Titanic’s captain was just a bloke from Stoke in the wrong place at the wrong time

I was lucky enough to be enjoying a tour of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery as staff were putting the finishing touches to its new Titanic exhibition.

As the centenary of the disaster approaches, bosses at the city centre venue are understandably hoping for an increase in visitors riding, if you will pardon the pun, on a wave of nostalgia for the ill-fated liner.

But what struck me most about the display was the way in which people were being asked to vote on who they thought was to blame for the demise of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic.

Pictures of some of the ship’s officers are pinned to the wall – along with details of their role in the doomed maiden voyage.

This is a novel approach to telling the Titanic story through the people whose actions (or lack of) contributed to a catastrophe which captured the imagination of the public in 1912 and which endures to this day.

Among the suspects is the skipper who is, of course, the sole reason why one of the most land-locked cities in England is staging an exhibition to mark this most horrific of maritime disasters.

Captain Edward John Smith, from Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, was given the plum job of sailing the White Star Line’s luxurious new ship from Southampton to New York.

When news of the liner’s fate first reached the UK, my predecessors at The Staffordshire Sentinel wrote in glowing terms about the man dubbed ‘The Millionaires’ Captain’ – so favoured was he by the great and the good.

Smith was described thus: “He is one of the most experienced commanders and his knowledge of the Atlantic and its moods and phases is perhaps unique”.

Our report of April 15, 1912 – the day after the Titanic struck an iceberg – went on to speak of him as “exceedingly popular with his officers” and admired for his “tact, firmness and professional skill”.

Sadly, I reckon our city’s relationship with Captain Smith and, indeed, with the Titanic will always be a uncomfortable one.

It should have been a voyage that went down in history as a feather in the cap of our city.

Instead it was the great ship itself which went down in the icy waters of the Atlantic – bringing ignominy to one of our most famous sons.

Despite various inquiries and new evidence unearthed since the wreck was discovered in 1985, many questions remain about an event which has been immortalised in poems, books and by Hollywood.

The bottom line is that, like it or not, Captain Smith, from Hanley, was in charge of the Titanic on the night it sank with the loss of 1,517 lives.

No attempt to apportion blame on outdated safety procedures, inadequate numbers of lifeboats, missing binoculars or various members of the crew can free our man from that heavy burden.

You cannot rewrite history and I, for one, am glad that Captain Smith’s statue is in Lichfield.

I can’t think of any reason why Stoke-on-Trent would want to commemorate this unfortunate man beyond the plaque tucked away in Hanley Town Hall.

Our connection to the Titanic is nothing to be proud of – rather it is a quirk of fate.

Captain Smith just happened to come from Hanley and just happened to be the top man on the Titanic when it sank.

He didn’t design the vessel. He didn’t build it and, despite various romantic stories, we don’t know for sure how he conducted himself during those final two hours after his ship struck an iceberg.

It would be a different story entirely if he had personally rescued third class passengers from below decks, carried a dozen children to safety or ensured better use was made of the pitiful number of lifeboats the Titanic had.

The fact is we just don’t know what happened to the man who was at the centre of this awful human tragedy.

As a city we understandably celebrate the fact that the man who designed the fighter plane which helped to turn the tide of the Second World War comes from our neck of the woods.

But Captain Smith of the Titanic is no Reginald Mitchell of Spitfire fame.

To my mind, he was simply a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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