Captain Edward John Smith – the Grit of the Mercantile Marine
On Wednesday 29 July 1914 one of the most iconic, and much debated, statues was unveiled in a ceremony at the Museum Gardens in Lichfield’s Beacon Park. The statue was of the renowned captain of the ill-fated RMS Titanic, Captain Edward John Smith. The statue has since been the subject of much debate and discussion, as it is a long held theory that the statue was placed in Lichfield as the people of Smith’s home town, Hanley in Stoke on Trent, did not want the statue on home soil, as Smith was seen as someone who had brought shame on them and not honour. It was suggested that Lichfield agreed to accept the statue as there was no direct link with the captain and the city and that, over the years, Stoke on Trent City Council had made requests to Lichfield to have the statue relocated to Hanley. The ceremony to unveil the statue took place on the afternoon of July 29 1914, in front of a large crowd in the Museum Gardens. A temporary platform had been erected in front of the statue and the Mayor of Lichfield Councillor Robert Bridgeman (of Bridgeman and Sons on Quonians Lane) and the Sheriff, Councillor Thomas Baxter, represented the City Corporation. Dignitaries included Lord Charles Beresford, an admiral in the British Navy, the Duchess of Sutherland, Miss Helen Melville Smith (the daughter of the captain), Lady Diana Manners (later to become Lady Diana Cooper, the socialite and said to be the most beautiful woman in the world at the time), Colonel and Mrs Swinfen-Broun from Swinfen Hall. Also present was the sculptor of the statue, Lady Kathleen Scott, widow of Captain Robert Scott, leader of the doomed Antarctic Expedition group, who had all perished in 1912. Tributes were read out in praise of Captain Smith from Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, William Perrin the Bishop of Willesden, the Duchess of Sutherland and Lord Beresford before the Duchess of Sutherland asked Miss Smith to unveil the statue of her father. Lord Beresford said that he was ‘an example of the very best type of British seaman and British gentlemen. Never could they forget his heroism, pluck and devotion to duty’. The outbreak of World War One had just started one day before, on the 28 July 1914, and the world at that time had very little idea of the horrors that were to come over the next four years. Beresford said that they in the Royal Navy could count on men from the Mercantile Marine (who we know refer to as the Merchant Navy) like Captain Smith to help to defend their country and protect Britain. Sailors from the Royal Naval Reserve from Liverpool, where the Titanic sailed from on its maiden voyage, attended as well as buglers from the Army camp at Whittington Barracks who sounded the ‘Last Post’. The ceremony closed with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem and Miss Smith placed a large wreath of laurels and roses onto the statue. Visitors then attended a service at Lichfield Cathedral which included a rendition of the anthem ‘Send out Thy Light’ by Charles Gounod, performed by the Cathedral Choir. But what is the truth about why the statue is placed in Lichfield’s Beacon Park? Well, the reason is down to Location, Location, Location. The Diocese of Lichfield, the area under the control of the Bishop of Lichfield, was very large and was seen to be a central point between London and Liverpool, where the ship sailed from, and was also the diocese of Smith’s home town, Hanley in the city of Stoke on Trent. The statue has been in the Museum Gardens of Lichfield’s Beacon Park for well over a hundred years, it is the subject of much discussion and debate about why it is there but is now part of the heritage and history of the city – and long may it continue to be so. The statue of Captain Edward John Smith is one of the featured sculptures on the City of Lichfield Sculpture Trail, more details at: www.thecityofsculpture.co.uk/ Photos copyright: Jono’s Tourism, other than 1914 photograph, copyright not applied but courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.
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