Samuel Plimsoll

The sailors' hero

Born in Bristol in 1824, Samuel Plimsoll did much to improve the lives of working people. His first speech as an MP helped legalise trade unions and he prevented mining disasters by raising awareness of explosive methane gas. But he’s best remembered for his game-changing, life-saving Plimsoll Line.

Samuel Plimsoll – the name rings a bell. Does he have anything to do with my old PE shoes?

The humble plimsoll shoe does indeed bear his name. Ah, that distinctive squeak of rubber sole on gym floor! But Samuel’s true legacy is much more significant – he saved thousands of lives at sea and helped put an end to the horrors of the ‘coffin ships’.

Coffin ships? They sound ominous.

They were deadly. In the 1860s, Samuel realised that greedy ship owners were sending unseaworthy, overloaded boats to sea. They didn’t care about the safety of the sailors. Many drowned. But their contracts meant that if they refused to sail on an unseaworthy ship they could – and were – imprisoned for desertion. Samuel was furious.

Rightly so! So what did Samuel do?

As Liberal MP for Derby in 1867, Samuel tried to get a bill through parliament introducing a safe load line in ships. He failed. But he didn’t give up. In 1875, just as a new Merchant Shipping Act was about to improve safety on the ships, Prime Minister Disraeli dropped it. He was probably under a lot of pressure from the powerful ship owners (many of whom were MPs…)

But what about all those sailors dying at sea? That’s scandalous!

Samuel thought so too. The story goes that he lost his temper, called members of the house “villains” and shook his fist in the Speaker’s face. He was suspended and forced to apologise but ultimately Disraeli had to back down. Samuel had the public behind him – they knew that over 1000 merchant seamen had drowned that year. In 1876 the Merchant Shipping Act was passed, the Board of Trade was given powers to inspect merchant ships and the Plimsoll Line was born.

What exactly is the Plimsoll Line?

It’s a line painted on the side of the hulls of merchant ships. As the ship is loaded, it sits lower in the water and the line gets closer to the water’s surface. If the water level rises above the Plimsoll line, the ship is overloaded and might sink. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 made the Plimsoll line compulsory. In 1906, foreign ships visiting British ports had to have a load line too. It’s still mandatory today. So the Plimsoll Line has had a massive impact on safety on ships and must have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. In 1887 Samuel became honorary president of the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, where he drew attention to the horrific conditions animals faced on cattle ships.

And what about my old PE shoes?

Apparently our old gym shoes were nicknamed Plimsolls because the coloured horizontal band that joined the canvas upper to the rubber sole looked like the Plimsoll line on a ship. The other theory is that if water gets above the line of the rubber sole, you get wet feet. And Samuel wouldn’t have wanted that!