Captain E.J. Smith - White Star Line

But his position as Captain was not to last for long as Smith was eyeing something even better. On January 31, 1880, he saw the White Star Line’s Britannic in Liverpool and promptly arranged a tour. Five times larger than the Lizzie Fennell, Britannic was 5004 tons and 455 feet long. It was a twin funnel steamship, with 4 masts and single screw propulsion.

The White Star Line's S.S. Britannic, 5004 tons and 455 feet long
that inspired a young Captain Smith to switch from sail to steam,
despite dropping in rank from Captain to Fourth Officer. (Click to enlarge)

In 1876 it received the Blue Riband, both westbound and eastbound, by averaging almost 16 knots. This was clearly the future of transatlantic travel and impressed Smith enough to prompt him to drop his command and join the White Star Line a few months later in March 1880. According to Smith's White Star document "Record of Service in Company" he officially joined the company on the 1st of March 1880.

This move to another line meant that he had to drop back dramatically from Captain to Fourth Officer, in this case aboard the White Star Line's Celtic, at 3867 tons and 437 feet in length, an immigrant ship under the leadership of Captain Benjamin Gleadell. He is listed as Fourth Officer from 1 March 1880 until July 1880. Then rejoining the same ship from July 1880 until February 1882, now promoted to Third Officer.


SS Coptic (State Library of Queensland/John Oxley Library)

Captain Benjamin Gleadell of the Celtic, Smith's first
White Star Line ship which he served aboard as Fourth
and Third Officer.

On February 6th 1882 he was promoted to Second Officer and was moved to the Coptic, between March 1882 and March 1884. The Coptic was the sister ship to the SS Arabic. Some references, such as Wikipedia, state that "her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York on 16 November 1881 [was] under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith" - but that is not possible as firstly he was aboard the Celtic at this time and was in the role of Third and then Second Officer. It is highly unlikely that he would have jumped to commanding a maiden voyage from such a rank, even if indeed he was aboard the ship for her maiden voyage. If he was aboard for the maiden voyage he would have faced extra drama - on the return voyage, a hurricane stove in several of her lifeboats and drowned two seamen who were swept overboard. Smith did later command the Coptic for a single voyage between December 1889 and January 1890, which is perhaps the origin of the confusion.

Smith was then to return to the ship that inspired him to join the White Star Line in the first place - the Britannic, with 15 transatlantic voyages as Second Officer, starting in March of 1884. He became Chief Officer of the S.S. Republic on the 20th of July 1885, and aboard this ship in April, 1887 he was temporarily in command, a taste of things to come. However, shortly thereafter, on the 20th of August 1887 he returned, according to White Star records, Chief Officer aboard the Britannic.

The S.S. Republic, bound west, in 1886, by T.Howard. Smith was Chief Officer and briefly in command of the Republic in 1885. (Click to enlarge)

Smith was already forming memorable friendships with passengers, as revealed in the case of Eric W. Carlson, from Sweden. According to a 2020 The Express newspaper article on his life, Carlson first met Smith aboard the Republic (although it may have been the Britannic if he was 11 years old) on his way to America. Whether Smith was actually captain at the time is also unclear:

Eric W. Carlson was born in Sweden in 1872, and came to America at age 11. He traveled on a ship called the Republic, and there were some choppy seas. During the two weeks it took to arrive, there were several storms, but Carlson later said that the captain was very competent, and made all the passengers feel better, including himself.

Carlson knew the captain of the Titanic, E.J. Smith. Smith was the same man who had been in charge of the Republic, the ship that had brought him from Sweden. When the Titanic went down, Carlson gave an interview to the local newspaper. He opened his front door, which definitely had room for two people to float on it, and walked across the street to the offices of the Clinton Republican. And he talked about how he’d gotten to know Captain Smith, at age 11. “Captain Smith was very friendly with even the most humble of his passengers and gave many of them kindly advice,” reported the article. “Several severe storms were encountered. Passengers on one occasion became greatly alarmed, but Captain Smith’s presence below deck has a reassuring effect.”

This was the man Carlson remembered fondly. He indicated that he respected Captain Smith, and they’d even exchanged a few letters later on, over the years.(The Express, October 30, 2020)


In the year that Smith became temporary captain of the Republic, there was also another important moment in his life, as on Thursday 13th January 1887, Smith married Sarah Eleanor Pennington (1861–1931) at the parish church, Winwick, Lancashire.

Preferring to be called Eleanor, she was 26 years old, the daughter of William Pennington, a farmer, while her Ted or Teddy as she sometimes called him was about ten years older, aged 37.

They soon moved to Liverpool and within a couple of years were living at 39 Cambridge Road in Seaforth. The house still exists today and according to a Liverpool Echo newspaper article in 2012 is still "boasting many features from the late 1800s" including "a mahogany toilet seat" in the hall that "belonged to Captain Edward John Smith."

Ted and Eleanor's first house (on the left) still exists in Seaforth,
just north of Liverpool.