The Death of Samuel Plimsoll
- 3rd June 1898 -
A common question/name in pub quizzes and a type of trainer, the name Plimsoll is relatively well known. Most would associate the name with ships but probably not a lot more than that. Samuel Plimsoll was to play a vital role in the rights and lives of sailors and was to devote much of his life towards providing them with better protection from wealthy shipping magnates.
Born in Colston’s Parade, Bristol on 10th February 1824 his family soon moved to Sheffield and then Cumbria and he left school early to become a clerk and then manager at Rawson’s Brewery. Like so many, he then moved to London as a coal merchant. This ended in disaster and he was left penniless and was forced to move into one of Lord Shaftesbury’s houses for working men. He began to empathise with the plight of the destitute and their struggle, both in terms of employment and living conditions. His life started an upward turn but his research into the coal trade made him more aware of the dangers to sailors and marine safety in general. By 1862 he had published two books outlining these dangers - especially the ships that were overloaded and unseaworthy.
Having stayed in one of Shaftesbury’s homes he became aware of the role he played in Parliament and how he influenced the particular passions he had. Thus he joined the Liberal Party and stood for Parliament. He was elected as M.P. for Derby in the 1868 election and set about raising the profile of marine safety.
In 1871 he fiercely objected to the Merchant Shipping Act that meant sailors were obliged to make a voyage once they had signed a contract, on fear of imprisonment or a large fine, regardless of the condition of the ship. This made it very hard for sailors to leave employment.
In 1873 he wrote another book, ‘Our Seamen’ giving documentary evidence of the problems and illustrating that over 1000 seamen drowned every year. A Royal Commission was established to investigate. The findings helped Plimsoll’s arguments and an amendment to the Act seemed inevitable. However, under pressure from wealthy ship owners, the Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, dropped any changes. Plimsoll was so angry that he called M.P.’s villains and shook his fist in the face of the speaker. He was asked to leave the chamber. Disraeli was persuaded to give Plimsoll a week to calm down before handing out a sanction for his behaviour. Plimsoll eventually apologised but by this stage he had public opinion on his side.
In March 1873 ‘The Times’ newspaper joined Plimsoll’s call for changes after 15 seamen were jailed for refusing to board the ship ‘Peru’. Eventually the ship left Cardiff with a new crew but sank in the Bay of Biscay drowning three of them. Lord Shaftesbury also became involved and in 1875 Disraeli changed his mind and supported the Unseaworthy Vessels Bill.
Fighting on further Plimsoll then got the government to amend the 1871 Act in 1876 forcing every owner to put a line on the side of every ship that would disappear if it was overloaded. This is still known as the ‘Plimsoll Line’ – the common pub quiz question. Not stopping here, a year later a further amendment imposed a weight limit on cargo and the accommodation provided for sailors on board. In 1873 he had a fully-rigged Merchant ship named after him built in the Aberdeen shipyard of Walter Hood and Co. for the Aberdeen White Star.
Plimsoll was re-elected as an M.P. in 1880 but stood down in favour of the Home Secretary, William Harcourt, whom he felt could best advance the cause of the sailor. He kept campaigning and in 1890 published a book, ‘Cattleships’ outlining the dangers and cruelties of cattle-shipping. He died 8 years later on 3rd June in Folkestone, Kent.
However, his legacy was to revive years later in the 1920s, when Plimsoll shoes, a type of trainer, were named after him. There is a similarity with the Plimsoll line on boats and if the water went above the rubber line on the shoe your feet would get wet.
Such a simple device, easily carried out, has led to much greater safety of seamen and the awareness of an issue that had been overlooked and ignored for centuries. Plimsoll is another in a long line of pioneers and campaigners who fought the establishment and the wealthy and, through sheer persistence and will, made a massive difference to the lives of so many.