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Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith

Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith

by G. J. Cooper

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The definitive account of the life and career of the respected and popular captain of the Titanic includes original research drawing on the ship's logs, crew lists, newspapers, and first-hand accounts
 Commander Edward John Smith's career had been a remarkable example of how a man from a humble background could get far in the world, and


The definitive account of the life and career of the respected and popular captain of the Titanic includes original research drawing on the ship's logs, crew lists, newspapers, and first-hand accounts
 Commander Edward John Smith's career had been a remarkable example of how a man from a humble background could get far in the world, and this biography tracks the fascinating career and many voyages of a seasoned captain. Born to a working-class family, he went to sea at the age of 17 and rose rapidly through the ranks of the merchant navy, serving first in sailing vessels and later in the new steamships of the White Star Line. By 1912, he was their senior commander and regarded by many in the shipping world as the "millionaire's captain." In 1912, Smith was given command of the new RMS Titanic for her maiden voyage, but what should have been among the crowning moments of his long career at sea turned rapidly into a nightmare following the Titanic's collision with an iceberg. In a matter of hours the supposedly unsinkable ship sank, taking more than 1,500 people with her, including Captain Smith. This account dispels myths about the man and tracking his movements and motives in detail on that fateful night.

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The History Press
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Titanic Captain

The Life Of Edward John Smith

By G.J. Cooper

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 G.J. Cooper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6777-1



Hanley in North Staffordshire, where Edward John Smith, the future captain of the Titanic, was born in 1850 was one of six towns that by the time of his birth were known collectively as the Potteries. Only two centuries before, the district had not existed. Hanley and its near neighbours, Tunstall, Burslem, Stoke, Fenton and Longton, had still been a group of small moorland farming settlements, but the heavy upland soil and higher than average rainfall made for poor farming and circumstances had obliged the inhabitants to indulge in supplementary crafts to make ends meet. The local abundance of clay and coal had made pottery-making the natural choice in this respect and over time the locals had earned a reputation for the production of a wide range of domestic wares and pottery storage jars that were sold at the larger county markets. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution during the eighteenth century, these village crafts rapidly blossomed into full-blown industries and the small settlements had grown as people flooded into the area looking for work. So successful had the subsequent rise of the area been, that by the middle of the eighteenth century the six towns of the Potteries supplied the bulk of the pottery used in Britain and by the beginning of the nineteenth century the area was well on the way to dominating the world's ceramic market.

Success, though, had come at a heavy price. As photographs of the Potteries in the nineteenth century reveal, 100 years of industry had produced a grim urban landscape and visitors to the area met with an interesting, if rather apocalyptic scene. When a German traveller, Johann Georg Kohl, first saw the district in about 1843, he was put in mind of an embattled line of fortifications. On approaching the Potteries from Newcastle-under-Lyme, the first thing he noticed was the thick cloud of smoke that spread out over the region. This poured from hundreds of factory chimneys and bottle ovens – the distinctively shaped pottery kilns of the region – of which dozens were often gathered close together looking, Kohl noted, 'like colossal bomb-mortars' in the distance. The conical slag heaps of the local collieries, the high roofs of the drying-houses and warehouses and the thick walls that enclosed the factories, along with the piles of clay, coal, flint, bones, cinders and other matters lying scattered about, served only to strengthen the illusion. Nor did the Potteries diminish in interest as he passed its borders. In the sooty cobbled streets between the great factories, or pot banks as they are known locally, he spotted the small terraced houses of the workers, the shopkeepers, the painters, the engravers, the colourmen, and others, while here and there the intervals were filled up by churches and chapels, or by the grander houses of those who had grown rich as a result of the pottery industry.

Sprawled across the south-western slope of a gently rising hill, Hanley lay roughly in the centre of the Potteries conurbation. With a population of just over 25,000 people in 1851, it was the largest of the six towns. Like its neighbours, its inhabitants were largely employed in the pottery industry or down the local pits. The bulk of the town's pot banks, though, were situated away from the town centre and Hanley had developed into the commercial heart of the region. Perhaps because of this, even today Hanley town centre – now the city centre of Stoke-on-Trent – still largely retains its eighteenth-century street plan, relatively unaltered by later developments; its winding streets, scattered squares and 'banks' forming an 'archipelago of island sites', as the Victoria History has described the seemingly random knot of buildings at its core. The majority of the old village buildings had been demolished before E.J. Smith was born and had been replaced with much more imposing structures. A small, stone-built covered meat market – now the Tontines – was built in 1831, while a new town hall complete with columns and a classical pediment was erected in Fountain Square in 1845. Until the late 1840s, Market Square had been dominated by a large coaching inn, the old Swan Inn, but this too had been demolished and replaced with a new market hall which opened in 1849. This market was the grandest structure of all, with an impressive stone façade three storeys high with balustrades and a row of ornamental stone vases set above a row of tall shop windows. These shops were probably the first of Hanley's more ambitious shop fronts, 'far above the standard of everything else in the Pottery district', and they quickly became the focal point of the town.

Houses were being built too, hundreds of them. A sudden influx of newcomers into the town in the late 1840s and 1850s – not only pottery workers, but also new workers for Lord Granville's collieries – had caused serious overcrowding in the available housing in the lower part of town and in Shelton. This had created further problems with serious outbreaks of disease that caused much death and misery. In response, new housing sprang up in previously underpopulated areas, such as Northwood, Far Green and Birches Head. Another major development, and one more pertinent to our story, occurred to the east of the main town, where what became the Wellington estate started to expand from Well Street where Captain Smith was born, down over the other side of the hill across previously untouched farmers' fields.

Well Street

Just as the older buildings were giving way to grander structures, so too were the colloquial street names of yesteryear being exchanged for more glorious titles. As the name of the new Wellington estate implied, many of its streets would be named after famous men or events associated with the Napoleonic Wars – Wellington Road, Nelson Place, Picton Street, Waterloo Street and Eagle Street. The names of the older streets, though, situated on the edge of the old village were more parochial in style and Well Street was one of these. It predated the new estate and was so named because it was the site of, or was situated near to, two old wells. One of these, the Woodwall well, had been the main source of water for the entire town in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the 1840s, it was accessed via a street pump from which the local housewives drew water for their household needs and a water cart run by a 'higgler' filled up. This higgler then drove his cart around the town selling his water for ½d a bucketful. Today it seems primitive, but at the time it was a valuable and useful trade, for in the early years of the nineteenth century piped water was still a rarity and often of an inferior quality to this natural spring water. Because of this, the Woodwall well and other natural springs were still regularly used as late as the 1840s and even though the supply of water had grown limited due to the flow being diverted on many of its underground streams, there are indications that it may still have been used by people in the neighbouring streets as late as the 1850s. Even today these ancient springs still flow, though the waters of the Woodwall well now run through a conduit that empties into the nearby Caldon Canal.

Well Street also still exists, but like the wells it was named for it is not what it once was. In the not so distant past the street was much longer and like nearby Charles Street, reached up to Bucknall New Road. In the 1960s, the upper part of the street was demolished and the space given over to the construction of a series of maisonettes and blocks of flats. What remained also survived the construction of the modern bypass known as the Potteries Way, the building of which, in the 1980s, removed several old streets from the map. Modern houses have replaced the old Victorian houses down one side of what remains of Well Street. Down the other side there still exists a row of old Victorian terraced houses that run down the bank from number 51, to the Rising Sun pub at the junction with Waterloo Street. In these we may fancy that we catch a glimpse of what Well Street once looked like, but only in late Victorian times, for it seems that most of these houses did not exist until after 1891 and although a Rising Sun pub had been on the site for years, the present building did not appear until 1886.

To see Well Street how it was prior to this, we need an old map and a little imagination. The map is extant. Produced in 1865, the large-scale map of the Potteries, surveyed by Captain E.R. James RE, clearly shows the layout of the upper part of the Wellington housing estate that year. It was probably a typical street of the locality and the period, with a simple dirt track, or a cambered cobbled road with blue brick pavements. The upper part of Well Street was given over to the terraced houses that Kohl had noted on his peregrination, the monotony of which was broken by the occasional shops that were simply houses converted by their owners. Most of the terraced houses in Hanley were built back-to-back with small yards to each, containing ash pits and privies. The houses were built of brick with tiled roofs and most had only four rooms. The ground floor was paved with bricks or quarries, there was a front parlour and behind it a living room with a cooking range and possibly a boiler for washing clothes in, while the upper storey had two bedrooms.

Of course, the conditions inside each home varied with the wealth, social background and disposition of the occupants. One visitor to the area noted some workers' houses, the windows of which were decked with flowers in pots that would put London parlours to shame. These pots were often placed on mahogany chests of drawers which were themselves clear indications of some small wealth. On the other hand, an article in the Morning Chronicle spoke of grimy parlours containing wretched sofas, all rickety boards and dirty calico that served as beds for some members of the family. An official report into the state of large towns in the region noted that though small and gloomy, the houses locally were not deficient in ventilation, but the inhabitants being for the most part engaged in warm manufactries were mortally afraid of cold air and the illnesses it might engender and blocked most of the vents and gaps.

The lower half of Well Street, though, would have come as a pleasant surprise to anyone expecting a continuation of these typical working-class dwellings. Clearly marked on James' map, three quarters of the way down the now steeply inclined bank and set back from the road, was a large property of quality fronted by an ornamental garden. This was 'The Cottage', a large house owned by George Fourdrinier, a local paper manufacturer who had made his fortune producing paper transfers for the pottery industry. The quality of his establishment can be gauged from the details in the sales advertisement for the property carried in the first copy of the Staffordshire Sentinel of 7 January 1854, following Mr Fourdrinier's retirement to Rugeley just prior to his death. There were dining rooms, a drawing room, a breakfast room, four bedrooms, a kitchen and school rooms. Included in the household goods up for sale over the four days 16 to 19 January 1854 were: a mahogany bagatelle board, a pair of globes, a solar lamp, a magnificent fourteen-day Parisian timepiece, an eight-light chandelier, a six and a half-octave pianoforte by Collard and Collard, a collection of oil paintings by eminent masters, 100 volumes of books and electroplated tea and coffee sets. The list moved on to more mundane items, but also listed a six-year-old carriage horse (16½ hands) and a 'useful bay horse'. These could be harnessed into either the 'Capital, well-built four wheel Dog Cart' or the 'handsome Barouche, with turn over back seat, in good condition.'

For the people of Well Street, the main benefit provided by The Cottage would have been the large ornamental garden in front of it, its numerous trees and bushes adding a splash of colour to the soot-stained bricks and cobbles of the neighbouring houses. These gardens stood on land now occupied by the remaining terraced houses of Well Street. The garden is clearly depicted on James' 1865 map, showing that The Cottage was still occupied years later and proving that many if not all the houses there today are later additions.

The presence of such a high-class house also alters somewhat the perception of Well Street as the largely working-class street that it later became. We are instead looking at an area in transition, if The Cottage predated most of the surrounding terraces. After all, prior to the start of construction of the Wellington estate, Well Street was on the rural edge of the village, the perfect place for a rich manufacturer to make his home. The construction of the Wellington estate began in the 1830s and the church of St Luke's, which on James' map can be seen just to the east of The Cottage, was not built until 1853–54. Fields to the west of Well Street, where Gilman Street now stands, plus others further to the east, support this idea. Also many of the back yards to those houses down the western side of Well Street even appear to have had trees in them. So, though not perhaps a rural idyll, Well Street was on the other hand not a blighted urban slum. Nature still had its place. It seems to have been a good spot to settle and raise a family.

The Smith Family

One couple that did just that were Captain Smith's grandparents, Edward and Elizabeth Smith, who arrived in Hanley in the early years of the nineteenth century. For the next sixty or perhaps seventy years, three generations of their family lived there, raising their children and, in the case of E.J. Smith's branch of the family, rising in social status. Edward Smith first appears in Well Street as an apparently humble working-class tenant, but when the last of the family finally quit the street and the Potteries in the late 1870s, they were lease holders on at least two properties.

A little is known about the life of Edward Smith senior. He was the son of Edward Smith and Jane Blakemore who had married in Bradley, near Stafford, on 27 December 1760. They seem to have had a number of children, their son Edward being born on 16 April 1775 and baptised at St Mary's Church, Stafford, on 21 May that year. Twenty-three years later on 10 September 1798, at Ranton parish church, the younger Edward married twenty-year-old Elizabeth 'Betty' Tams, the daughter of John and Catherine Tams from the village of Salt. The couple may have settled locally at first, but by the early 1800s, drawn perhaps by the promise of better wages and greater opportunities, they had moved north to the Potteries where they settled in Well Street. Here, Edward started working as a potter.

In 1807, the first appearance of the name Edward Smith can be found amongst hundreds of other mundane entries in the 1807–08 Hanley Rate Book. There are no street names or house numbers given in this large red tome and the most that can be gleaned from the book is that one Edward Smith occupied property No. 4375, owned by a certain William Tambs; the rate on the house was 2s 4d. As there are no remaining rate books for the years 1808–62, it is impossible to trace this particular Edward Smith any further. However, in 1818 an early trade directory of the Staffordshire Potteries was published, which proved to be more informative. In the section covering Hanley, we find the following entry: 'Smith, Edward, potter, 8 Well Street, Old Hall Street.' The presence five doors away of Samuel Sneyd, grocer at number 3 Well Street, indicates that this was indeed Captain Smith's grandfather. Mr Sneyd and Edward Smith's family were in the same houses relative to one another, at the time of the 1841 census.

Between 1807 and 1822, at least seven children were born in Hanley whose parents were named Edward and Elizabeth Smith. The eldest of these, Edward, was baptised on 10 May 1807, while Mary Ann (or Mary Anne) is listed as being baptised twice, on either 10 or 28 May 1809. One Thomas Smith was baptised on 30 October 1814, Jane on 11 September 1816, William on 1 June 1818, and Phyllis was baptised on 16 September 1821. All of these children had been christened at St John's, the town's Anglican church, but the last child, George, was baptised at the Charles Street Wesleyan Chapel. His details are more complete; he was born on 28 October 1822 and baptised on 1 December 1822. Although the double entry for Mary Ann Smith raises some questions, the chances are very good that this is a full list of Edward and Elizabeth Smith's children. There is supporting evidence that Edward and George, the eldest and the youngest, were related, as they were both still living with their mother in 1841 when the census was taken. We also know that Jane Smith was their sister, as Edward would be a witness at her wedding and her daughter was lodging with his family in 1861.


Excerpted from Titanic Captain by G.J. Cooper. Copyright © 2011 G.J. Cooper. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

G. J. Cooper has worked as a typewriter mechanic, a museum illustrator, a supply teacher and now a museum presentations’ assistant. He also has a Masters degree in Victorian Studies.

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