Samuel Plimsoll (10 February 1824 – 3 June 1898) was a British politician and social reformer, now best remembered for having devised the Plimsoll line (a line on a ship's hull indicating the maximum safe draft, and therefore the minimum freeboard for the vessel in various operating conditions).
Samuel Plimsoll was born in Bristol and soon moved to Whiteley Wood Hall, Sheffield, also spending part of his childhood in Penrith, Cumberland. Leaving school at an early age, he became a clerk at Rawson's Brewery, and rose to be manager.
In 1853 he attempted to become a coal merchant in London. He failed and was reduced to destitution. He himself told how for a time he lived in a common lodging for seven shillings and two pence a week.
Through this experience, he learnt to sympathise with the struggles of the poor, and when his good fortune returned, he resolved to devote his time to improving their condition.
His efforts were directed especially against what were known as "coffin ships": unseaworthy and overloaded vessels, often heavily insured, in which unscrupulous owners risked the lives of their crews.
In 1867, Plimsoll was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Derby, and endeavoured in vain to pass a bill dealing with the subject of a safe load line on ships. The main problem was the number of ship-owning MP's in Parliament.
In 1872 he published a work entitled Our Seamen, which became well known throughout the country. Accordingly, on Plimsoll's motion in 1873, a Royal Commission was appointed, and in 1875 a government bill was introduced, which Plimsoll, though regarding it as inadequate, resolved to accept.
On 22 July, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, announced that the bill would be dropped. Plimsoll lost his self-control, applied the term "villains" to members of the House, and shook his fist in the Speaker's face.
Disraeli moved that he be reprimanded, but on the suggestion of Lord Hartington agreed to adjourn the matter for a week to allow Plimsoll time for thought.
Eventually Plimsoll made an apology. Many people, however, shared his view that the bill had been stifled by the pressure of the shipowners, and popular feeling forced the government to pass a bill which in the following year, was amended into the Merchant Shipping Act.
Plimsoll was re-elected for Derby at the general election of 1880 by a great majority, but gave up his seat to William Vernon Harcourt, believing that the latter, as Home Secretary, could advance sailors' interests more effectively than any private member.
Offered a seat by 30 constituencies, Plimsoll was an unsuccessful candidate in Sheffield Central in 1885. He did not re-enter the house, and later became estranged from the Liberal leaders by what he regarded as their breach of faith in neglecting the question of shipping reform.
He was for some years the honorary president of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union, and drew attention to the horrors of the cattle-ships, where animals were transported under appalling and over-crowded conditions.
Later he visited the United States to try to secure the adoption of a less bitter tone towards England in the historical textbooks used in American schools. He died in Folkestone in 1898 and is buried in St Martin's churchyard, Cheriton, Kent.
British writer Nicolette Jones published The Plimsoll Sensation, a highly-acclaimed biography – getting the idea for it from living in 1995 at the Plimsoll Road in North London, but knowing hardly anything about whom it was named after.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Samuel Plimsoll.|
- "Our Seamen: An Appeal" by Samuel Plimsoll, 1873, at The Internet Archive
- "The sailor's friend" (book review), The Economist, Jul 6th 2006 (payment required)
- "The Plimsoll Sensation" (podcast), The British Library, Jul 7th 2006#
- "The Bottom Line About Mr. Plimsoll", The Observer, 25 June 2006
- Review of "The Plimsoll Sensation" in Bookworm on the Net, 2 July 2006
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Samuel Plimsoll
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
William Thomas Cox
Michael Thomas Bass
|Member of Parliament for Derby
1868 – 1880
With: Michael Thomas Bass
Sir William Vernon Harcourt
Michael Thomas Bass