I never knew my great, great uncle, but many of you have seen his death portrayed in several films and some of you might even remember his name. But the person you see is an actor, not the man himself.
My great, great uncle was Edward John Smith, Captain of the White Star Line RMS Titanic. I’ve known I’m related to him for as long as I can remember, but who was he and what he really like? I’ve been endeavouring to find out more.
My great, great Uncle: Captain Edward John Smith.
Many people are aware of the story of RMS Titanic, a cruise liner which sank off the east coast of Canada on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in April 1912. The Captain went down with his ship, although accounts vary as to what he did prior to the ship finally disappearing beneath the cold, unforgiving waves of the North Atlantic. But what shaped the man who died that day?
To find out more we need to begin at the beginning and also look at the family traits which have passed down to his descendants today. Last year I was interviewed several times about my famous relative and whilst doing some background reading I was fascinated to find out that his first job after leaving school at thirteen was operating a steam hammer. A steam hammer was a piece of machinery designed to help in the process of forging engineering components and I’m struck by the fact that Edward chose this as his first job.
His direct relation to me, my great-grandmother, had a son who spent World War II rebuilding aircraft engines and then taught woodwork and metalwork in a Secondary School. His son, my father, spent his life working as a fitter, making parts to repair and maintain the giant machines which make plastic bottles either by blowing plastic into a mould or by pressing out the shape.
Women work on an aircraft engine, during WWII; a role which my grandfather also undertook.
The driveway next to our house when I was growing up was filled with cars which came and went as my father worked on them, either for himself or for other people. My brother, he’s a sound engineer and a musician who is very good at what he does . As for me, I work as an archaeologist and have a particular interest in post-medieval archaeology and how machinery of the period worked. Are these occupations nature or nurture?
To be honest, I’m not really sure. But we all seem to have displayed an innate sense of how ‘something’ fits together in the right order. I was asked several times during the various interviews what I thought about Edward John Smith.
What was my perspective on what he would have done once he was roused from his cabin behind the wheelhouse to be told ‘his’ ship had hit an iceberg. Drawing on what I know of his relatives I can imagine that he understood from an engineering perspective what had gone wrong, and that ‘Titanic’ would not be able to stay afloat indefinitely.
His Great Nephew, my grandfather, died in 2009 and from what I saw of his bravery – some of which I have already written about previously – I imagine he was everything that was expected of him, and given the person he’s been portrayed as, probably something more. The boy with the steam hammer certainly left an impression on the world.
A plaque commemorates Captain Edward John Smith.