Captain of the Titanic - Edward J Smith
One of the most frequently debated issues concerning the fate of RMS Titanic is whether or not the Captain, EJ Smith, was at fault for steering the ship into an ice field whilst travelling too fast for the conditions. Subsequent inquiries into the tragedy absolved the captain of any blame but history has tended to paint a less favourable picture of EJ. Could he have acted more quickly? Should he have steered a safer course through the ice? Was he really in command of the vessel as White Star’s flagship officer or was he a figurehead, mixing with the rich and famous and looking towards retirement?
All the above questions seem unfair when the Titanic’s captain
has never been able to defend himself in any forum of debate. He can hardly be put on trial for the manslaughter of fifteen hundred souls when he cannot outline his own defence. So who exactly was this man on whom so many unanswered questions hinge?
The Career of Captain Edward J Smith
Edward J (Ted) Smith was born in the Staffordshire Potteries town of Hanley, now part of Stoke on Trent. He was not an academic child and rather than follow his father into the pottery industry, he chose a life at sea. From the age of 13 he served an apprenticeship with Gibson and Company at Liverpool. He joined White Star’s junior officer ranks in 1880 and was given his first command of a vessel seven years later. History records early mishaps involving White Star ships, Republic and Coptic, both of which he ran aground in New York harbour and Rio de Janeiro respectively. After a spell as a Commander during the Boer War, he returned to White Star duties, taking charge of the Majestic, Baltic and Adriatic. When Titanic’s sister ship, RMS Olympic began her service in the summer of 1911, EJ was again in command.
Last Voyage before Retirement
There is some debate as to whether Titanic was scheduled to be Captain Smith’s last voyage before retirement. Some accounts record that he would have been expected to take charge of the Britannic, Titanic’s younger sister when she came into service. Others argue that at 62, he had served his time and Titanic was to be the pinnacle of his career before returning to family life in Southampton. White Star records do not produce any answers but neither do they shed any light on who would succeed Captain Smith at the helm of Titanic if he were to retire.
The Captain E J Smith Onboard the Titanic
Opinions are also varied on Captain Smith’s performance as chief officer during Titanic’s maiden voyage. There is little doubt that part of a captain’s role on board a flagship liner would be to entertain the more rich and famous of her passengers in the hope of repeat business. On the night of the collision, EJ was dining at a party given by the Wideners, the Philadelphia family closely connected with the bank which had financed Titanic. Also present were John B. Thayer and Mrs Thayer, also of Philadelphia, Major Archibald Butt who was an aide to US President Taft, Clarence Moore a friend of Archie Butt and William Carter and his wife Lucile Carter, also from Pennsylvania. After dinner, Captain Smith returned to the bridge to check in with his officer of the watch. While it may seem that EJ was hobnobbing with the rich and famous, he was legally responsible for the ship no matter which of his officers was in charge at any given moment, and it seems unlikely that such an experienced captain would simply have stood back and “coasted” his way across the Atlantic.
Where he comes in for most criticism in the history books is in the length of time he took to take stock of the dire situation once the collision had occurred and to give the order to uncover the lifeboats and abandon ship. During that time, he was waiting for a fuller assessment of the damage to the ship from chief designer and Harland and Wolff managing director, Thomas Andrews. While his control and command over the evacuation procedure does not appear to be seemless, is that the fault of the Captain, or of the procedures themselves which were not well rehearsed or familiar to either passengers or crew?
The Last Sightings
Last sightings of Captain Smith in the final moments of Titanic’s life portray him as swimming over to place a baby in a lifeboat or standing nobly at the bridge, prepared to do his duty and go down with the ship. This is the iconic image which has remained of Edward Smith. He has been portrayed in film by Laurence Naismith, George C Scott and Bernard Hill.
There are two principal memorials to Captain Edward J Smith. The first is a brass plaque which is now housed in Hanley Town Hall along with his portrait. A statue of him was also put up in the South Staffordshire city of Lichfield, about 40 miles from his birthplace. He had one daughter, Helen Melville, known as Mel. She died in 1973.