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Historic Figures

You are in: Bristol > History > Historic Figures > Samuel Plimsoll - the seaman's friend

Samuel Plimsoll - the seaman's friend

In the 19th Century working on a merchant ship was a dangerous business. In 1876 the Board of Trade recorded that 856 British merchant ships were lost within ten miles of the British coast, in conditions that were no worse than a strong breeze.

Successive governments and greedy ship owners did little to protect the lives of seamen.

Plimsoll Bridge at Cumberland Basin

Step forward Bristol hero Samuel Plimsoll, the sailor's friend, a philanthropist whose tireless campaigning saved hundreds of lives and whose work is still remembered today in a safety marker simply called the Plimsoll Line.

Born in Colston Parade, Redcliffe in February 1824, Plimsoll moved as a child to Sheffield and then Cumbria, leaving school at an early age to become a brewery clerk and then manager.

In 1853 he moved to London and became a coal merchant, a business which left him destitute and instilled a huge sympathy for the struggles of the poor.

But Plimsoll was a determined man. Despite his problems he picked himself up  and was soon campaigning against overloaded and unseaworthy merchant vessels, known as "coffin ships".

The public supported his campaign but he faced ridicule and obstruction from the powerful ship owners of the time, and the government.

Bridlington gale

In 1868 Plimsoll was elected Liberal MP for Derby and in 1871 a huge gale off the coast of Bridlington killed six local lifeboatmen. Suddenly Plimsoll's call for change began to be taken seriously.

In 1872 he published a work entitled Our Seamen, which made a great impression throughout the country.

In 1873 a Royal Commission was appointed to look into Plimsoll's suggestions and two years later a government bill was introduced, which Plimsoll, though regarding it as inadequate, agreed to accept.

C19 ship

But the world of politics is a changeable place and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, probably under pressure from the wealthy ship owners, suddenly announced to Parliament that the bill would be dropped.

Plimsoll lost his temper, called members of the house a bunch of "villains" and shook his fist in the Speaker's face.

Disraeli moved to reprimand him, but was persuaded to adjourn the matter for a week to allow Plimsoll time for reflection. Plimsoll eventually apologised.

But public opinion was on Plimsoll's side and it was Disraeli who was finally forced to back down.

New safeguards

A year later the Merchant Shipping Act was introduced, giving strong powers of inspection to the Board of Trade and introducing a mark onto the hull of all ships to ensure they were not overloaded - the Plimsoll line.

Plimsoll was re-elected for Derby in 1880 by a large majority, but gave up his seat to William Vernon Harcourt, believing that as Home Secretary Harcourt could advance sailors' interests more effectively than an ordinary MP.

Offered a seat by 30 constituencies, Plimsoll stood unsuccessfully in Sheffield Central in 1885 and fell out with Liberal leaders, who he felt neglected the question of shipping reform.

He died in Kent in 1898, but is still remembered by sailors throughout the world, and in the city of his birth today.

A bust of Plimsoll sits proudly at the side of the river on Hotwell Road and of course there's the Plimsoll Bridge at Cumberland Basin, a sign to sailors that they are reached the city of Bristol.

last updated: 19/05/2008 at 08:23
created: 19/05/2008

You are in: Bristol > History > Historic Figures > Samuel Plimsoll - the seaman's friend



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