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

After a storm had come up, our ship owner would be informed that his ship had sunk. His ship? Are you certain? Yes. Well then, good news. After pious utterances of bereavement and a charitable gift of a few pounds to the widows and orphans, he pocketed 10,000 pounds. Several millions of dollars today. An easy way to make money. And if you did not mind being a murderer, and many did not, then you could accumulate a large fortune. And the insurance company? Lloyds of London was then and is now, a group of individuals and syndicates, each purchasing a small bit of many hundreds even thousands of insurance policies. So the losses were spread over hundreds of syndicates – and rates were set to cover projected losses. So the good subsidized the bad. A write-off we would say.

And sailors and the widows and orphans of the sailors, poor, uneducated, uninsured, had but one champion — Samuel Plimsoll – but a mighty champion he was. He never gave up, he never gave in, he never compromised. It is rare when one can say that a reform of this magnitude belongs to one person but one can say it of Plimsoll’s work.

But it wasn’t easy. After devoting much of his adult life to this cause, Plimsoll finally roused the British people to the injustice of ‘coffin-ships,’ so much so that Queen Victoria herself kept asking the Prime Minister what he was doing to ameliorate the situation. Finally, the British Parliament passed the The Merchant Shipping Act of 1876, which specified for the very first time, how deeply a ship could be loaded. And they backed it with the force of law, with inspectors, and finally with the marine surveyors of Lloyds of London. And to this very day, on the bow and stern of every merchant ship in the world, you can see the load lines for various conditions of water and seasons of the year. These are known worldwide as “Plimsoll Marks.”

Recommended reading: The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign To Save Lives At Sea by Nicolette Jones (3 stars). While this book can be a trifle tedious, it is up to date, having been published in 2007, and tells the complete story I have summarized above.

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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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