On 29 July 1914 a statue was unveiled in the Museum Grounds of Beacon Park which started over 100 years of debate as to why it stands in a Lichfield park rather than 30 miles away in a town of Stoke on Trent – the statue of Captain Edward John Smith of the ill-fated RMS Titanic…
In the early hours of 15 April 1912 the RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg just a few hours away from reaching the coast of the United States of America on her maiden, and ultimately final, voyage from Southampton to New York City.
Tragically over 1,500 of the 2,200 passengers and crew lost their lives, mainly due to a series of miscaculations, lack of life-boats, poor organisation and, probably, an arrogant view held by the ship builders that an accident of such a scale could never happen to a vessel described as ‘unsinkable’ (although it was later stated that this term was never applied to the Titanic prior to it setting sail, but only after its disastrous demise). The commander of the ship, Captain Edward John Smith, went down with the ship, refusing to leave it, along with a number of his senior officers and crew.
Just over two years later, in July 1914, a large crowd gathered in the Museum Grounds (now Gardens) of Lichfield’s Beacon Park to witness the official unveiling of a statue dedicated to the memory of Edward Smith. Smith had no link to Lichfield and had never, to anyone’s knowledge, even visited the city prior to his untimely death – so why was Lichfield chosen as the location of the statue installed in his memory?
Edward John Smith was born in January 1850 in Hanley, one of the towns that make up Stoke on Trent, to his parents Edward and Catherine. After leaving school he joined the Merchant Navy and then the Royal Navy Reserve. He joined the prestigious White Star Line shipping company in 1880, moving swiftly up the ranks, and becoming their Commodore (senior ship’s captain) in 1904. Smith had married Sarah Eleanor Pennington in 1887 and they had one child, Sarah Melville, the family living in Highfield, Southampton, where the majority of the Whie Star Line ships sailed from, although the company offices were in Liverpool.
In 1913, a year after the disaster, a memorial tablet for Smith had been placed in the Town Hall in his hometown of Hanley and Smith’s widow, Eleanor, had written a letter to the editor of the Staffordshire Sentinel newspaper thanking the people of Hanley for their generous contributions to the public fund to pay for the construction, and placement, of the memorial.
A similar fund was raised for a statue of Smith to be sculpted and, during this fund raising, a committee was put in place to select a location for the placement of the statue. The natural location for Smith’s statue was surely Hanley, his home town? If not, perhaps Southampton, his home at the time of the tragedy and the port from where the ships set sail? Or, if not there, perhaps Liverpool, home to the head office of the Titanic’s White Star Line and the original port where many of their ships sailed from? But no, none of these suitable locations were selected but instead a ‘rank outsider’ in the betting stakes proved to be the statue’s chosen resting place…Lichfield…
Two primary explanations exist for the selection of Lichfield: Firstly that the people of Hanley did not want a statue of a person who had been vilified in the local and national press as the man who oversaw one of the greatest naval disasters in Britian’s history and that they were embarrassed to have Smith associated with the town’s name. Secondly that Lichfield was selected as it stood at a conveniently central location between London, the capital, and Liverpool, where the afore-mentioned head offices of the White Star Line stood. Part of Lichfield’s notable history and heritage was due to location and the fact that it was such a well- known, and used, coaching city during the 18th century as travellers made the journey from London to the Liverpool docks. This theory was backed up the fact that Stoke on Trent itself was within the boundaries of the Lichfield Diocese, one of the largest, and most significant, dioceses in the country.
The plaque that stands just before the statue in the Museum Gardens states that the location was the primary reason for Lichfield being chosen, although several Lichfeldian historians and scholars have disputed this, claiming that this was a distraction to disguise the real reason. However, if the people of Hanely had rejected their town as a location out of shame – why had they contributed to a fund to place a memorial tablet in their own Town Hall just 12 months previously in 1913 and without, seeemingly, any protests or objections? Had the press’s backlash against Smith hardened their attitude towards him, in just a few months between the memorial tablet and the provision of the statue?
In June 1914 a committee meeting of Lichfield City Council was held in the Guildhall and a petition, signed by many notable businessmen and key Lichfeldians, was presented. The petitioners did not feel that Lichfield was a suitable place for the statue and suggested that it was an inappropriate location for someone who was associated with North, and not South, Satffordshire. The committee agreed not to progress the recommendation of the petition as the unveiling of the statue was just a matter of weeks away by then and that it had become ‘fait accompli’. During the discussions about the petition it was stated in the minutes that Lichfield had been chosen as the site of the statue as it was much more accessible than Hanley, or similar locations, in North Staffordshire. The public fund raising for the statue had taken place in the previous.months and the meeting to discuss its progress had been held in Lichfield, with the fund raising monies placed in an account at the National and Provincial Bank on the junction of Bird Street and what is now The Friary road (the building is now the Brewhouse and Kitchen bar and restaurant) which would suggest that Lichfield had been the proposed location from the start of the project.
Whatever the reason behind the selection of Lichfield, the unveiling finally took place on July 29 1914. The dedication service was conducted by the Right Revd William Willcox Perrin, Bishop of Willesden, and in the prescence of Captain Smith’s daughter, Miss Helen Melville Smith, who officially unveiled it. Among the large attendance was the Mayor of Lichfield, Councillor Robert Bridgeman, the acclaimed stonemason and wood carver, from Quonians Lane off Dam Street, and whose company placed the statue on its resting place. After the ceremony buglers from the Lichfield Barracks at Whittington sounded the Last Post.
The statue was constructed from bronze, with a plinth made of Cornish granite and stands nearly 8 feet high. The artist who sculpted it was Lady Kathleen Scott, widow of Captain Robert Scott, a victim of yet another ill-fated excursion, who lost his life while attempting to become the first man to reach the South Pole in Antarctica. The fact that two such tragic figures are entwined in one statue is one that definitely tugs at the heart strings. The plaque that is set in to the statue provides a dedication to Captain Smith and includes the phrase that is said to be the final words that he uttered to his crew before the ship finally capsized – ‘Be British’ – although there is no evidence to support this as those close enough around him to have heard him say those iconic and patriotic words would, almost certainly, have perished too.
The debate about why the statue stands in the Museum Gardens in Lichfield has continued for over a hundred years and will probably continue for some time to come. In recent years Stoke on Trent Council has made requests to Lichfield District Council to have the statue relocated to North Staffordshire, most notably in 2014 on the 100th anniversary of the unveiling. Lichfield has, quite rightly, resisted the overtures from Stoke on Trent to date and this statue of a noble and honourable Staffordshire man continues to gaze across the beautiful Museum Gardens looking towards the majestic spires of Lichfield Cathedral…and long may he continue to do so….
BE BRITISH…Rest in Peace Captain Edward John Smith
1 August 2020
Source: The British Newspaper Archive
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