The Sailors' Friend

May 26, 2008

Before sailing around the shoreline of Holland’s old Zuider Zee with my three sons last week, I packed a suitably nautical book in my kit called ‘The Plimsoll Sensation’, in case we got becalmed.

The book had caught my eye in a shop several months ago. I had often cited the story of Samuel Plimsoll as a great example of what it meant to be salt in modern society. Yet the general ignorance of the name Plimsoll today also illustrates how little we understand the rich social heritage of our Christian faith.  

That ignorance was aso shared by the book’s author, Nicolette Jones, who happened to live in North London on Plimsoll Road, a few doors down from a pub called ‘The Plimsoll’. When the pub changed owners, name and sign, her intrigue was aroused. She went searching for the missing sign, found it in the pub’s back yard and bought it for £20. So began her research of ‘a tale of villiany and courage, of humour and surprises, of international consequences and contemporary resonance.’ And, she admits, the discovery of a hero.

Her preface reads as follows: “Once there was a cause that stirred a nation, nearly dislodged a prime minister and has since saved hundred of thousands of lives. It was taken up by parliamentarians, journalists, businessmen, trade unionists, novelists, playwrights, clergymen, caricaturists and music-hall performers. Its supporters flocked to meetings…It involved all classes…Florence Nightingale contributed money, Queen Victoria expressed sympathy…It is still commemorated in English idiom, in the names of streets and ships, in statues and plaques, in the logo of London Transport and in the gym shoes of British schoolchildren. And yet we hardly remember what it was all about.”


Gym shoes? Those old-fashioned ones with canvas tops and rubber soles that we called sandshoes or tennis shoes when I was a child, were quaintly called by the English ‘Plimsolls’. Such shoes should only be immersed in water up to the top of the rubber soles and no further-which is why the shoe was named in Plimsoll’s honour.

For Samuel Plimsoll (1824-98) was a British politician and social reformer, now best remembered for having devised the Plimsoll Line or Mark that indicates the limit to which a ship may be loaded, or how deep it should lie in the water.

Such a measure would seem obvious and sensible to us today.  The Plimsoll Mark has been adopted by global maritime legislation in a Load Lines Protocol, firstly in 1930 and adapted to accomodate changes in ship design, most recently in 2005. It can be seen painted on the midships of virtually any registered vessell of almost all nationalities. 

Yet what stirred Plimsoll to nation-wide agitation, great personal financial investment, risk of libel action, and on one occasion the breaching of parliamentary protocol as he emotionally berated Prime Minister Disraeli for delaying urgent shipping legislation, was the constant stream of sinkings of so-called ‘coffin ships’. The ‘villains’ responsible for the resulting drownings of thousands of British sailors and passengers were unscrupulous ship-owners who cared not if their unseaworthy vessels were overloaded-as long as they were covered by insurance. Some such ‘villains’ were present in the House as Members, and Plimsoll dared to call them that to their face.

Plimsoll’s popularity grew throughout the land in 1872 after he published his book, Our Seamen, graphically describing the suffering of sailors who faced imprisonment if they refused to sail on dangerously loaded or unsafe ships; and of plight of the thousands of destitute widows and children left behind. 

But Plimsoll’s battle to have the load line legally enforced met cynical indifference by the authorities at best, and ferocious opposition with legal counterattacks at worst. Prime Ministers Gladstone and later Disraeli feared the rich and influential shipowners more than they did the Member from Derby, which after all was as far away fr

om any British port as one c
ould get.

One of the main arguments used by liberals and conservatives alike against Plimsoll’s campaign was that it would inflict irrepairable damage on Britain’s ability to compete commercially on the seas.


Like WIlberforce before him (battling for another cause that today seems a moral no-brainer, the abolition of slavery), Plimsoll was strongly motivated by his ‘fear of God and love of man’. Jones reveals his Congregational roots, his early wish to go into the ministry, and his faith in God and Jesus Christ His Son. Plimsoll was part of the evangelical movement that emerged from the Wesleyan revival with a strong social conscience, personified by Wilberforce and the so-called Clapham Sect.

Lord Shaftesbury, the ‘working man’s hero’ who had earlier introduced the ten-hour working day and many laws protecting men, women and children from hellish conditions in mines, factories and chimneys, was another evangelical whose faith compelled him to fight on behalf of the oppressed. Shaftesbury closely allied himself with Plimsoll’s cause.

Plimsoll’s national popularity eventually forced the prime minister in 1875 to enact the load line and other measures for safety at sea, thus setting a standard for all other nations to follow-Germany in 1908, France in 1909, Holland in 1910, the United States in 1929, and some thirty nations by 1930. 

Plimsoll became internationally known as ‘the sailors’ friend’. Grateful sailors paid for a memorial to their hero erected on the banks of the Thames River in London in 1929. Even the logo of the London Transport and the Underground was directly inspired by the Plimsoll Mark: a circle bisected by a line.

As we sailed last week from harbour to harbour around a coastline that had also known many wrecks, my oldest son thumbed through the book. He works for Stop the Traffik, an anti-human trafficking agency.  ‘Hmmm,” he said, ‘I need to read this book. Some arguments against justice never change!’

Till next week,

Till next week,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for Weekly Word