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Transcript of The Plimsoll Sensation podcast
Carol White: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Merseyside Maritime Museum. I’m Carol White and I work for Learning. Just like to extend a very warm welcome to award winning author, Nicolette Jones, author of the ‘Plimsoll Sensation’. You might recognise it as it was the Radio 4 book of the week, the winner of the Mountbatten Maritime Prize (fabulous prize) and the international division winner of the us maritime literature award. Is that correct? You don’t want to listen to me so I’ll hand over to Nicolette. Thank you.
Nicolette Jones: Thank you every much [applause]. Well ladies and gentlemen, welcome! Welcome and thank you very much for coming. I’m most honoured to be invited to come and talk at the Merseyside Maritime Museum and slightly daunted because I have the feeling that anybody who comes here must be an expert in maritime matters. I have to confess that my principle qualification for writing this book is that I live on Plimsoll Road. When I moved into Plimsoll Road in north London, about 13 years ago now I knew very little about Samuel Plimsoll except that he was the man who gave his name to the Plimsoll mark or line that marked the limit of maximum submergence on the side of a merchant ship. The point up to which is could safely sit in the water. But here in fact, let’s have a look at the mark [shows image on projection screen]. Here’s Plimsoll on his hand on that very mark. It is a posthumous portrait by a Scottish academician called Reginald Henry Campbell who also, apparently, turned his hand to advertisements for Ovaltine.
But it wasn’t quite such an esteemed image as this that triggered my enthusiasm for the subject. I have to confess it was a pub sign. A few doors down from us there was a pub called The Plimsoll and in the middle of the sign there was what looked like a trainer or a baseball boot stuck in the sign â€“ think it was meant to be a plimsoll. And around the edge you could see there was a bit of sea and some horizon. And when the pub changed name and the sign disappeared, on a rather bizarre impulse I went and bought it. And as you can see it’s not a thing of beauty. It is now in my back garden and we with the trainer stripped off, and it had the Plimsoll mark with the different loading levels â€“ tropical fresh, fresh, summer, winter, winter North Atlantic, and Samuel Plimsoll’s name and dates, 1824-1898. It was this unprepossessing object with its scrap of information set me on years of obsessive research, which led me to get to know stroppy, unstuffy, dauntless, empathetic Sam, who wept on windy nights â€“ especially like the one you had yesterday - at the thought of sailors out in the storm. It led me to the story of his great whistle blowing fight for justice, which it seemed to me has contemporary resonances today when safety at sea is still an issue, and when, not necessarily at sea, lives are still sometimes sacrificed for profit.
it turned out that the simple measure of a deep load line, had taken decades to implement, and it was opposed by ship owners and ship owning MPs who wanted at the very best really to avoid the red tape, but at worst to load cargo ships as deeply as they liked in order make as much profit as possible, no matter how many sailors’ lives were jeopardised. And in fact loading could be very deep indeed. One sailor’s widow reported in 1871 to an enquiry after her husband’s ship went down, that when she said her last farewell on her husband’s ship, she stepped up from the deck to a rowing boat that lay alongside.
But the arguments against a load line included the need to keep up with foreign competition â€“ which of course we never hear when there’s this kind of conflict between people wanting to make profit anymore - and even, bizarrely, the notion that if you legislated it would encourage ship owners to not be responsible, or to at least take away responsibility which is a bit like saying that if you have a law against burglary it will make people more likely to steal.
And there was alleged to be a worse malpractice even than dangerous overloading which was an insurance scam, by which rotten ships were bought up and repainted or renamed and often over insured and often sent out to their lucrative doom, and the ship owners could pocket the profits if the ships went down. These ships were known as coffin ships and Lord Shaftesbury, Plimsoll’s great friend and social reformer, called this “one of the most terrible, the most diabolical systems that ever desolated mankind’.
Apparently some 500 sailors were drowned unnecessarily every year, and in 1871 a Board of Trade report said that 856 ships went down within 10 miles of the British coast in conditions that were no worse than a strong breeze. Clearly ships were setting sail that should never have set sail and a cycle of avarice and neglect was on the increase.
Matters were further complicated by the fact that if sailors who signed on for a ship, and when they saw it thought it wasn’t fit to sail, they could be sent to prison for three months which many endured rather than risking their lives. In one instance the owners had to scrabble around for a crew until they found one composed entirely of boys under the age17, and they all perished when the ship sank.
[shows image on projection screen]. This obviously is a cartoon of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner of a ship owner dicing with death for the lives of sailors. And what it actually says in the caption is, “the phantom barque made never a sound and the crew were casting dice. ‘Let the crew be drowned for the sun is round’, said he, ‘and it’s worth the price’”.
It took more than 20 years of agitation to bring about Plimsoll’s package of safety measures, including the load line and the compulsory inspection of ships for seaworthiness, and during that time there was a decade of intense nationwide activism which made Plimsoll a national hero and a household name.
[shows image on projection screen] This engraving is called 'The Fate of a Rotten Ship'.
Now, I like to think that the Plimsoll line should be regarded as a commemoration not just of Samuel Plimsoll, but of his wife Eliza Plimsoll, whose idea it was originally that he should initiate his campaign for the defence of sailors, and who was definitely dedicated to the cause as he was. She for instance, proposed the sale of their stately home when they were besieged by libel suites from angry ship owners. By all accounts she was beautiful and good, and loved her husband with a passion. By Victorian standards the family was small: after seven years of marriage Eliza gave birth to a daughter who died four hours later, of ‘imperfect respiration’ according to the death certificate. And they never had another child between them, but they adopted a great niece, Nellie, and having only the one child to look after gave Eliza the time to be a support to her husband and the campaign, a fact that Plimsoll acknowledged in his speeches, and which was also recognised by working men and by sailors in Sheffield and also, on the 16th August 1876, at the North Western Hotel in Liverpool where a special presentation was made to Eliza after which Sam and Eliza went for a tour of the Eagle which was a ship then in the harbour. There the working men had raised money for a testimonial - Â£500, a significant amount of money, which they wanted to give to Sam and Eliza. And they said buy a lifeboat with it instead which they did. And there was a little bit of money left over which they made a little silver model of a lifeboat which they presented to Eliza which she said, Sam speaking for her, that she would appreciate more than any other table decoration because there was a real lifeboat that might be saving real lives. But it’s interesting that we only know this because Sam said so, and although people recognised and appreciated her, the press never asked her any questions herself, such was the climate of the time, so her voice and thoughts are known only as reported by others which was sad.
So how did Samuel and Eliza come to befriend the sailors? Plimsoll was a landlubber, and there were those who made fun of his lack of nautical experience: a spoof of his writing in Punch magazine in later life had him refer to the Cinque Port of Newport Pagnell, with its gay harbours thronged with sailors, and put into his mouth fake nautical expressions like ‘avast heaving’. He was in fact a coal merchant, and eventually an MP with a landlocked constituency, Derby.
He was born in Bristol, one of 12 children of an excise man, born into a dissenting Congregationalist family who had a great tradition of good works and social justice: his grandparents were said to have invited the poor in off the street to dine. His basic education came from a staymaker’s wife in Cumbria after which he moved to Sheffield at the age of 14 then his father died, as the eldest child still living at home, he was responsible for his mother and 5 younger children living in four small rooms. He said at that point he understood what it was to struggle to make ends meet and he knew the price of bread, and this was one of the things that gave him an empathy, he said, with the working class.
He went to evening and early morning classes to educate himself at the People’s College in Sheffield and he worked briefly in a brewery and then as a lawyer’s clerk. In fact here [shows image on projection screen], in this daguerreotype he is about 21, when he was thought to be charismatic as a speaker in the local Liberal Club â€“ I think he’s quite handsome underneath all the whiskers â€“ a surprising image. Then he followed his coal merchant brother to London to make his career there. He wasn’t entirely successful â€“ he was briefly bankrupt â€“ but ultimately he made his fortune, partly because he had a habit of inventing things and on this occasion he invented a sloping grill for unloading coal that filtered out the worthless dust at the bottom of the sack; his coal was therefore better value than most. It made his business very successful in a very short time. He did a great deal to raise money for mining disasters, and was he known as the miner’s friend long before he was the sailor’s friend.
[shows image on projection screen] Here, still standing, just, is the Plimsoll Viaduct, which he built behind King’s Cross for unloading the coal, particularly from the south Yorkshire coalfields. It’s under threat from developers, and it’s the last building from his lifetime â€“ his monuments are posthumous - and I may have to go and lie down on it when the bulldozers arrive, so if anyone wants to come with me I’d quite like some company [laughter]. I’d be very, very sorry if it’s got to go.
Later Plimsoll claimed that he and Eliza had an epiphany on a beach at Redcar, when after a great storm in which other ships went down; Samuel was on a ship that came through the storm. But then on the beach surrounded by widows of men who hadn’t made it, in their gratitude for his survival he and his wife pledged themselves to the protection of sailors for the rest of their lives.
[shows image on projection screen] By this point Plimsoll was a millionaire and he decided to stand for parliament, partly he claimed for the protection of sailors. He had rather extreme sideburns. That’s him, bowling “underhand” to the Tory opposition in a cartoon in the satirical Derby Ram. They were opposed to Plimsoll â€“ they were Conservative â€“ and he ball says ‘teetotal’ on it. He wasn’t in fact teetotal - in fact he worked in a brewery and quite liked a glass of wine himself and always thought that sailors deserved a drink when they came on shore, but they put it about that he was a teetotaller. So we can see a glass of water at one end of the wicket and something more interesting at this end. Anyway it was a way of making him unpopular with the electorate, as was this also from and the Derby Ram. It’s a picture of him as the Grim Ogre of Whitelie Woode â€“ his stately home near Sheffield was called Whiteley Wood but was renamed by the paper. He is saying ‘Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the votes of a working man. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll climb into Parliament over his head’.
He was not elected in 1865, but he stood again in 1868, after the 1867 Reform Act had increased the franchise in a way that favoured the Liberals. He entered Gladstone’s government with other self-made men, like this chap, [shows image on projection screen] Anthony Mundella, who was a half-Italian hosier from Nottingham who was also known as a social reformer later, whom Plimsoll regarded as a friend. Interestingly, behind his back, Mundella never had a good word to say about Plimsoll. In his writings he says of Plimsoll’s maiden speech in the House, which was a defence of trade unions, that ‘he talked rot’. And I think, when I look at this picture what sly-eyes he has, and I think if Plimsoll had looked at him a bit more closely he would have known he wasn’t to be trusted. I think it’s interesting that this man turned out to be one thing to Plimsoll’s face and another thing behind his back. He actually tried to get him into trouble with Gladstone, unsuccessfully, on a subsequent occasion.
But Plimsoll took time to make his mark as an MP. His first Bill was not a success. He proposed the introduction of stone foot warmers for passengers in chilly second and third class railway carriages which were obviously unheated. Not only was it not carried in the House of Commons but he was also reprimanded for wasting the House’s time, but no doubt by MPs accustomed to travelling in first class which was significantly warmer.
I think he was a rebel still looking for a cause but then he met this man [shows image on projection screen] James Hall, a Tyneside ship owner, who had been promoting the idea of a load line for years. In fact, to put the record straight, he was not the only ship owner who supported the measure. Hall’s tales of the plight of the shipping industry prompted Plimsoll, to Hall’s delight, to take his cause into the House of Commons. Later some claimed that Plimsoll stole the credit for the load line from James Hall and that it should not have been known as the Plimsoll mark at all â€“ it should have been known as the Hall Mark which would have been a bit confusing. But it’s true that Plimsoll was not the inventor of the load line and he was, strictly speaking, only its publicist.
In 1871, on his birthday - in fact a few years after he entered the House of Commons so it’s not quite clear if his own account of his interest in the sailors may not have predated his decision to enter parliament but in 1871 Plimsoll introduced his first Merchant Shipping Bill in the Commons and the opposition came out of the woodwork. It became clear that in a House full of ship owners with vested interests he was not going to have an easy ride. After a series of checks and obstructions, Plimsoll turned for support to the Nation. I think modelling his campaign on people like the Chartists and the Anti Corn Law league he’d grown up with. And he retired to Cumberland and wrote a book.
‘Our Seamen, An Appeal’, published in 1873, and it made Plimsoll famous. 600,000 copies were printed and sold, or distributed free through the trade unions, and it was copiously extracted in the press â€“ The Times got behind him, among others. It mustered all the indignation and all the evidence he had amassed of the abuses of the shipping industry. It was an impassioned plea for help, and for a Royal Commission of Inquiry. It began in a way that I really sympathise with, I have to say, from when I started my book. It said:
“I have no idea of writing a book â€¦ I don’t know how to do it, and fear I could not succeed if I tried; the idea therefore is very formidable to me. I will suppose myself to be writing to an individual, and to be saying all I could think of to induce him to lend his utmost in remedying the great evil which we all deplore, and I will write, so far as I can, just as would speak to him if he were now sitting by my side.”
“Seldom”, said one commentator, “has a generation been so deeply moved by a book". Vanity Fair, which published this cartoon of him in 1873, called it “The simple honest cry of a simple honest man”.
And here too is a tribute that was prompted by Our Seamen. A rare picture by Faustin Betbeder which appeared in a supplement of The Figaro. A rather wonderful picture in his chequered trousers I think. A rare picture I was glad to find.
But not all the reactions to Our Seamen were good. One ship owner immediately issued a pamphlet called ‘The Plimsoll Sensation â€“ A Reply’ which was a refutation of Our Seamen. So in fact the title of my book is borrowed from Plimsoll’s detractors as much as it sounds like a self-glorifying title â€“ ‘sensation’ was a pejorative word, suggesting an overblown hoo-ha, in the way that we might use ‘sensationalising’.
Several ship owners, including Charles Morgan Norwood, the amazingly sideburned Liberal MP for Hull, here, immediately sued for libel. The trial was held in Liverpool. He lost his case; although he did not have a reprehensible record, but the particular ship whose loading Plimsoll criticised in Our Seamen did have to have some of its cargo removed in order to get it over the bar. Nevertheless in court Plimsoll had his wrist slapped (not for the last time) for his hyperbole. Norwood’s failure prompted other ship owners, on the other hand, to withdraw their actions: things had reached a point where to oppose Plimsoll was to associate yourself with villainy. Norwood never forgot, and later made other attempts to get his revenge.
By now enormous coverage in the press led to huge enthusiasm for Plimsoll. In Hull â€“ Norwood’s constituency so it must have been rather galling for him - he was greeted with a parade, and in Bristol, where sailors carried his carriage through the streets from Bristol Temple Meads Station to The Grand, his hotel, where he addressed the crowd from the balcony. But the most celebrated meeting of all was this one [shows image on projection screen], The Great Plimsoll Meeting as it was later known as, and it was held in Exeter Hall just off the Strand and was chaired by Lord Shaftesbury. This is the splendid building, sadly now demolished. Plimsoll talked for over an hour, to rapturous acclaim.
The meeting led to the establishment of a fighting fund: the Plimsoll and Seamen’s Defence Fund. Immediately 25 peers of the realm joined the trade unionists who founded it. And a Ladies Committee of distinguished women worked in parallel with it.
Days after the meeting, doubtless especially emboldened by all this support, Plimsoll sent a characteristically defiant letter to lawyers for ship owners who had demanded the sources of allegations of unseaworthiness. And this is one of the reasons I liked him so much; he had this fantastically stroppy voice. This is what he said in his letter:
“I will not give the name of my informant. I will make no apology, and as to compensation, the only compensation due to your clients and all other ship owners who load unseaworthy vessels to sea with men a thousand times better than themselves on board is, in my opinion, a halter apiece and the offices of the hangman.
Do your worst.
The country at large was by now in no doubt of Plimsoll’s worth. [shows image on projection screen] Here is the Penny Illustrated Paper depicting Plimsoll with grateful sailors and their families.
[shows image on projection screen] This picture from the Illustrated London News shows how images of Plimsoll began to be idealised. Look how strapping and broad shouldered and handsome Plimsoll looks in this, especially if you compare it with this one we saw earlier.
[shows images on projection screen] Odd little man. (Back) Hunk. (forward) Clark Kent (back) Superman
And here, in Fun magazine, Plimsoll has become the cherub who sits up aloft to keep watch for the life of poor Jack â€“ in a parody of a poem by Charles Dibdin written in 1841 â€“ sitting on a cloud with a pair of wings.
In 1873 a ship was named after Plimsoll by George Thompson of the Aberdeen Line, who was singled out in Our Seamen for his good care of his ships and his excellent safety record. Samuel and Eliza attended the launch in Aberdeen. The ship was a wool-clipper that went on to carry thousands of emigrants to Australia â€“ a lot of Australians can trace their ancestry back to the Samuel Plimsoll, and the figurehead was of Samuel Plimsoll in his frock-coat which is now in the Maritime Museum of Western Australia in Perth, and sadly I think it’s one of the few bits of Plimsolliana I’m never going to own however much I want it.
As Plimsoll’s fame and popularity increased, the press was celebratory. This was a slightly premature prediction of a happy outcome and was drawn in Punch by the house cartoonist John Tenniel. I’m sure many of you know he was better known as the first illustrator of Alice in Wonderland. And in it Polly is saying to Jack, “Oh Jack, I can’t help crying but I’m so glad you’re not going in one of those dreadful ships”. And jack says, “No, lass. Nay, nay more thanks to our friend Samuel Plimsoll, God bless him!”
[shows image on projection screen] And tribute songs were sung in the music halls, such as this one, 'Our Sailors on the Sea', which you can hear sung on my website. The music to another, A Cheer for Plimsoll, makes up the endpapers of the hardback of my book â€“ sadly they couldn’t do it with the paperback - and the complete words are in the Appendix of both. You can sing it yourself, though you don’t have to dress, fortunately, like the composer and original performer of that song, Fred Albert [shows image on projection screen] or wax your moustaches like he did. His manner was so stiff and formal that it was rumoured that he had a wooden leg. He didn’t.
There’s a story about him actually, which is a slight tangent but I like it so much I think I might tell you. Fred Albert used to employ a boy, a teenager, who would cycle from one music hall to another to visit all the music halls where he would perform in the course of an evening. And the teenager’s job was to take with him a bouquet of flowers, and in each music hall to sit beside the prettiest girl in the audience. And at the end of the show he would thrown the bouquet onto the stage at which point Fred Albert would blow kisses to the girl and earn himself another round of applause. This teenager, his name was George Foster, grew up to become Charlie Chaplin’s agent.
Plimsoll’s book and the support it aroused succeeded in securing a Royal Commission, but its conclusions turned out to be a disappointment. After a year it failed to recommend a load line, and it also got Plimsoll into further trouble when the Liverpool shipping company Houghton & Smith sued him for libel for circulating an extract from the Inquiry’s published papers, interpreting it in a damning way in relation to one of their ships. Plimsoll was lucky to get off again on a bit of a technicality.
Plimsoll fought on for the reforms he wanted. He toured the country to raise awareness, just about every town you can think of. Fortunately he was very fond of trains to the extent he would walk the platforms of Victoria Station for recreation as others walked in the park. He continued to argue the case in the House, until at the end of a session in July 1875, Disraeli deferred the latest Merchant Shipping Bill one more time. After all the cheering crowds who had supported him, and the parades, and the songs, and the 13 libel cases, and the loss of his house, the book, the endless campaigning Plimsoll lost his temper spectacularly. [shows image on projection screen] He shouted and stamped his foot and shook his fist. He called ship owners ‘murderers’ and members of the house who protected them ‘villains’. Eliza meanwhile was in the Ladies Gallery, scattering copies of his protest onto the Gentlemen of the Press who were conveniently just underneath. And he made headlines. This became the most celebrated moment of Plimsoll’s career. [shows image on projection screen] In this picture he is being restrained by a friend (the Irish MP Alexander Sullivan). There were several things that plimsoll did that broke the protocol of the house, but one was that only one member was supposed to be standing at any one time, so when Disraeli stood up he was supposed to sit down but he refused to. So Sullivan is trying to persuade him to do that meanwhile the Speaker rises to protest behind and the leader of the opposition, Lord Hartington, look on in horror. Plimsoll was made to leave the chamber but he left shouting ‘Cheats! And I’ll expose the lot of them’. But not before he had named and shamed one man in particular â€“ this is when you can boo and hiss.
The man was Edward Bates. He was the ship owning conservative MP for Plymouth, known as ‘Bully Bates’, whose shipping company, Edward Bates & Sons, operated out of the Albert Dock in Liverpool. He owned several houses around the country, one of which was Bellefield, which was, until last autumn I believe, the training ground of Everton FC. He was also belligerent and penny-pinching with his vessels. The murky story of his ships includes cases of scurvy â€“ which Bates blamed on the feeble constitution of black sailors â€“ and one case of cannibalism that was hushed up. Bates later defended himself in the House and forgave Plimsoll. Plimsoll was obliged to apologise a week later for his misconduct to the House, but he never apologised to Bates. Their hostility to each other rumbled on for a lifetime. I’m pleased to say that one member of an audience like this told me once his great-grandfather, a political rival in Plymouth, had been beaten up on the steps of the Guildhall by a gang of thugs employed by Edward Bates, which is nice to know because it means I was right when I inferred he was a bad lot. And in fact, his great great granddaughter of Bates wrote to me only recently to say that he was still referred to in the family as Scurvy Bates. They were, she said, not proud of him. So I find it rather gratifying to know that even Bates’ descendents were on Plimsoll’s side.
After Plimsoll’s outburst, the nation reacted by coming out noisily in Plimsoll’s defence and objecting to Disraeli’s prevarication. There were huge demonstrations all over the country, in Leeds, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham, Bristol, London and elsewhere. In Liverpool the Working Men’s Conservative Association held a meeting with a sign outside that read: Rotten Ship Owners Specially Invited. And a huge public demonstration was held in front of St George’s Hall in Liverpool. The villain of this piece may have been connected with Liverpool, but so too were many of the heroes and Plimsoll’s supporters.
Among those waving the banner for Plimsoll in a demonstration in the docklands was Annie Besant, here, [shows image on projection screen] a runaway vicar’s wife who later became President of the Indian National Congress. In her twenties she stood beside the sailors in the East India Docks and voted in support of Plimsoll. I include her partly because this was a fact about her life that was lost and I’m very pleased to have rediscovered it. She was later involved in the dock strike and the match girl strike but this was one of her earliest acts of protest.
Public outrage forced Disraeli to rush through a stop-gap Merchant Shipping Bill before the end of the session. He admitted in private letters that he had feared for his political future. [shows image on projection screen] And here he is doing penance in a shroud marked ‘Stopgap Merchant Shipping Bill’ and around him sailors are still raising the issues that were unresolved by the Act.
[shows image on projection screen] Here from Fun magazine, Popular Opinion in the guise of Britannia brings Disraeli to his knees, while Plimsoll in the background looks on, rolling his sleeves up for a fight or perhaps rolling them down after one. And the caption to this one is ‘An all powerful supporter’. And Popular Opinion is saying, ‘Ah, Mister Ben, you are ready enough to make concessions now that I’ve made you feel my power. Mind I don’t have to give you another lesson or you may not get off so easily’. There was a feeling that Disraeli was really in a corner.
Even in New York, Disraeli’s disgrace over Plimsoll was front page news. [shows image on projection screen] Here on the front page of Harper’s Weekly, in the week after the outburst, and Disraeli is shown assailed by the lion of British popular opinion. He’s looking through a monocle but he doesn’t seem to notice it really. And in the top hat a piece of paper says ‘I move that Mr Plimsoll be moved from the house’ which is what Disraeli made the mistake of saying, and underneath a sailor’s hat hangs from the mace. “Now put your head in if you dare” says the caption. This wonderful drawing, which I’m now pleased to own, is engraved by Thomas Nast who I later discovered is the man to have located Father Christmas in the North Pole.
Meanwhile Plimsoll was the subject of tributes everywhere, such as this one in The Graphic. [shows image on projection screen]. If you go to the first floor of this Maritime Museum you can see very large silk handkerchiefs celebrating popular naval events, especially around Liverpool and the Mersey, and one of the images there is a picture of Samuel Plimsoll. So there was merchandising if you like, if you include the handkerchief as that.
[shows image on projection screen] There was also this which I bought the other day a jug with a picture of Samuel Plimsoll. And this is the reverse, with the sailor’s return
[shows image on projection screen] There was even a medal struck which was to commemorate the House of Commons outburst, which was probably the only medal struck, I think, to commemorate someone losing their temper. I’m wearing it, and I’m going to pass it round, if I can get it off, cos you look like a trustworthy lot. You will see that it has on one side Samuel Plimsoll’s head and the date of his outburst â€“ it says 22nd July 1875, and the House of Commons. And on the other side it has a picture of a coffin ship going down which has a skull and cross bones on its sail. Perhaps when it’s gone all the way round I could have it back â€“ would quite like to see it again. Incidentally, it was made of brass because people would wear it round their necks, like I was, or attach it to their watch chain as a way of showing support for a campaign. It was a bit like the Victorian equivalent of a lapel badge.
In 1876 the stop-gap bill of 1875 was superseded by a permanent Merchant Shipping Act that confirmed a compulsory load line, or the Plimsoll mark as it was immediately known. But there was a snag about it. C M Norwood, whom you may remember with the sideburns, introduced to the legislation the idea of an “owner’s loadline”, which he could set where he pleased. One captain, a Welshman from Cardiff, put it on the funnel of his ship.
The Act was a triumph of public opinion over vested interest, but it was not a complete victory. It took another 14 years before the compulsory loadline was fixed. Plimsoll felt he still had work to do. He travelled at first, ostensibly to rest from the strain of his campaign, [shows image on projection screen] and here he is on the deck of a ship travelling from Malta to Constantinople. He’s sitting in the corner, partly obscured, with Eliza behind him. When he returned, incidentally, he was back in Liverpool addressing a meeting about his findings about loading abroad.
Here they are closer up. I think it is interesting that he had been a millionaire, he had been a Member of Parliament for many years, he’s had ships named after him yet he’s sitting cross legged on the floor with the other sailors. It was characteristic of him that he didn’t put himself above the men who he defended.
Plimsoll had by then an international reputation, not always good. Ships were dressed to welcome him in Romania, but he also met a ship’s captain on the Black Sea to whom he did not introduce himself. Plimsoll asked, “What do you think of Samuel Plimsoll?” and the captain replied, “If I had my way I would tie a rope around his neck and throw him in the Danube.” Plimsoll said, “That is severe”, walked away a few steps, and turned back and presented his card. “I am Samuel Plimsoll”, he said. Fortunately he escaped a ducking â€“ I think the captain was probably too surprised.
But meanwhile, at home streets were being called after him. And the shoes. They were named as a tribute to Plimsoll by a sales rep for the Liverpool Rubber Co because, being rubber below and canvas above, they could only be safely immersed in water up to a certain point, like a cargo ship. So, Liverpool wit can claim credit for the name, plimsolls.
I wouldn’t like you to think I don’t take my subject seriously but I thought it might amuse you that I own a modern pair that are not only named after Plimsoll but actually also signed by him. Mine have a panel sewn on them that says, ‘yours very truly Samuel Plimsoll’. My children think it’s rather sad. [laughs] In fact I do have the same autograph on a stamp, and anyone who cares to buy a book later can have his signature as well as mine.
[shows image on projection screen] And what I want to show you was that Spike Milligan when he made a connection between the Plimsoll line and the shoes wasn’t wrong.
There is much to tell of what happened to Sam and Eliza after the establishment of the Merchant Shipping Act, but I shall leave this part of the story there, partly because I don’t want to spoil the ending.
[shows image on projection screen] I shall show you only this picture of Plimsoll when he said farewell to his sweetheart, politics, and resigned from the Commons at the 1880 election in favour of William Harcourt, who was the Liberal Home Secretary who had lost his seat. He believed Harcourt would be more effective in the House than he had been as a defender of sailors and continued himself to agitate from outside. In fact you can see a ship sailing by that has Liverpool on it because for a while there was the suggestion that he might stand for Liverpool. He did stand but he wasn’t elected. That was his last opportunity â€“ his ship sailed and he was out of politics. Harcourt was not as committed to the cause as Plimsoll had hoped, but Joseph Chamberlain, father of Neville ‘peace in our time’ Chamberlain, took over and secured the fixed load line in 1890.
I was thinking of reading you a shipwreck from my book but decided instead to read you a discovery. At the Great Plimsoll Meeting there was a poet and an actor, Arthur Matthison, here on the left, who gave a recitation of his own composition called ‘Coffin Ships’ in the persona of an old sea dog talking to his shipmates on a ship â€“ presumably in a different costume. The performance was later reprised in 1875 â€“ the height of Plimsoll mania - in theatres by a woman, the actress Adeline Billington who is on the right, by popular demand. She had been much admired by Dickens for playing Nancy in her youth, though later â€“ apologies to Adeline â€“ she was probably a bit more persuasive as an old sea dog. Anyway, I thought I would do you a Victorian style recitation of ‘Coffin Ships’. I guess I am rather more Adeline Billington than Arthur Matthison. This poem, as I said, is called ‘Coffin Ships, or, A Tale of the Day’ as told by the author at the Great Plimsoll Meeting. It really ought to be done in a Tyneside accent which I can’t do. My RP doesn’t work well either. I’m from Leeds, which is as far north as I can do â€“roughly. So I’m going to do it in a Leeds accent, and I’m not terribly good at this. It is supposed to be a very sad story though I shall forgive you if you laugh.
In the great London Parlyment House, lads,
They’re a talkin’ about us Jack Tars;
‘Bout us, and the ships as we sails in,
Bolts, timbers, sails, riggin’ and spars.
An’ it’s pretty nigh time as they did talk,
Them big wigs as settles it all!
Tho’ I wish we could tell ‘em what we think,
In that lingo ship, Westminster Hall!
D’ye know what they calls them old hulks, lads,
As all on us know, and all curse?
“Coffin ships” is the name as they gives ‘em
An’ I don’t want to give ‘em a worse!
For, mates, we might just as well all be buried,
As sail in them thin ribb’d old craft!
As ain’t got a sound timber in ‘em
From the hold to the mast, fore and aft!
I shipp’d in a coffin myself, lads,
From a port in the North, years ago;
An’ back’d out -“Sail you must!” says the Owner,
“If else man, to prison you go!”
I went as if it ‘ad bin to the gallows;
But what can a poor fellow do?
Then - liefer than mould in a prison
A true salt ‘ud be drown’d in the blue!
You, most on you, know’d young Bill Severn,
The heartiest blue jacket afloat,
He was one of the crew of that ship, lads -
“Ship”! - it waren’t strong enough for a boat!
Her bolts wasn’t fit for a hencoop,
She’d a swamp’d in a breeze on the Tyne,
Though she look’d trim and seaworthy too, lads,
And as bold as a ship o’ the line!
Look’d so spick, and so span, and so new, lads,
They insur’d her for double her worth!
But them innocent chaps as insure ships
Thinks they’re safer at sea than on earth!
In a week comes a gale as we’d laugh at,
In the stout ship, as holds us all now;
It stove that in, as if the Great Eastern
Had struck her ‘midships with her prow!
She went down, lads, as quick an’ as easy,
As a bucket with holes in a pool!
Or as them little cockboats, all paper,
The land-sailor boys make at school!
When sun rose there me and Bill Severn
Lay floating about on the mast,
Of the short muster roll of the living
In that doom’d bark, that man-trap, the last!
Poor shipmate! He was to bin married,
When the vessel came back, that same Spring!
An’ she’d giv’d him to wear for her sake, lads,
The half of a little gold ring!
And there he lay dying afore me;
For he’d hurt hisself bad, in the wreck;
An’ he takes off his half of the ring, lads,
As always hung round his brown neck.
And his big hand, now weak as a babby’s,
Tremblin’, plac’d the gold token in mine:
“Carry this - Ben - to Mary - and tell -”
Quick and dead were alone on the brine!
If the Owner, that minute, before me,
Had stood with his throat near my hand! -
But there - thank the Lord as he didn’t;
Thank the lord, I aint mark’d with his brand!
I was pick’d up, going on towards nightfall,
By a lugger bound out from South Wales;
But the rest of the crew in that “Coffin” -
They can’t - poor fellas - tell tales!
Mates, I’ve spun this yarn often and often,
Widows, mothers and sweethearts have cried.
But in vain to make old England listen,
England’s sea sons, and daughters, have tried!
Coffin ships they yet sail o’er the waters;
Death sneaks in his salt water den!
Ship Owners! - Ship Slayers! I calls ‘em,
And sea-devil slayers of men!
But they’re talking about us in London,
England’s big heart at last has bin served
An though we can’t speak for ourselves, lads,
Them as does talk, thank God! will be heard!
Right, if anyone wants a signature, or indeed Sam’s, or just wants to come and talk about anything, I’ll stay around for a minute. Thank you very much.