Today is the anniversary of the birth of Samuel Plimsoll. Many people would think of plimsolls, the lightweight shoes we used to wear to do games at school; however Samuel gave his name to something much more important than that, something which saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of sailors…
Most people know what a plimsoll line is, that mark on ships to show how safely a ship can be loaded; I guess many of those people who do know what it is rarely think of its importance. Before it was a legal requirement, thousands upon thousands of seamen lost their lives through ships sinking because of over-loading. It was the deaths and the dangers faced by poor seamen which led to the law being passed in
Samuel, who was born on February 10th 1824, had experienced poverty and hardship himself. He had been born in Bristol but the family moved to Sheffield. At one point in his life he was virtually destitute, so he really understood the struggles and difficulties of the poor. He saw that many people suffered through injustice and the money-making greed of others; the seamen who risked their lives going to see in over-laden, over-insured ships and boats were particularly vulnerable as the sea is a dangerous place for things to go wrong.Nearly 1,000 merchant seamen were drowned each year on ships around the British coast through the greed of ship owners who overloaded their ships and over-insured them too.
In 1867, Plimsoll was elected MP for Derby; he struggled for years to pass a bill dealing with the safe load line on ships; however he had powerful and rich opponents in ship-owning members of Parliament and five years after his election he published ‘Our Seamen’. The success of this allowed on Plimsoll’s motion a Royal Commission to be appointed in 1873, and in 1875 a government bill was introduced. The bill didn’t go as far as Plimsoll wanted and then to his disgust the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli announced it would be dropped. Infuriated, Plimsoll raged at the MPs sitting in the House of Commons and called them villains, as indeed they were. Plimsoll made an apology, but his passion and the justice of his cause brought the whole sorry business to light.
In 1876, the bill was passed which became the Merchant Shipping Act in 1877. The Board of Trade had stringent powers of inspection of ships and shipping; countless lives were saved by Plimsoll’s determination and courage to see through this simple safety measure and he became known as the Sailor’s Friend.
He moved to Folkestone and died in 1898.