Titanic Captain, by Gary Cooper

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Titanic Captain, by Gary Cooper

Postby Dave Gittins » Wed Jun 13, 2012 9:58 am


Gary Cooper has been researching the life of Edward John Smith since 1987 and has published his work in the past. This book, published in 2011, presents his latest thoughts.

The book is based on the Titanic inquiries, documents, personal letters, logbooks, newspapers and other sources. Some of the material will be familiar to experts but much is relatively obscure, including some of the numerous illustrations. The resulting picture of Captain Smith’s life is probably the most complete we are likely to see and is very creditable to the author.

The book gets off to a rather dry start, with details of Captain Smith’s ancestry and information about the industrial area in which he grew up. We are given a general idea of the type of schooling he received and even meet him in the rough and tumble of the schoolyard. On leaving school Smith worked briefly as a steam hammer operator, but the sea was calling.

The book picks up speed when Smith goes to sea as a ‘ship’s boy’ on Senator Weber, under the command of his half-brother, Captain Joseph Hancock. We see Smith surviving the perils of land and sea and deciding to become a professional seaman. We follow his progression through the Board of Trade examination system, culminating in him obtaining his extra master’s certificate (at his second attempt). Smith’s rise to command in sail and his move to steam are covered well, culminating in his command of Titanic. By then he had established a reputation as a hard driver of ships and was known in some circles as the Storm King.

The many aspects of a captain’s life are covered well. Smith deals with troublesome crews, howling storms and even some suicidal passengers. On the lighter side, he plays a nautical Cupid to a pair of lovers. Cooper has managed to unearth some private comments on his work that contrast with his dutiful public statements for the benefit of White Star.

The author takes pains to keep Captain Smith and Titanic in perspective. Prior to the disaster, neither was particularly famous and Smith was not a household name.

An interesting point is that Cooper has been unable to trace the original source of Smith’s famous remarks on the safety of ships, made in New York in 1907. However, via an obscure New Zealand newspaper, he has been able to prove they were in fact made in 1907 and are not a later invention.

Smith’s part in Titanic’s voyage is covered in detail. Cooper draws on the two Titanic inquiries, supplemented by other sources. He allows himself a little speculation on Smith’s thinking during the sinking, though he is careful, as elsewhere, to distinguish established facts from possibilities and likelihoods.

The aftermath of the sinking is covered in some detail, especially the tale of the circus surrounding the erection of Smith’s statue in Lichfield. We then are given an account the last years of Smith’s widow, Sarah Eleanor, and his daughter, Helen Melville Smith. The book ends with the end of Smith’s line for the captain has no living descendant.

The book is not faultless. When Cooper ventures beyond biography he makes a number of errors, most of which should never have been made, given the material widely available. One of the more obvious is his confusion between weight (displacement) and Gross Registered Tonnage. I have my doubts about the dimensions of some of the ships mentioned, but in the absence of Lloyd’s Register I cannot check them. He commits the beginner’s sin of equating minutes of longitude with nautical miles. His explanation of spontaneous combustion in coal is frankly silly. If the photo on page 21 of the picture section shows the White Star dock, why is it occupied by Cunard liners?

Give the vile standard of modern proof reading, it is no surprise to see the author let down. Notable examples include the chapter heading ‘Momento Mori’ and some fickle Americans who are expatriates on one page and ex-patriots on another. Captain Smith’s mother, we are told, was born in 180.

To end on a positive note, the book is properly referenced and indexed and there is a long bibliography. It would benefit from expert correcting and stringent proof reading.
Dave Gittins
Author of Titanic: Monument and Warning
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Dave Gittins
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Re: Titanic Captain, by Gary Cooper

Postby samhalpern » Wed Jun 13, 2012 4:43 pm

Thanks for posting this very detailed and objective review Dave. I found it to be very helpful. I agree with your comment about the vile standard of modern proofreading. From my own experience, I find that someone other than the author must be depended upon to proof a manuscript. My eyes may see one thing, but the brain sees something quite different. Hopefully, many of those errors will be fixed in later printings of Gary's book, as will those technical errors you spotted.
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