Titanic: Captain Edward John Smith's legacy

Captain Smith was filmed inspecting the Olympic before it sailed

He is viewed as the stereotype of how a brave captain should act, working to the last to save lives before going down with his ship, yet he is also blamed by many for causing one of the worst maritime disasters of all time.

So why does the public continue to be fascinated by the captain of the Titanic, Captain Edward John Smith?

Born in the landlocked Potteries, in Stoke-on-Trent, the son of a pottery presser and grocer rose to become 'the millionaire's captain', the number one choice for the aristocrats of the day, many of whom chose to sail with him because of his reputation for safety and affability.

Rising through the Edwardian social classes could be seen as an achievement in itself but Smith went on to captain some of the biggest ships of the day, including Titanic's sister ship the Olympic.

In his home town an exhibition is currently taking place looking at the links between Stoke-on-Trent and the liner.

Captain Edward John Smith

Captain Edward John Smith onboard the Olympic. Photo: Getty Images
  • Born in Hanley, in the Potteries 27 January 1850
  • Attended Etruria British School
  • After school Smith worked for about three years at the Etruria Forge where he operated a steam hammer
  • In 1867 he went to Liverpool to go to sea and follow in the footsteps of his half-brother Joseph Hancock, a captain on a sailing ship
  • At the age of 25 he passed his master's certificate of competency meaning he could command a vessel
  • In 1887 he married Sarah Eleanor Pennington, a farmer's daughter
  • In 1898 only child Helen Melville Smith is born
  • Died 15 April 1912. Witnesses reported he dived into the sea as the bridge of the ship went under.

The exhibition at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery includes a number of items that belonged to Smith and rare video footage of him on board the Olympic.

Visitors are invited to read through the evidence about how the ship met its end before voting for who they think was responsible. The votes will be announced later this year.

Curator Cathy Shingler said: "So far the captain is a third ahead so he is still getting the blame.

"People are writing on the voting forms 'The ship's captain is responsible for his ship'.

"They think his actions were terrible and Stoke should be ashamed of him."

But she added they could not let the anniversary of the sinking pass without acknowledging the captain's links to the area.

Historian Ray Johnson, who is organising a weekend of exploration and entertainment on the anniversary of the sinking, said the captain was attracting "international interest".

"Whether you think he's to blame or not, you can't ignore it," he said.

Titanic websites allow people with an interest in the ill-fated liner to read about the ship. Many have sections and articles devoted to Smith and items linked to the captain frequently sell for thousands of pounds at auction.

Forceful sailor
Photograph which is thought to show a young Edward Smith in front of the Essex Smith went to Liverpool following in the footsteps of his half-brother

One of the books about him, Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith, was written by Gary Cooper.

Mr Cooper said his own interest in Smith came about not through any interest in the Titanic, but through an interest in the history of his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.

Among the many myths surrounding the captain, perhaps the most famous and ominous is that he ignored ice warnings.

Mr Cooper said: "Smith certainly did not ignore ice warnings per se, and he made sure the ones that reached the bridge were all posted in the chart room, though he did have to retrieve one that he had earlier handed to his boss J. Bruce Ismay.

"However, ice warnings were just that, simply warnings that ice was seen at X co-ordinates at a certain time which Smith may have registered rather than reacted to.

"Though Smith was undoubtedly a forceful sailor who pushed his ships hard in conditions that may have daunted other captains, it is a fact of history that providing the weather was calm and clear - as it was that night - it was not unusual for any captain to sail ships into ice regions at speed and several captains from other shipping companies testified to this at the disaster inquiries."

Evidence for another myth, that the captain shot himself, was "spurious", said Mr Cooper.

One story that was popular with the press at the time was that the maiden voyage of the Titanic was to be Smith's last before retirement.

Enigma factor

From humble beginnings

Neil Donner in front of 51 Well Street

Edward John Smith was born in Well Street, in Hanley, in 1850. There is some debate over which house he lived in because the houses in the street have been renumbered several times over the years and some houses were demolished to make way for a block of flats.

What is not in question is that he lived on Well Street and many believe the family resided at number 51.

Neil Donner bought the house 10 years ago as a rental property. He said part of the reason he bought it was because of the possible link to Captain Smith.

He said: "I wasn't interested (in the Titanic) more than anyone else but I was born in Stoke so it means a little bit more to me."

But he has decided to put the house, which is currently unoccupied, on the market.

"It seems like a good year to do it with the anniversary so I'm hoping there will be some interest," he said.

The building itself is a modest, two bedroom terraced house on a quiet residential street. It stands on a corner with views over green hills in the distance.

It is easy to imagine the young Edward Smith standing looking out at the same hills and perhaps wondering what was over them before he went away to sea.

Mr Cooper said: "This seems to have been wishful thinking on the part of the press, keen to gild the lily of the Titanic disaster with another irony.

"In fact on 10 April, five days before the sinking, White Star had scotched rumours of Smith's retirement by stating that he would continue as Titanic's commander until another bigger ship came online."

Mr Cooper said the enduring fascination people have with Smith could be down to several reasons.

"There is the reflected glamour of the voyage and its sad ending which obviously play a part, as it is unlikely that we today would have heard of him otherwise; the enigma factor perhaps comes into it too as Smith was the ship's commander but remains a largely unheard voice in the story and we are for the most part left to puzzle over his motives and thinking," he said.

He added: "The main reason for the fascination with him, though, I think, is that he lives up to a stereotype, perhaps one that he himself helped to create, as to how ships' captains should behave when disaster strikes, namely that they should stay with their vessel and either be the last man off, or go down with it."

Smith's actions were not far from the thoughts of many observers when the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground on 13 January off the western coast of Italy with more than 4,200 passengers and crew.

Its captain, Francesco Schettino, now faces possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning a ship in which 32 people were either killed or are missing.

Mr Cooper said: "It might be said that in many ways he taught us what not to do, which is something. Yet I also think he left a yardstick not only for sea captains to live up to but indeed any person in a position of authority.

"Smith made mistakes, it is true, but to the end he did not shirk his responsibilities or try to wheedle out of them and paid the ultimate price as a result. How many of our leaders today would be prepared to do the same?"

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