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6 Oct 2018
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Geoffrey Moorhouse

Saturday 1 July 2006

The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea
by Nicolette Jones
395pp, Little, Brown, £20

A storm at sea is enough to put the fear of God into anyone; and there's nothing like being caught in a Force 12 to concentrate the mind on first and last things, to the exclusion of anything in between. This is as true as it ever was, even in an age of satellite navigation, aerial rescue services and stabilisers. But in the 19th century, life afloat was infinitely more hazardous, not only because such aids were lacking then, but because too many vessels were not fit to be on the high seas and, more often than not, they were disastrously overloaded by owners who didn't give a damn about the welfare of those who sailed in them, whose lives were thought to be expendable for the sake of profit. These were the infamous "coffin ships", and never was an epithet more richly deserved.

Nothing was done about them, or the rottenness of too many shipowners, until the seaman's cause was taken up by a rich coal merchant who became MP for Derby, possibly the most landlocked constituency in the United Kingdom. Samuel Plimsoll was one of those irritating souls who are never happy unless they are shoving some good cause up the nation's collective nose and making a nuisance of themselves: before ever he became the sailor's best friend, he had campaigned on behalf of miners, in favour of public footpaths, against high railings in Regent's Park, and for the removal of some fir trees that were obstructing everybody's view of the Eden Valley, as seen from Penrith. Plimsoll was a hearty, hymn-singing Congregationalist, but two of his principal allies in the fight for seamen were the atheist Charles Bradlaugh and the Theosophist Annie Besant, whose most notable work was to be laying the foundations of Indian independence. Queen Victoria sympathised with him and signalled this by inviting him to Windsor. He had one other stalwart on his side, and that was his first wife, Eliza, who effectively killed herself with almost anonymous overwork to assist Plimsoll in his ordained purposes: it was she who set him on a course that led to the establishment of the life-saving Plimsoll line - whose distinctive marking also in time came to symbolise the London Underground.

In this splendid and meticulously researched biography, Nicolette Jones makes it plain that Plimsoll was not immaculate: very few do-gooders are. He too easily lost his temper (he once shook his fist at Disraeli in the Commons and on another occasion had to apologise to the House for going over the top) and he was a master at manipulating public opinion. Jones goes so far as to say that he not only thrived "on righteous outrage" and was "relentless when he thought he was right", but that the establishment of the Plimsoll line was "a landmark in the history of the ascendancy of people power" - even when less than 10% of the population had the vote; that "We owe our political conscience to the likes of him." Few contemporaries who didn't have a vested interest in the coffin ships would hear a word against him when he was at the height of his campaign; but one, oddly enough, was Joseph Conrad, who publicly declared that the line "was based on a very outrageous assumption", and caricatured Plimsoll as the grimy ship's lawyer Knowles in The Nigger of the Narcissus. Towards the end of his life, many people who had supported his aims clearly began to think of him as a self-serving windbag.

What caused Eliza to give her husband a push in the right direction was his survival of a North Sea storm in 1864, when he was in transit from London to Redcar, in conditions that wrecked four other ships and cost good men their lives. On investigating the norms of maritime practice, Plimsoll made the appalling discovery that many vessels sailing out of British ports were not only overloaded but often over-insured, so that they were likely to sink in anything more than a flat calm, but would still give the owner a handsome return on his enterprise. One ship was so low in the water that it was necessary to step up from her deck to get into a rowing boat alongside.

Half the wrecks round the British coasts in the 1860s were caused by overloading or unseaworthiness and, in 1873, half the ships sunk in European waters were owned by Englishmen. Yet if seamen did not discover what they had let themselves in for until after they had signed on for a coffin ship, and then refused to sail in her, they went to prison for breach of contract: between 1870 and 1872, no fewer than 1,628 such men ended up in jail.

Plimsoll knew that some ship-owners took care of their crews and their ships, and John Burnes, the Cunard boss, was one of them, taking the view that the scoundrels in his trade needed keelhauling. He and others like him backed Plimsoll's proposal for a loading line above which a hull must not be allowed to submerge at the dock, and for regular inspection of all shipping by the Board of Trade, whose surveyors would detain 440 vessels in the first year of the 1873 Merchant Shipping Act. The trouble was that Burnes and his colleagues were outnumbered by the villains, 18 of whom sat in the House of Commons, with a disproportionate influence among fellow MPs when any maritime topic cropped up.

Plimsoll's particular bête noire was the Tory MP for Plymouth, Edward Bates, who lost six ships in one year, was thrice investigated for scurvy aboard his vessels, and was eventually expelled from the Commons for bribing the electorate; whereupon Disraeli gave him a baronetcy. The evidence against Bates's fleet of unseaworthy vessels was so notorious that he never dared sue Plimsoll for exposing him repeatedly, though other shipowning MPs did, and always lost their cases or had to withdraw from them.

It was an uphill battle to get reforming legislation through Parliament, and this book is partly a highly instructive illustration of blocking tactics, of primary self-interest by MPs, and their cynical disregard for the morality they sold to the voters in order to secure their seats. Three Plimsoll bills had been rejected by February 1871, though most of the nation had been won over to the seamen's cause by then, and the excuse for inaction was invariably that the shipowners could not possibly survive against foreign competition unless they were allowed to do as they wished, a view that was endorsed by a royal commission in 1873. Not until 1876 was the loading line made compulsory in an amended Merchant Shipping Act, but even after it the vested interests in and outside Parliament tried to put the clock back. Plimsoll died in 1898, having fathered three children in his 60s by his second wife, but eight years later Lloyd George at the Board of Trade raised the level of the Plimsoll line so that cargo vessels could increase their capacity by 5%. Six years after that, the SS North Briton, whose freeboard had thus been reduced from 16 to 10 inches above the waterline so as to accommodate 130 tons of additional freight, went down off Ushant with 20 of her crew.

But Jones saves her most shocking disclosure until the end of her book, and it is this. Although Plimsoll's loading lines were in time imposed on shipping of almost all nations, there is still no Winter North Atlantic level of loading - which is a safeguard against the roughest weather any mariner is likely to experience above the Equator - for ships more than 330ft long; which effectively means every supertanker and every container ship afloat. I expect that's because they wouldn't be able to compete profitably if their crews were given the protection smaller vessels enjoy. And that's not to count the rustbuckets galore sailing under flags of convenience that ought never to be allowed out of port. In some ways, nothing has changed in 150 years.