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Hometown Scents Profits : Memory of Captain of the Titanic Refloated

Times Staff Writer

By all accounts, Edward John Smith wasn’t a bad sea captain, just a bit unlucky.

For nearly 30 years, Capt. Smith served on ships that were the pride of Britain’s White Star Line. Then, in 1912, with Smith on the verge of retirement, his last command, the “unsinkable” liner Titanic, hit an iceberg and he went down with his ship.

Not surprisingly, Capt. Smith’s reputation went down with him. After all, this was the worst peacetime sea disaster of all time; 1,513 lives were lost.

Local officials and historians here in the rolling hills of Staffordshire, the place Smith called home, treated his memory much as they would that of a failed relative--best ignored and discussed with reluctance on those occasions when, with ill grace, his name was brought up.

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But now, 73 years after Smith and the Titanic went down, the scent of profit is changing all this.

Name Easier to Salvage

Smith’s name, it seems, is proving to be a good deal easier to salvage than the ship he took to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Indeed, since last summer, when photos showed the Titanic lying nearly intact on the ocean floor in the north Atlantic, the luckless captain has become a kind of cause celebre in the place that had rejected him.

The principal reason for his rehabilitation is money. Local officials believe that the powerful aura of the Titanic, now enhanced by the recent photos, is certain to attract tourists curious to know more about her captain.

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A local brewer has already come up with “Titanic Ale,” the label of which carries the bearded captain’s profile. “They say it goes down better with ice,” City Councilman Ted Smith said with a wink.

The councilman, whose responsibilities include the promotion of tourism, is spearheading a drive to place a statue of his seafaring namesake near the site of a national garden show planned for next year.

Last month, he persuaded the council to ask the nearby town of Lichfield to give up its monument to the captain, a 7-foot-8-inch bronze statue that has stood almost unnoticed in a local park since 1914.

Statue Was Spurned

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Officials of Stoke-on-Trent refused at that time to accept the statue of Capt. Smith, a native son whose principal claim to fame was that he had gone down with the Titanic.

“Last month’s council vote removed a mental block this city has had for 72 years,” said Councilman Smith, who claims no relationship to the captain. “We can’t disinvent the fact he was born in our city. We want to get our statue back.”

Predictably, Lichfield’s chief executive officer, John Thompson, has raised questions about Stoke-on-Trent’s claim to the statue. He thinks it highly unlikely that the Lichfield council will agree to give it up.

All this makes for a dramatic turnaround. For years, the Lichfield monument to Smith made no reference to the Titanic. It described the confident, jaunty-looking figure gazing out across the flower beds as a worthy example of “a great heart, a brave life and a heroic death.”

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‘Capt. RMS Titanic’

The few locals who were aware that Smith had commanded the Titanic were those with enough knowledge of town history to know, too, of the 1914 protest against accepting the statue. At the time, there were townspeople who feared that its presence would degrade the park’s other bronze figure--of King Edward VII. But last year the words “Capt. RMS Titanic” were chiseled into the stone of the Smith monument.

The local tourist information office has any number of leaflets dealing with local points of interest but little material on Capt. Smith. This is blamed on public apathy.

In Lichfield, as in Stoke-on-Trent, people are suddenly becoming aware of Smith’s value as a tourist attraction.

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“We should have more tourists than we do,” Thompson, the chief executive officer, said. “We think Capt. Smith can help.”

To justify the new interest, Smith’s image is being spruced up. British and U.S. investigations that blamed him for the disaster are rarely mentioned.

Councilman Smith describes the captain as a brave, noble man forced onto a reckless course by the ship’s owner, who, he says, was eager to impress wealthy, influential passengers with a transatlantic speed record.

Mystery of His Last Hours

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The full truth about how Capt. Smith performed in his last hours is not known. He has been described variously as drunk, asleep, stoic, brave, calm, heroic. The most complimentary account has him passing a child into a lifeboat, refusing to leave the ship.

According to the record, the captain had had a string of bad luck. The previous September he had been in command of the liner Olympic when it collided with a navy ship off Southampton; an investigation found the navy ship to be at fault. Then, as the Titanic was preparing to leave Southhampton on her maiden--and last--voyage, she was almost hit by the liner New York when a mooring line parted.

When the Titanic was going down, Smith is reported to have told the people still on board, “Remain calm, be British.” His words struck a sympathetic chord among his countrymen, and they are inscribed on the Lichfield monument. They appear, too, on a modest brass plate at an administrative sub-center in Stoke-on-Trent.

There is little doubt now that Capt. Smith’s hometown plans to revive him as a hero. Officials say that if they are not able to get back the Lichfield statue, they will commission a statue of their own, one that will depict the captain in greater splendor.

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“We’ll dress him as a commodore,” Councilman Smith said, “not as a captain, as he is in Lichfield.”


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