Smith attends the Etruria British School until the age of 13, when he leaves school for a job at the Etruria Forge. In 1867, at the age of 17, he goes to Liverpool in the footsteps of his half-brother Joseph Hancock, a captain on a sailing ship. He begins his apprenticeship on Senator Weber, owned by A. Gibson & Co. of Liverpool.
Smith joins the White Star Line in March 1880 as Fourth Officer on the SS Celtic. He serves aboard the company’s liners to Australia and New York City, where he quickly rises in status. In 1887, shortly after his marriage to Sarah Eleanor Pennington, he receives his first White Star command on the SS Republic.
Beginning in 1895, Smith serves as captain of the SS Majestic for nine years. When the Second Boer War starts in 1899, Majestic is called upon to transport troops to Cape Colony. Smith makes two trips to South Africa, both without incident. From 1904 on, Smith commands the White Star Line’s newest ships on their maiden voyages, including RMS Baltic, RMS Adriatic, RMS Olympic, and RMS Titanic.
The RMS Titanic is built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. On April 10, 1912, Smith boards RMS Titanic at 7:00 AM to prepare for a noon departure. It’s final point of departure on the Atlantic crossing is Queenstown (now Cobh), County Cork, on April 11, 1912.
The first four days of the voyage pass without incident, but shortly after 11:40 PM on April 14, Smith is informed by First Officer William McMaster Murdoch that the ship has just collided with an iceberg. It is soon apparent that the ship is seriously damaged with all of the first five watertight compartments having been breached. Smith, aware that there are not enough lifeboats for all of the passengers and crew, does everything in his power to prevent panic and assist in the evacuation. Just minutes before the ship sinks, Smith is still busy releasing Titanic‘s crew from their duties.
At 2:10 AM, Steward Edward Brown sees the captain approach with a megaphone in his hand. He is heard to say “Well boys, do your best for the women and children, and look out for yourselves.” He then watches as Captain Smith walks onto the bridge alone. This is the last reliable sighting of Smith. Ten minutes later the ship disappears beneath the waves. His body is never recovered.
A statue, sculpted by Kathleen Scott, wife of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, is unveiled in July 1914 at the western end of the Museum Gardens in Beacon Park, Lichfield. The pedestal is made from Cornish granite and the figure is bronze. Lichfield is chosen as the location for the monument because Smith was a Staffordshire man and Lichfield is the centre of the diocese.