Detail from handkerchief showing Samuel Plimsoll. 1968.42, Maritime History collections.
Sunday 10 February is Plimsoll Day. Named for 19th century politician and ‘Sailor’s Friend’ Samuel Plimsoll, it’s a chance to remember his great campaign to save and improve seafarers' lives.
The most significant achievement of this campaign was the Plimsoll Line, a line painted on the side of a ship to show how low in the water she should sit when safely loaded. It’s an innovation that’s still used today. It has saved thousands of lives and spared seafarers the anxiety of being sent to sea in overloaded and unsafe vessels.
Samuel Plimsoll was born on 10 February 1824 and was ambitious and entrepreneurial from a young age. He left school at 15 and supplemented his education with the People’s College in Sheffield before and after his working day. He was an amateur inventor always seeking simple and logical solutions to practical problems. More importantly though he was deeply empathetic, as a young teenager he wrote a pamphlet entitled 'A Plan to have Fatherless and Motherless Children Cared For Instead of Being Consigned to the Workhouse'.
The load line he would go on to campaign for combines these aspects of himself, advocating a simple, logical solution to a problem that was causing terrible suffering. Before finding fame as the Sailor’s Friend though, he was known as the Miner’s Friend. In the 1850s he orchestrated relief efforts following mining accidents. After the Lund Hill pit fire claimed 189 lives he helped raise over £10,000, thereby saving many families from the workhouse, and also suggested safety measures that could prevent such a tragedy being repeated.
In these campaigns he saw the powerful impact of personal accounts when the widows of the miners spoke. When he went on to campaign for seafarers he then placed the accounts of their loved ones front and centre, appealing to emotion but also providing the politically voiceless with a chance to be heard.
Plimsoll was elected MP for Derby in 1867 but it’s not until the 1870s we really see his work for seafarers begin in earnest. In 1870 he sought out Newcastle shipowner James Hall after hearing him speak. Hall was an early advocate of a load line and various other reforms for seafarers. All of the measures Plimsoll would go on to campaign for were in line with Hall’s recommendations and Plimsoll acknowledged his debt to him. Hall with his years spent in the shipping trade was better placed to suggest the required reforms than Plimsoll who had no connections with shipping at all, but Hall was no showman. Plimsoll however, had learned how to get the public’s attention.
From 1870 Plimsoll was bent on his course of action. By 1872 he’d had three separate bills and amendments blocked. Aware however of the power of public opinion he determined to publish a pamphlet for public consumption. 'Our Seamen, An Appeal', took a year to write and is in reality a small book, he could not be brief on a topic that meant so much to him. It was published in 1873 and described by Vanity Fair as:
“A book jumbled together in the fashion of an insane farrago, written without method and without art, but powerful and eloquent beyond any work that has appeared for years because it is the simple cry of a simple honest man.” – The Plimsoll Sensation, Nicolette Jones
Plimsoll would certainly have seen himself as simple and honest, he spoke as he believed and looked for practical solutions to humanitarian problems. His Unitarian Christianity was a strong influence on his actions throughout his life, he genuinely believed in a sense of responsibility to his fellow human beings. It is clear though that he also fundamentally believed in his fellow human beings. He was certain that if only he could get the information out to people then the majority of them would do the right thing.
“Everybody knows there is a great loss of life on our coasts annually…I am sure that if the English public equally knew how much of this loss is preventable, and the means of preventing it, no long time would elapse before means would be taken to secure this end.” - Our Seaman, An Appeal, Samuel Plimsoll
It is probably this belief in people that led him to work well across the House in his time as an MP. Plimsoll was a Liberal but by no means a political tribalist, he was as willing to work with opposition Tories that agreed with his campaign as he was willing to condemn those Liberals who did not.
This handkerchief from the Maritime collections dates from around 1875 and shows Samuel Plimsoll amongst other significant people and places associated with seafaring in Liverpool. 1968.42
The Appeal made both Plimsoll and his cause famous, and an incident in 1875 would make him infamous. I’ve written previously of how he memorably lost his temper in the House of Commons and wound up shaking his fist and terming his fellow MPs villains. Appealing and entertaining as this story is though, it is upon looking at the years of frustrated work that come before it that we understand his explosive behaviour.
The incident was a culmination of years of tireless campaigning, of talking to those who had lost loved ones to the ‘coffin ships’ and accumulating harrowing stories of preventable loss. Loss that occurred solely because there was no regulation on those ship owners who valued profit above people. Plimsoll was often accused of self-promotion but he certainly never lost any opportunity to promote his cause. In fact once he felt he was in the way of his cause, he was quick to step aside.
Plimsoll had fought and won two further elections as an MP but immediately after winning in 1880 he chose to step down. William Vernon Harcourt, Liberal Home Secretary, had lost his seat in the 1880 election. Harcourt had influence in the House that Plimsoll was never likely to have so Plimsoll stood aside for him, allowing Harcourt to stand in his Derby constituency. He did so after receiving a promise that Harcourt would continue his fight.
Leaving the House of Commons though didn’t mean Plimsoll was done campaigning. He spent the rest of his life working for seafarers, stirring up public support and travelling tirelessly in promotion of his cause. Plimsoll had seen a Merchant Shipping Bill passed in 1876 but it would be 1890 before he saw the long awaited load line standardised by the Board of Trade, rather than left at the discretion of the ship owners.
Samuel Plimsoll spent his life, and a good deal of his own wealth, fighting for better conditions for others. He was a passionate and flawed individual but also a politician who cared more for people than for office, and more for principle than for House of Commons procedure or even party politics.