Plimsoll Marks: The Most Important Practice for Safety at Sea Ever Invented (Part 1 of 2)

Many called him a fanatic; others a rabble-rouser; others said ill informed, pompous. Some thought him the biggest fool of the age. Members of government and industry thought him a danger to the country, to the economy, to the navy, if not the very Empire itself. His scheme would destroy the merchant marine, increase the price of food, pitch the laboring classes into starvation. So they fought him and fought him for years, for decades even; three decades to be exact. They fought him in Parliament, in the pages of the Times of London, in the courts — even suing him for libel. He had to sell his home to pay the judgment. This man’s name was Samuel Plimsoll.

While they fought him, hundreds of British merchant ships sank each year. And their sailors sank with them. In 1871, the Board of Trade in Great Britain reported 856 British merchant ships had gone down within ten miles of the coast of the UK. (As cited in The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign To Save Lives At Sea by Nicolette Jones.) Worse, another 149 ships foundered in moderate gales which they should easily have sailed through had they been properly loaded and in good repair. They weren’t. Writes the author:

Between 1861 and 1870, 5,826 shipwrecks took place close to the coasts of the British Isles, and 8105 people died … even the Board of Trade acknowledged that, scandalously, these deaths were preventable. It identified two avoidable causes of such casualties: ships were either ill-repaired or they were overloaded.

It’s almost impossible to believe. Great Britain was the most important seafaring nation of the age. 856 English merchant ships sank almost within eyesight of the British Isles? Yes, they did. Ship owners didn’t care. Sailors cost nothing. You didn’t have to insure them or provide health care. You barely had to feed them. Their wages were very low and once a ship sank, pay stopped, and who was to say when the ship sank? Maybe it sank twenty days out from port. Or two. The cargo, like the ship, was insured – indeed often over insured. This is illegal today since it creates what insurance companies call “moral hazard.” No kidding.

A ship owner would purchase an old ship for a few thousand pounds then buy a mountain of coal – which was even cheaper than the ship. In fact, he would purchase far more coal than the ship could safely carry. So much that when one loaded the coal into the ship, there remained but a foot, sometimes less, of freeboard — the space between the sea and the deck. If the ship owner insured the ship and the cargo for 15,000 pounds, and it was actually worth 5,000 pounds, then those lacking in Christian charity might go so far as to say the ship owner wanted the ship to sink for when a ship so overloaded hit a storm, sink she would.

This scheme was not exactly a secret. Quoting from the aforementioned book on Plimsoll:

These became known as ‘coffin-ships,’ and merchant sailors lived in fear of having to crew them. The Earl of Shaftesbury, the celebrated philanthropist, described the use of coffin-ships as, ‘one of the most terrible, the most diabolical systems that ever desolated mankind.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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