Updated from original post 21st Sept 2011

My husband Peter had called at the Southampton Pilots’ Office on a professional matter. On his return, he looked a little stunned. He said he’d just been shown the DockMaster’s Log Book for 1912. The entries relating to Capt Smith and the Titanic were so extraordinary, he wondered what I’d make of it.

Titanic’s name was enough to stop me in my tracks, but in an original document? I couldn’t wait to see it.

As an historical novelist I love old documents. They have provided inspiration, explained characters and consolidated plot-lines. Viewing on screen is okay if there’s no other choice – but seeing the handwriting, touching the pages – somehow it takes you back in time.

Captain Edward John Smith

Edward John Smith (1850 – 1912), captain of the White Star liner ‘Olympic’, 9th June 1911. He later became captain of the ill-fated ‘Titanic’. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

When the office manager, Ron Hancock, opened that old Log Book, recording ships entering and leaving the Port of Southampton, it was a special moment. Ships Inward were entered on the left-hand page, and Outward on the right.

On the Outwards page, we saw the entries for April 10th, with Titanic logged out at noon, her captain’s name, Smith, and her destination, New York.

It was enough to prompt a shiver, knowing what was to come.

But then Ron Hancock turned the pages back 11 days to March 30th. On the Inwards page, we saw Captain Smith logged into Southampton from New York, aboard Olympic, at 6 am.

Barely a break between ships, and yet Titanic was about to set forth on her maiden voyage. It seemed odd.

It would have been standard practice for Smith to have been in Belfast for a couple of weeks beforehand, getting to know the new ship as she completed her fitting-out. So why had he remained aboard the sister-ship, Olympic, right up to taking over Titanic?

With that question still hanging, Ron Hancock turned the pages forward again, and pointed to another entry for Captain Smith. ‘So what do you make of that?’

Less than five days after bringing Olympic in from New York – just after midnight on April 4th – Captain Smith was once again entering the Port of Southampton, but from Belfast this time, aboard Titanic.

2 Titanic arriving 4 April - CopyTimes and dates were accurate – had to be – the Dock Master’s Log Book was an official document. But at first glance it seemed barely possible, so we worked out Captain Smith’s movements over that 11 day period.

  1. March 30th 1912 –  Olympic – Capt Smith arrives in Southampton from New York
  2. April 4th 1912 – Titanic – Capt Smith arrives in Southampton from Belfast
  3. April 10th 1912 – Titanic – Capt Smith departs Southampton for New York…

Arriving from New York aboard Olympic – for most of the previous 24 hours, coming up the busy Channel, he would have been up and about. With the boarding of the Southampton pilot off the Isle of Wight, he’d have remained on the bridge until the ship was safely berthed at 6 in the morning.

With port formalities complete, he must have disembarked around 8 o’clock to take the boat train up to London, and then crossed the city to Euston for an afternoon train to Liverpool.  A long day’s journey followed by the overnight ferry to Belfast.

Meanwhile – as I discovered later – for some weeks beforehand, Captain Herbert Haddock had been standing by the completion of Titanic in Belfast. Haddock had to have made the opposite journey to Smith, in order to get to Southampton to sail as Master of the Olympic on April 3rd.

Smith was no doubt relieved that bad weather prevented him from taking Titanic out on sea-trials on April 1st. He had just one free day to inspect the new ship, check certificates, and speak to engineers, architects and deck officers who’d been standing by during the latter stages of Titanic’s fitting-out.

On April 2nd 1912, Titanic was leaving Belfast Lough on sea-trials. And by 6 pm the new ship was signed off by the Board of Trade. But – as I discovered later – poor weather and lack of time meant the new ship was never officially handed over from Harland and Wolff to the owners, White Star.  Nor did Titanic make the customary visit to Liverpool, her port of registry.

So Capt Smith’s name did not appear on any official papers – a fact which has given rise to much speculation about who actually delivered the ship to Southampton. But as we saw in the Dockmaster’s Log Book, Smith did make the voyage, arriving in Southampton an hour after midnight on April 4th.

Just six days later he would be sailing for New York.

Six days off, taking a well-earned rest? Highly unlikely. There was still much to do. Inspections which started in Belfast would have continued as a matter of necessity. Titanic was a new ship, yet White Star was so short of time after a winter of delays, her fitting out was still being completed in Southampton.

As any shipmaster will testify, there are a thousand and one things to be overseen, checked out, and signed off before a new ship sets forth on her maiden voyage. The stress factor must have been phenomenal. And although Smith’s age – 62 – is not old by today’s standards, we can safely add at least 10 years to get an idea of the reality in 1912.

Two questions leapt to mind in the Pilots’ Office that day: Should Captain Smith have been taking that ship to sea in those circumstances? And was he fit to do so?

Impossible to say for sure – but we had a third question to ask: What part did White Star play in all this?

As the ship’s Master, Capt Smith was indeed responsible for Titanic’s loss. There’s no question of that. But viewed from the modern day perspective, there is also the matter of corporate responsibility. It seemed to us that for whatever reason, Captain Smith was being pushed beyond reasonable expectation.

The DockMaster’s Log Book was not generally known about. Before Ron Hancock came across it, it had lain undisturbed for years. The information it contained – the pressures it revealed – had not reached the Titanic experts and enthusiasts, never mind the general public.

So the conclusions drawn by other people had nothing to do with the information here.  It was one of those flash-bulb moments. Here was a story demanding to be told. And there had to be more to it…

Despite the pressures and the questionable circumstances, the one thing we all were certain of was this – whatever his character, Captain Smith was a highly experienced professional.

I felt an immediate connection to this man – a deep sense of pity, but more than that, a desire to put this new information in context.

Like many Merchant Navy wives I spent a lot of time at sea with my husband – voyages of several months’ duration. Looking back to Olympic, and the winter Captain Smith had spent crossing the North Atlantic, I felt the chill in earnest. As I know from experience, the weather out there can be appalling – and not just in winter.

Such moments of startling insight are notorious for sending authors down some tortuous paths. But I knew I had to write something about Captain Smith – and I had to do some proper research.

Needing a quick fix first, I trawled the internet. Many articles were excellent, especially about the White Star ships. But I found it sad – and infuriating at times – that so many online commentators were keen to pass judgement on Captain Smith without understanding the first thing about his profession.  Like their view of Titanic, they were seeing him in isolation, in five short days of a career which had spanned some 45 years.

The more I discovered, the more ominous the picture became. Once I had taken into account the Hawke/Olympic incident six months previously, the consequences for Titanic began to loom very large indeed.

And yet no one seemed to be connecting up the dots – they were viewing that maiden voyage in isolation, and not in the context of the time.  A time when shipwrecks were distressingly common, when navigational aids were limited to charts, sextants and the human eye – and wireless was a recent innovation.

This story was becoming more and more pressing. It was as though I had Capt Smith at my shoulder, nudging me, saying, ‘Go on – write it down. You can put the human element into this. You can explain events that cannot be understood by facts alone…’

The Master's TaleAnd so began The Master’s Tale, my novel about the Titanic, and the life of Captain Smith.