On the side of every British ship is a load line: a horizontal line through a circle (on which, incidentally, the London Transport logo was based) known as the Plimsoll line, and named after the man who devoted his life to campaigning to make sea travel safer. This symbol, which must be visible above the waterline, prevents ships being overloaded and has saved countless lives. The name Plimsoll lives on more familiarly in the gym shoe which, like a ship, can be safely submerged in water only up to a certain level.
The story of Samuel Plimsoll's crusade to protect the British sailor ("Poor Jack" or, as a misprint in this book endearingly has him, "poof Jack") from the worst excesses of Victorian capitalism is inherently melodramatic and sensational. Unscrupulous owners intent on maximising profits sent unsafe ships to sea, often overloaded to the point where one could step from the quayside straight onto the deck. Such ships often sank in bad weather, an event which, if the shipowner had over-insured the vessel and cargo, could bring greater profits than a completed voyage.
Sailors could be imprisoned for refusing to embark on these "coffin-ships". Between 1870 and 1872 alone, 1,628 sailors were incarcerated for this "crime". In one tragic case, two successive crews chose jail rather than go aboard a ship eventually crewed by boys no older than 17. It was lost with all hands. The callous indifference of shipowners to the devastating loss of life was compounded by the fact that no pensions were paid to sailors' widows and, in some cases, even the dead men's back pay was withheld.
Plimsoll and his wife Eliza, in setting out to remedy this appalling exploitation, took on the might of property and Parliament, both of which strenuously resisted any reforms that might compromise profit. Plimsoll, however, demanded common-sense measures to make life at sea safer.
Carrying loose cargo or loading cargo on deck were known to be severely detrimental to stability, but such corner-cutting was widespread. Very few old ships were withdrawn from service, but were often sailed until they sank, with the consequence that one in five sailors lost their lives at sea.
The Plimsolls campaigned for ships to be licensed as seaworthy before they set out from British ports, and for a load line to be painted on the hull. Safety has never been an exciting subject, but as Nicolette Jones states: "It is the fact that [the load line] was opposed at all, and the motives for that opposition, that turned its implementation from a bureaucratic procedure into a stirring crusade, and makes the line a monument to victory in an epic battle for justice and right."
Jones's account is entirely worthy of its deserving subject. This book rehabilitates a man who remains a household name, but whose legion achievements have been forgotten. Plimsoll emerges as a great reformer whose passion sometimes got the better of his judgement.
He was criticised as obsessive, self-promoting, mentally unbalanced, and ill-informed - charges with which Jones engages fairly and squarely - but the ordinary people who turned out in their thousands to support him wherever he went told a different story. Their champions were few and in Samuel Plimsoll, "the sailor's friend", they recognised a great humanitarian.
Sarah Burton's books include 'A Double Life' (Penguin)
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