was slight and that the injured men walked from the ship to the ambulance. In December 1890, in command of the Coptic, he ran the ship aground on Main Island as they were leaving Rio de Janeiro bound for Plymouth. His longest service was on the Majestic (1895–1904), but in August 1901 fire broke out in a linen closet as she approached New York. A hole was cut in the deck and water poured in—a foolish move as the fire was probably electrical in origin. It was not quenched and continued to flare up, being finally put out with steam five hours later. Captain Smith had not been informed, which suggests that he was not fully aware of events on his ship.

During the South African War, Smith was called up as RNR captain of the Majestic and twice carried troops to South Africa, receiving the transport medal with South Africa clasp from Edward VII in 1903. In 1904 he was given command of the new Baltic, then the largest vessel afloat. White Star Line transferred their operations to the deep-water harbour at Southampton in 1907 and the Smiths bought Winwood, a large house in Winn Road, in the select Westwood Park district of Southampton. In the same year Smith was on the executive council of the mercantile marine, and he also made his first voyage on the Adriatic. A large, imposing figure, who kept a pet Irish wolfhound, and an inveterate cigar-smoker, Smith was a popular and trusted captain among the prestigious passengers who made regular Atlantic crossings on White Star liners.

In 1907 the White Star Line, by then in US hands as part of J. Pierpont Morgan's International Mercantile Marine, planned to build a trio of grand liners: the Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic, to be built by Harland and Wolff, Belfast. While the Cunarders Lusitania and Mauretania were both the largest and fastest liners afloat, the White Star liners would be larger and more luxurious than their British and German competitors. The keels of the Olympic and Titanic were laid in 1909; as constructed, they were 882 feet long, 92 feet broad, and nearly 106 feet from keel to the top of the captain's house on the bridge. There were eleven steel decks. Fifteen transverse bulkheads with electrically controlled watertight doors rose through the lower of the eleven steel decks, though reaching barely 15 feet above the water-line. Both vessels were designed to carry 3500 passengers and crew. As a result of experience with the Olympic, the forward part of the promenade deck on the Titanic was glassed in, and a few other modifications introduced, which accounted for her slightly higher tonnage. The Olympic was launched in 1910, and after fitting-out went into service in 1911, captained by Smith, now holding the rank of commander.

A serious accident occurred on 20 September 1911 as the Olympic, carrying 3000 passengers, passed down Southampton Water. An armed cruiser, HMS Hawke, was also passing through the narrow channel and as the Olympic gathered speed the surge of water outside and between the two vessels caused the lighter Hawke to veer into the Olympic, with considerable damage to both. The incident provoked a flurry of letters to The Times, arguing for and against the supposed 'suction' which the vast bulk of the Olympic created on acceleration. The Admiralty inquiry found that the Olympic had been responsible for the accident but absolved Smith of blame, for his ship was under compulsory pilotage.

Master of RMS Titanic

The Olympic was repaired by Harland and Wolff, Belfast, delaying work on the Titanic. More delay ensued in February 1912 when the Olympic lost a propeller at sea and was once more returned to Belfast. On 2 April, Smith was aboard the Titanic for trials. These consisted merely of a half-day's cruise up and down Belfast Lough. The White Star Line was so confident of the quality of its ships that none were rated at Lloyds. The Board of Trade regulations of 1894 had set out the number of lifeboats which vessels over 10,000 tons should carry; no change had been considered necessary although the Titanic, at 46,328 tons, was only one among many vessels considerably over this tonnage. She was in fact carrying more than the required number, having fourteen lifeboats on davits, two emergency cutters, plus four Englehardt collapsible boats, but giving capacity for only 1178 persons. It was presumed that in case of emergency the boats would serve to ferry passengers to vessels summoned by radio, now being installed on many liners. There were additionally 3560 cork life-jackets, kept in the cabins.

On 4 April 1912 the Titanic arrived at Southampton. The crew were hired by White Star, but there were also other staff, including the musicians, provided by the bandleader Wallace Hartley, the restaurant staff under their employer Louis Gatti of the well-known Anglo-Swiss catering family, and the two radio operators employed by the Marconi Company to provide twenty-four-hour cover. The passengers went on board, and Smith's wife and daughter came to see him off. Another accident was narrowly averted when the Titanic sailed on 10 April. As she passed the Olympic and the smaller New York the latter's stern cable parted under the sudden surge of water, allowing her to swing out into midstream. The Titanic's screws were immediately stopped and no harm was done. It should by now have been apparent that in harbours or narrow waterways these large vessels created hydrodynamic effects which were not well understood and that smaller craft were unaware of the hazards involved.

After stops at Cherbourg and Queenstown to take on mail and more passengers, the Titanic moved into the north Atlantic carrying 885 crew and 1316 passengers, the majority being emigrants hoping for a better life in the New World. Also aboard were Joseph Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Line, and Thomas Andrews, Harland and Wolff's chief designer. Steaming at about 22 knots, the Titanic followed the normal route for this time of year, which took account of the ice to be expected around 50°W, south of Labrador. No boat drills were held, Smith being satisfied with the exercise performed before the Board of Trade inspector at departure, where the sailors lowered two lifeboats, then raised them. The voyage was uneventful until they reached the zone south of Cape Race, where in spring and early summer vast quantities of ice are carried out of the Arctic Ocean on the southbound Labrador current, including icebergs which have calved from the Greenland glaciers.

On Sunday 14 April at 9 a.m. Titanic time, an ice-warning was received from the eastbound Caronia, passing on messages that small and large ice was reported in latitude 42°N, between longitudes 49° and 51°W. Smith acknowledged the message which was posted on the bridge. At 10.30 a.m. he led a protestant church service in the first-class dining-room; the purser held a similar service for the second-class passengers, a Catholic mass being held in second, and later in third class. At this time the crew opened the doors separating passengers in the first and second class from those in the third class, which were normally locked to conform with the US immigration laws intended to prevent the spread of communicable disease.

At 1.41 p.m. a message from the Baltic warning of icebergs in the area was passed to Smith, who then happened to meet Ismay and showed it to him. Ismay put it in his pocket, showed it to some of his friends, and returned it only when Smith requested it at about 7.30 that evening. This action was later criticized, for the warning should have been immediately posted in the chartroom. A few minutes later another warning message, from the German liner Amerika to the US hydrographic office, was passed via the Titanic's radio operators but was put aside as the operators were busy. Other messages were received: one sent at 7.30 from the Leyland liner Californian to the Antillian was picked up and delivered to the bridge. It warned of three large bergs, and advised that the Californian had stopped engines until daylight, but the Titanic was by this time 50 miles west of the position given and again no action was taken. The message from the steamship Messaba at 9.40, warning of large icebergs in the immediate area of the Titanic, was laid aside while the radio operators were busy with passengers' signals. At 10.55 the freighter Rappahanock sent a warning by Morse lamp which the Titanic acknowledged. At 10.55 the Californian contacted the Titanic again, but was told to shut up as the operator was busy sending passengers' traffic.

Smith had gone to the bridge at 9 p.m. and spoken to his second officer, Charles Lightoller, commenting on the calm night and telling Lightoller to wake him if the situation became doubtful. He turned in at 9.30; Lightoller instructed the two men in the crow's nest to keep a sharp lookout, relinquished his watch at 10 p.m., and also turned in.

In the light of the information that had reached him over the course of the day, Smith had had two options—to turn south or to slow down; he did neither. Ismay later denied that Smith had been trying to establish a record for crossing the Atlantic. It seems that Smith's years of experience had convinced him that the lookouts would be able to give ample warning. On clear nights the surf washing round bergs set up a phosphorescence which could be seen from a distance. On this night, however, the sea was calm and there was no moon. When the dark mass of a huge berg was sighted, it was only 500 yards ahead. Orders were immediately given to put the helm over, to go full speed astern, and to operate the switch which automatically closed the watertight doors deep within the ship. Within seconds, and before the Titanic had slowed, the collision with the berg forced open the plates along some 300 feet of the hull below the waterline, exposing three holds and two boiler rooms to the inrushing water, which rose faster than the pumps could handle. It soon surged over the bulkheads, and as more compartments flooded, the ship began to go down by the bows. The noise of the collision was clearly heard by the engineers and by some other people on the lower decks; the first-class passengers initially noticed the unaccustomed lack of vibration when the engines stopped.

Smith seems to have been uncertain of the extent of damage until he and Andrews toured the ship. Andrews convinced him that it was doomed. Shortly after midnight Smith gave the order to prepare the lifeboats. The radio operator was warned to stand by, but no radio distress signal was sent until 12.10 a.m. White distress rockets were fired, and these were sighted by the Californian, probably some 10 miles distant, but were ignored as the lookouts could see the Titanic's lights and did not take them as indicating difficulties. By this time the Californian's single radio operator had turned in. At 12.20 the order was given to swing out lifeboats; Smith ordered women and children to be put on board, and the first boat was lowered at 12.45. There was confusion, rather than panic; there had been no lifeboat drills, the seamen did not have designated boat stations, and there was no public announcement system, all orders having to be shouted against the increasing noise of steam blowing off. The closest vessel to respond to the radio distress calls, the liner Carpathia, was some 58 miles away and it took three and a half hours for her to forge through the ice to the point where the Titanic had been struck. Meanwhile stewards roused the passengers and instructed them to don life-jackets, and the women and children were directed to board the lifeboats. Many women were scared of the great drop from davits to sea, others refused to leave their husbands, while some considered the Titanic to be unsinkable and preferred to stay on board, especially as they could see the lights of the Californian, which they supposed would come to their aid. No signal was given to alert the third-class passengers, many of whom were foreign emigrants, and it was more difficult to rouse them and to get them to the boat deck, a part of the ship normally closed to them. At some stage Gatti's waiters were hustled into a cabin and the door locked; all were lost. In the event, the first boats away were carrying far fewer people than the sixty-five which they were rated for.

While the boats were being loaded, Phillips and Bride, the Marconi operators, continued to send the old CQD ('calling all ships') distress signal and also the new SOS signal which had superseded it in 1908 but was not yet in general use. They gave up only when Smith came into their cabin and told them to make their escape. Both men did leave the radio cabin but ran in different directions. Ismay was one of forty-five in the last lifeboat, claiming that there were no more women in sight. He later confided to a relative that he was encouraged to save himself in order to defend Smith. Another accusation concerned the survivors Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, fifth baronet, and his wife. It was alleged that she dissuaded the crew from returning to pick up survivors in the water, although there was plenty of room in their boat, but in fact there was a general reluctance among the lifeboat passengers to return to the swimmers lest too many attempt to climb aboard. Lightoller, Bride, and some of the stronger swimmers managed to climb onto one of the collapsible boats which had been swept into the sea upside down.

After a while the Titanic's stern began to emerge from the water, those left on the decks moving back to keep out of the advancing water. After some minutes poised vertically, she plunged into the depths at 2.20 a.m. on 15 April 1912, leaving some people afloat in life-jackets but carrying many more down with her. Smith undoubtedly went down with his ship. His body was not among those subsequently fished from the water, all of whom had life-jackets, which Smith had not been wearing. A witness who claimed to have seen him on deck in the final minutes, George A. Braden, stated:

I saw Captain Smith when I was in the water. He was standing on the deck all alone. Once he was swept down by a wave, but managed to get to his feet again. Then as the boat sank he was again knocked down by a wave and disappeared from view.

The Times, 20 April 1912, 10f

When the Carpathia reached the scene she picked up 703 survivors, of whom 493 were passengers, mostly from the first class, and 210 crew; many more bodies were recovered later by the cable ship Mackay Bennett, the majority being found to have died of hypothermia in the icy water. They were brought back to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and buried there. About 1500 persons perished (the exact figure is not known).

Among those saved were the suffragette Elsie Bowerman and Laurence Beesley, a schoolmaster, who was travelling second class and whose detailed account, The Loss of the RMS Titanic: its Story and its Lessons (1912), was considered one of the best survivors' reports. Those lost included Thomas Andrews of Harland and Wolff; John Jacob Astor, probably the richest man on board, closely followed by Benjamin Guggenheim; William Thomas Stead, the journalist; Christopher Head, mayor of Chelsea; Charles Williams, a sportsman; Thomas Pears of the soap family; F. D. Millet, painter; and Jacques Futrelle, novelist. Isidore Straus, a director of Macy's department store, and his wife, Ida, made the decision to remain on board together.

The Carpathia made for New York where a senate inquiry was held between 19 April and 25 May, before witnesses were released. Ismay said that the first he knew of ice was when he was awakened by the impact. He claimed that he and Smith had agreed that there was no need to speed as it was best to reach New York on Wednesday morning. Arthur Rostron, captain of the Carpathia, confirmed that the lifeboats were all new and that everyone had been wearing life-jackets. Lightoller—the most senior surviving officer—said that Smith had joined him on the bridge at 8.55 p.m. and said that if it became hazy they would have to slow down. Smith had left the bridge about 9.20. After the impact Lightoller saw Smith moving about the boat deck. He thought that he last saw Smith walking across the bridge.

The British Board of Trade inquiry, held under John Charles Bigham, Lord Mersey, president of the Wreck Commission, heard evidence from a wider range of experts, including the shipbuilders, and the seamens' union, the last alleging negligence in navigation. The Duff Gordons employed their own lawyer to defend their actions. In his report Lord Mersey remarked that it was irregular for Smith to have handed the first message to Ismay and improper for Ismay to have kept it, but these actions probably had no bearing on later events. Despite the second and third messages never reaching the bridge, Lord Mersey was satisfied that the master and his officers knew that they were in the region of ice; the master should have turned south or reduced speed—why did he do neither? Experience had shown that in clear weather it was acceptable to press on and keep a sharp lookout. There had been no previous disasters, and given the competition on the north Atlantic crossing, and the desire of passengers for a fast run, the practice continued. Captain Smith:

had not the experience which his own misfortune has afforded to those whom he has left behind, and he was only doing that which other skilled men would have done in the same position … He made a mistake, a very grievous mistake, but one in which, in the face of the practice and of past experience, negligence cannot be said to have had any part; and in the absence of negligence it is, in my opinion, impossible to fix Captain Smith with blame.

Formal Investigation, 261

The best outcome of the inquiry was the decision that in future all ships should carry lifeboats and rafts sufficient to accommodate all on board, and that regular lifeboat drills should be carried out.

Titanic, the afterlife

There has always been uncertainty over the sequence of actions on the fatal day, on which ships were in the area and might have heard the radio signals or seen distress rockets, and on how far the inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic were cover-ups. The subject continues to hold people's attention and has given rise to the British Titanic Society, the Titanic Historical Society, and Titanic International. Besides numerous books and, more recently, websites, the play The Berg (1929) and J. S. Parker's BBC radio play The Iceberg (1975), there have been several films based on the actual or similar events. The best-known among them are Titanic (1953), A Night to Remember (1958), and Titanic (1997). There was also a major exhibition in 1997 at the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia. In 1985 a US–French expedition under Robert Ballard of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Jean-Louis Michel of the French oceanographic institution IFREMER succeeded in locating the wreck at 3810 metres below the surface and in taking some photographs by means of remote-controlled underwater craft. In the following year Ballard made several descents in the Alvin, discovering that the bows of the ship lay at some distance from the remainder, with debris scattered over a wide area. No organic material remained and nothing was removed from the wreck. In 1987, however, a consortium of American investors employed IFREMER to retrieve some 900 artefacts from the site, the first of several such plunderings. In 1996 there was a failed attempt to raise a portion of the hull.

The Olympic sailed on, meeting her end in a breaker's yard in 1933. The Gigantic was modified, renamed, and launched as the Britannic in 1914; it was a brief existence, as she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and struck a mine in the Aegean Sea in 1916.

Apart from his schoolfriends, Smith was unknown in the Potteries and there was no desire to link his native town to the disaster. A portrait was hung in Etruria school in 1913, and later a small plaque was set up in Hanley town hall. He was eventually commemorated by a statue erected in Beacon Park, Lichfield, against the protestations of some of the town's residents; Lichfield was chosen because it was one of the chief towns of the county and the diocese of his birth. Sculptured by (Edith Agnes) Kathleen Scott, Lady Scott CVO (the widow of Robert Falcon Scott, whose heroic death at the South Pole occurred just over two weeks before the Titanic disaster), the statue was unveiled on 29 July 1914 by Smith's daughter, and curiously bore no mention of the Titanic. A stained-glass window was also installed in Liverpool Cathedral. By this time the drums of war were clearly audible and interest in the Titanic died down, only to be revived during the 1950s and commemorated by a large mural of Smith and the Titanic at the Potteries shopping precinct, Stoke-on-Trent. Immediately after the disaster, Eleanor Smith posted a black-edged notice outside the White Star offices. It read simply: 'May God be with us and comfort us all.' She attended the memorial services after the disaster but seems otherwise to have faded from public view. She was living in Kensington when she was knocked down by a taxi and suffered a fractured skull. She died in hospital on 28 April 1931.

The myth of the Titanic

From the day of the Titanic's sinking, myths began to accumulate round the event. The White Star Line's publicity leaflet of c.1910 for the Olympic and Titanic had not gone beyond the claim that 'as far as it is possible to do so, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable'; a later leaflet of 1911 described the watertight doors as 'practically making the vessel unsinkable'. Before long the qualifying adjectives were dropped and the Titanic became simply 'unsinkable'.

The certainty that men had stood back to allow 'women and children first' into the boats was part of the Edwardian code of manly behaviour expected of all British gentlemen. It was apparent that the American and indeed 'foreign' passengers and crew also displayed heroism. Apart from sailors who were a necessary part of the lifeboat crews, those few men who were saved such as Ismay and Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon later had to defend their actions, even though many of the boats pulled away with empty spaces.

It is unlikely that the musicians were playing 'Nearer my God to Thee' as the ship slid beneath the waves. There were two groups of musicians, a quintet led by Hartley and a trio who played outside one of the restaurants. Among their instruments were two pianos, two cellos, and a double bass. Apart from the impossibility of dragging these instruments and their stools up onto a sloping deck where their music could be heard from the lifeboats some distance below and away from the Titanic, there were at the time three tunes to which this hymn was sung. The musicians did in fact remain below (and all were lost), the two people who could still hear them being the Marconi operators. According to the survivor, Bride, they were playing 'Autumn', by which he may have meant the rag-time tune 'Songe d'automne', popular then in British dance-halls.

Five accounts circulated about how Captain Smith had died. In the final moment (when most of the remaining people were gathered at the stern, some distance from the bridge) he was said to have exhorted them to 'Be British'—which most were not. This action, and his exhortation, gave rise to numerous patriotic songs and verses. Another account had him swimming towards a lifeboat with a child in his arms which he then placed in the boat. As the passengers tried to pull him in he asked, 'What became of Murdoch?', his first officer, and on being told that Murdoch was dead, he let go and sank into the water. Another improbable account described him as shooting himself. More reliably, Lightoller and Braden, as mentioned above, both saw him on the bridge, where it seems likely that he was pulled down with the ship.


  • Formal investigation into the loss of the S.S. ‘Titanic’: evidence, appendices and index (1912)
  • Shipping casualties (loss of the steamship ‘Titanic’): report of a formal investigation into the circumstances attending the foundering on 15th April, 1912, of the British steamship ‘Titanic’, of Liverpool, after striking ice in or near latitude 41° 46'N, 50° 14'W, North Atlantic Ocean, whereby loss of life ensued, parliamentary command paper, cd 6352 (1912)
  • ‘Titanic’ disaster report of the Committee on Commerce US Senate pursuant to S. Res. 283 directing the Committee to investigate the causes leading to the wreck of the White Star liner ‘Titanic’, US senate report, no. 806, 62nd congress, 2nd session (1912)
  • R. Howells, The myth of the Titanic (1999)
  • D. A. Butler, ‘Unsinkable’: the full story (1998)
  • J. P. Eaton and C. A. Haas, Falling star: misadventures of White Star Line ships (1989)
  • R. Gardiner, The history of the White Star Line (2001)
  • B. J. Ticehurst, Titanic's memorials, worldwide (1996)
  • ‘Disaster at last befalls Capt. Smith’, New York Times (16 April 1912), 7, cols. 4–9
  • The Times (Sept 1911–1914) [many articles]
  • R. D. Ballard, The discovery of the ‘Titanic’ (1987)
  • West London and Kensington Gazette (1 May 1931), 5d
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.


  • E. Harrison and Son, photograph, 1912, Keele University Library, Warrillow Collection [see illus.]
  • K. Scott, bronze statue, 1914, Beacon Park, Lichfield, Staffordshire
  • photograph, Hanley town hall, Stoke-on-Trent
  • photographs, Mary Evans Picture Library, London

Wealth at Death

£3186 4s. 6d.: probate, 15 Nov 1912, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]