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Plimsoll Line and Coffin Ships

Graphics by Hannah Welch
Illustrating the Plimsoll Line – Graphics by Hannah Welch

A coffin ship was the name given to a ship that was so poorly maintained that it had only a slim chance of making its destination. These ships were very prevalent in the latter 19th century when emigrants from Ireland and cargoes from Britain were exported in large numbers. Ships were grossly overloaded and ships sank while crews and passengers died in the thousands. A courageous member of the British parliament named Samuel Plimsoll tried for years to get legislation passed to improve safety and maintenance on ships, and to regulate the overloading of cargo encouraged by greedy owners to maximize profits at the expense of safety. He was stymied at every turn because many ship owners were MPs themselves and loathed passing new laws that would be to their disadvantage; they were making fortunes in the shipping business. Ships were insured by Lloyds of London at way above their real value and it was often more lucrative to have a ship sink than not – and to hell with the loss of life.

I suppose one could draw a parallel with today’s political climate in the USA where large corporations are buying the politicians and an ever bigger gap in wealth is evident between the declining prosperity of the middle class and the increasing super rich. It’s hard to envisage a solution because the foxes are in charge of the hen house.

Eventually (in 1876) Plimsoll achieved partial success when a bill he had been advocating for years was amended into the Merchant Shipping Act. It ordered ship inspections to be carried out by the Board of Trade and mandated a ‘Plimsoll Line’ be marked on ships’ waterlines dictating a maximum load. His tenacious efforts undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.

Plimsoll gym shoes became an accidental offshoot; they were invented at about the same time as the passing of his amendment bill and the name was intended as an honor to the resolute politician. The shoe was made of canvas, with a rubber base line around the entire shoe from the sole and up the topside for about an inch. Its purpose was to keep the foot dry until the line had been breached; then your foot got wet. Appropriate, eh?

As a boy Charlie remembers plimsolls, “They were part of your kit for PT, but after an hour of running around your feet stank to high heaven.” Samuel Plimsoll’s heroic battle didn’t stink at all. If it had stunk it probably wouldn’t have finally achieved success. Plimsoll resolved a stinking issue although some in parliament claimed that it was nothing more than a ‘big stink’.

So there you have it – how to conjugate the verb ‘stink’. Personally I take my hat off to Samuel Plimsoll. His dedication to human rights was admirable. The US Congress could use someone like him – there are some real stinkers up there!

The Plimsoll Sensation by Nicolette Jones (2006): Interesting and well regarded biography of Samuel Plimsoll.

 

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