Today is Samuel Plimsoll‘s birthday. Born on February 10, 1824, Plimsoll, a British politician and social reformer fought for reasonable loading of cargo ships, which lead the adoption of the first modern loadline, which became known as the Plimsoll mark or Line. In his book, Our seamen : an appeal, (available for free in various Archive.org), he pointed out that close to 1,000 sailors a year were being drowned on ships around British shores, often due to poor maintenance and overloading. In 1876, through Plimsoll’s efforts, the Merchant Shipping Act was amended to provide for marking of a line on a ship’s sides which would disappear below the water line if the ship was overloaded. A further amendment in 1877 imposed a limit on the weight of cargo which vessels were permitted to carry and created rules governing the engagement of seamen and their accommodation on board ship.
Sam Plimsoll sounds like a fascinating character. He was a friend to sailors, miners and beer drinkers. In addition to his tireless labor for the safety of sailors, he was also involved in mine safety. Early in his career he had been the manager of a brewery and is credited with finding a new way of straining impurities from beer. Nicolette Jones wrote a critically acclaimed biography of Plimsoll, The Plimsoll Sensation, which was published in 2006. From a review in the Guardian:
He was born in Bristol, moved to Sheffield, soon grew extreme facial hair, became friendly with Giuseppe Garibaldi and Richard Cobden and, by this account, enjoyed nothing more than extending his reputation as a bit of a stirrer. He liked to point out the iniquity of traffic and railway bylaws, but his big thing was social injustice and the callous pursuit of profit with disregard for human misery. He lived at a time when industrial progress was still largely unchecked by labour laws; speed and productivity dominated in the drive for the competitive edge in global trade and the expansion of Empire…
Unlike many other Victorians with comparable reformist zeal, Plimsoll, a low-church Anglican and one-time brewery manager, was not a teetotaller. Jones attempts to show that he was even quite fun, although you probably had to be there.
His big mission was inspired by several major accidents at sea and the fear he perceived from most sailors before a voyage. Cargo ships setting sail in the 1860s were very likely to be unseaworthy, both badly maintained and overloaded. If these ‘coffin ships’ sank, their over-insured owners usually cashed in at Lloyd’s. Plimsoll rallied for regular enforced inspections and, in 1870, encouraged by his first wife, Eliza, seized upon an idea proposed by shipowner James Hall. The idea soon became his ticket to posterity: a level of maximum submergence.
Recently a new memorial plaque was unveiled in Kent where Plimsoll is buried. While in recent times, his memory and indeed his grave site were almost lost, he was highly regarded in his own time. As noted by the BBC:
...For many years Plimsoll Day on 10 February was celebrated in various parts of the UK, while 15 towns have streets named after him..
The Plimsoll Line symbol later became the inspiration for the London Underground sign…
There are memorial statues of Plimsoll on Victoria Embankment in London and in Bristol, while a plaque marks one of the houses where he lived in Folkestone, in Augusta Gardens.
Thanks to Brian Frissel for contributing to this post.