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Samuel Plimsoll

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Samuel Plimsoll
Born(1824-02-10)10 February 1824
Died3 June 1898(1898-06-03) (aged 74)
Occupation(s)MP; social reformer
Known forPlimsoll line

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 draught, and therefore the minimum freeboard for the vessel in various operating conditions).[1]

Early life[edit]

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.

Political career[edit]

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 powerful ship-owning MPs in Parliament.

In 1873, he published a book 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.[2]

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.

Load Line Mark and Lines and Timber Load Line Mark and Lines for power driven merchant vessels

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.

Memorial to Samuel Plimsoll on Victoria Embankment, London

This gave stringent powers of inspection to the Board of Trade, and the mark that indicates the safe limit to which a ship may be loaded became generally known as Plimsoll's mark or line.

Plimsoll was re-elected for Derby at the uk 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 life[edit]

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 on 3 June 1898, and is buried in St Martin's churchyard, Cheriton, Kent.


Plimsoll married his first wife, Eliza Ann, daughter of Hugh Railton of Chapeltown, north of Sheffield, in 1858. In Census 1871 they were enumerated in Hastings where Eliza Ann is recorded as being blind in her right eye and deaf in her left ear. She died in Australia in 1882. Their only daughter died shortly after her birth of 'imperfect respiration'.[3] He married his second wife, Harriet Frankish, daughter of Mr. Joseph Armitage Wade, J.P., of Hull and Hornsea, in 1885. By this marriage there were six children, of whom a son, Samuel Richard Cobden Plimsoll, and two daughters survived him.[4]


Posthumous portrait of Plimsoll, executed by Reginald Henry Campbell in the late 19th century

In 1873, the Samuel Plimsoll, an iron hulled full-rigged merchant sailing ship, was launched at the shipyard of Walter Hood & Co. in Aberdeen, Scotland for the Aberdeen White Star Line (G. Thompson & Co.). She was assigned the official British Reg. No. 65097 and the signal MKDH. In 1899, she caught fire in the Thames River and had to be scuttled, but was refloated and repaired in 1900. In 1902, she was severely dismasted and damaged en voyage to Port Chalmers, New Zealand. Towed to Sydney and subsequently to Fremantle, she was reduced to hulk status the following year.[5][6]

In the 1920s, Plimsoll shoes were named for their similarity in appearance to the Plimsoll line on boats.

In Whitehall Garden, a Victoria Embankment garden, there is a monument to Samuel Plimsoll in front of the railings.

A monument bust of Plimsoll is located in his native Bristol, on the banks of Bristol Harbour in the Canons Marsh area.

British writer Nicolette Jones published The Plimsoll Sensation, a highly acclaimed biography – getting the idea for it from living in 1995 in Plimsoll Road in Finsbury Park, north London, but knowing hardly anything about whom it was named after.

Samuel Plimsoll appears in the third series of the BBC historical television drama The Onedin Line, portrayed by actor David Garfield.

Samuel Plimsoll's life and achievement is celebrated in a song written and sung by Bristol sea shanty group The Severn Whalers around festivals in and around the South West.


  1. ^ "The sailor's champion: Samuel Plimsoll". GARD. 2 June 2023. Retrieved 8 June 2023.
  2. ^ "PARLIAMENT—BREACH OF ORDER (MR. PLIMSOLL). (Hansard, 22 July 1875)". api.parliament.uk. Retrieved 3 October 2019.
  3. ^ Nicolette Jones, The Plimsoll Sensation, p.42
  4. ^ Orme 1901.
  5. ^ "Sailing Ships: Samuel Plimsoll (1873)". www.bruzelius.info. Retrieved 3 October 2019.
  6. ^ "The Ships - Samuel Plimsoll". Archived from the original on 21 August 2011. Retrieved 25 August 2016.

Wikisource This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainOrme, Eliza (1901). "Plimsoll, Samuel". In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography (1st supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co.

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Derby
With: Michael Thomas Bass
Succeeded by