Plimsoll at 200: why it still matters to maritime safety
Great strides have been taken in maritime safety since the days of the load line but more can still be done
Samuel Plimsoll has featured in Lloyd’s List since the 1870s. The author of a book on the maritime safety reformer explains why his work is still relevant today
SAMUEL Plimsoll was born 200 years ago tomorrow, in the port of Bristol, on February 10, 1824. It is a bicentenary to celebrate, since we still have reason to be grateful to him. Not only because the load line to which he gave his name — now an international standard — continues to save countless lives at sea, but also because his story resonates with relevance for today.
Together with his wife Eliza, Plimsoll — the then MP for Derby — led a decades-long legal, social and political battle for justice against the overloading of ships, a dangerous practice which affected the vessels’ ability to operate safely — often with fatal consequences for their crew. Despite the optional use of ‘Lloyd’s Rule’ — three inches of freeboard per foot of depth — since 1835, transatlantic ships were often loaded as deep in the water as canal boats. One sailor’s widow even reported to an enquiry after the loss of her husband’s ship that she said her last farewell on board and stepped up from the deck to a rowing boat that lay alongside.
Today, the issuance of international load line certificates is an enduring part of the Plimsoll legacy. While the load line became compulsory for all ships entering British ports from 1876, owners could position it themselves. It has been fixed by independent authorities since 1890. This caught on, until in 1966, 60 nations adopted the International Convention of Load Lines (last amended in 2019), a number that has since grown to 162.
It is hard to quantify just how many lives may have been saved over the years by the tireless work of the Plimsolls and the introduction of the load line. We know from Board of Trade reports that in 1871 a total of 856 ships went down within 10 miles of the British coast in conditions that were no worse than a strong breeze. And overloading and unseaworthiness caused some 500 seamen a year to drown. We can only extrapolate from those 500 British lives a year the impact of a global load line measure over 134 years.
Yet the Plimsoll campaign is more than just a historical curiosity, not least because the load line itself has been under constant threat since Plimsoll’s day. The pressure is always to increase cargo — and therefore profitability — either by adjusting the line (as happened in 1906, when the Winter North Atlantic level was removed, to be later reinstated for vessels 328 feet or less in length), or by flouting the rules. European and Canadian authorities reported 3,197 breaches of the load line regulations internationally as recently as 2005.
The most worrying contraventions today, according to Lloyd’s Register experts, are on domestic ferries in some parts of the world where loading is insufficiently regulated internally.
Modern tragedies caused by overloading — such as the loss of 304 people, including 250 schoolchildren, on the Sewol (IMO: 9105205) ferry in South Korea in 2014 — echo all too closely the nineteenth-century shipwrecks that fuelled Plimsoll’s anger. When, for instance, SS London went down in 1866 and 270 people drowned, the passengers put plaintive messages to their loved ones in bottles, some of which were found. Schoolchildren who died on the South Korean ferry texted similar messages to their parents on their phones. The technology differed; the heartbreak was the same.
For maritime safety campaigners today, “learning from the past” — as encapsulated by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation initiative of the same name — is critical. Plimsoll taught subsequent reformers that public opinion is powerful. That moral issues are straightforward. That action to protect others is obligatory. And that persistence pays off.
But even at sea there are still hurdles. Ensuring standardised regulations can still meet resistance, despite a high level of cooperation with the shipping registers. The issue of cargo liquefaction, for example, recalls commercial pressure on Plimsoll over deck loading and the dangers of loose freight that shifts and unbalances a ship. The same pressure (compounded by the time necessary for tests) works against empowering ship masters to refuse cargo over the Transportable Moisture Limit.
History repeats itself because an underlying issue endures: those people who made the profit were not the same people who took the risk. Wherever and whenever such a division appears, there is a tendency for the danger to increase, because of what the introduction to a Lloyd’s Register report on the 1966 Load Lines Convention called “lust for wealth”.
During his campaigns, Plimsoll suffered vilification and libel cases — some from fellow MPs — which almost ruined him, but he earned the support of the nation, while Eliza’s catalytic work was recognised with tributes in several British cities and abroad. One characteristic testimonial in praise of Plimsoll from seamen in Hamburg, as featured in Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s groundbreaking Rewriting Women into Maritime project, refers to “your dear wife to whom we look with reverence as your untiring coadjutor in your great and ennobling work trying to prevent shipwrecks and loss of life, widows’ tears and orphans’ cries”.
The Plimsolls faced down their opponents, whose arguments have a timeless quality. There were objections to red tape, fears of foreign competition, shifted blame and political manoeuvres, as well as vested interest. Every one of these sounds familiar to a modern ear.
Plimsoll’s pertinence to us applies not only to maritime matters, with safety regulations in many sectors encountering hindrances that echo those Plimsoll once fought over on behalf of seafarers. The same separation of profit and risk lies behind so much suffering in our time. Think of the use of unsafe cladding at Grenfell Tower in London, where 72 people died by fire in 2017. Or health service employees given inadequate personal protection equipment in a pandemic. Examples where some people make money by risking the safety of others are not hard to find. We could keep Plimsoll busy today. Where are his heirs?
Nicolette Jones is writer, journalist, broadcaster and author of ‘The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea’.