Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898) is the trade unionist best known for devising a load-line to prevent ships being overloaded. To mark his achievement there is a monument to Plimsoll in Whitehall Garden, a Victoria Embankment garden in central London. In Redcar on Teesside there is also a pub, the Plimsoll Line, whilst in Sheffield there is a plaque directly opposite his childhood home.
In 1864, Samuel Plimsoll was part of a convoy of ships voyaging from London to Redcar when a severe storm not only delayed his arrival by several hours but also wrecked four of the ships. He recognised that his vessel had been properly surveyed. No such luck for the perished sailors, whose contracts meant that if they refused to sail on an unseaworthy vessel they could be, and were, imprisoned. It was clear that shipowners, which included numerous MPs, were content to send unseaworthy, overloaded and, significantly, overinsured, boats to sea whatever the consequences for the crews.
Plimsoll, who had previously won the miners’ approval for seeking methods to prevent colliery disasters by detecting fire damp, was determined to end the horrors of the ‘coffin-ships.’ When he was elected as the Liberal MP for Derby in 1867 he vainly sought to have a bill passed introducing a safe load line in ships. When Plimsoll was told in 1875 by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, that the Merchant Shipping Bill was being dropped by the government his angry response resulted in Plimsoll being suspended from the Commons. Plimsoll though had the public with him as they knew that over a thousand merchant seaman were being drowned each year. In 1876 the Board of Trade were given inspection powers for ships and the Plimsoll line or mark was introduced.
Plimsoll’s maiden Parliamentary speech in 1868 had put forward the case for a repeal of the criminal laws against trade unions. The subsequent 1871 Trades Union Act legalised trade unions for the first time in the UK and meant members could not be liable for criminal prosecution for taking strike action.
After voluntarily leaving Parliament in 1880, Plimsoll became in 1887 the first president of the newly inaugurated National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union (NSFU), where he drew attention to the horrific conditions of animals being transported under appalling, over crowded conditions.
Plimsoll died in 1898. In 1929 the National Union of Seamen, the NSFU’s successor, erected a memorial to Plimsoll on London’s Embankment Gardens. There is also a Plimsoll Road in many towns and a Plimsoll Bar in Bristol. The Plimsoll Line in Redcar is a Wetherspoon’s pub on the High Street and where there is also a blue plaque erected by Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council in honour of Samuel Plimsoll “The Sailors Friend.” There is also a plaque commemorating Plimsoll opposite his childhood home in Sheffield.
Many thanks to John Harvey for taking the accompanying photographs for this article.