Every cargo ship has a marking on the side of the hull called the Plimsoll Line. The more cargo you load onto a ship the lower it sits in the water.
If the Plimsoll Line is underwater, it means the ship is overloaded and therefore unsafe for the open ocean.
In 19th century Britain, there was no Plimsoll Line on ships. Shipowners would try and put as much cargo onto their ships as possible. The more cargo on the ship the more money they would make.
These overloaded ships, sitting low in the watFer would leave the calm harbour and encounter a storm or rough weather in the open ocean.
The waves would crash over the sides of the ship, filling it with water. And down to the bottom went the ship, the sailors and the cargo.
Many ship owners weren’t terribly worried about losing a ship and the cargo. As they were insured. They made their money either way.
Of course, the sailors could spot an overloaded ship in the harbour. These ships were known as “coffin ships”. The sailors would refuse to sail on them.
The problem was, the law stated it was illegal for a sailor to refuse to sail on a ship. If they did refuse, they were thrown in jail for desertion.
In 1871 there were 1628 sailors in prison for refusing to sail on coffin ships. That same year 856 ships sunk off the coast of Britain and nearly 2000 sailors drowned.
In one case, an entire crew was marched to jail for refusing to sail. But the Victorian ship owners simply found teenage boys to crew the ship. Not surprisingly, they all went to the bottom of the sea.
Shipowners were getting rich while sailors were dying.
Samuel Plimsoll was having none of this. He decided he was going to do something about it.
Plimsoll’s coal business had failed and he became, what they called “destitute” in those days.
During this time he lived among the poor and he resolved to make their lives better.
In 1867 he was elected to parliament and he began his fight to save sailor’s lives.
We fought to have a law passed that required all ships to have a safe loading line painted on the hull.
But many of the parliamentarians were also ship owners and they weren’t going to vote for lower profits. Time and again his bill was voted down.
Plimsoll outraged parliament with his speeches. “I charge the government that they are playing into the hands of murderers inside this house who continue the murderous system of sending men and rotten ships to sea.”
Ten years later the Merchant Shipping Act was amended to include the Plimsoll Line. He had finally succeeded.
He won a majority in the following general election in the seat of Derby. But he gave up the seat to a William Harcourt who was the Home Secretary. He felt Willam could do more for sailors rights than he could.
Plimsoll went on to campaign against live animal shipping. He obviously wasn’t successful in that fight as it’s still in place today.
Tony Benn was talking about Samuel Plimsoll when he wrote. “My experience is that when people come along with a good idea, in the beginning, it is completely ignored. If they go on about it they are considered mad and possibly even dangerous. Then, when it is eventually recognised as a good idea, nobody can be found who does not claim to have thought of it in the first place.”
That’s true of all original ideas.
When we look through history we see people like Samuel Plimsoll everywhere. We don’t get change without persistence.