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Drawing the line at safety; The Plimsoll Mark is a familiar shipping term - but who was its namesake? Peter Elson reports.

Byline: Peter Elson

IN LATER life, he was revered as "the sailor's truest friend", but, during his campaigning career, Samuel Plimsoll was despised and derided by many Liverpool shipowners.

His is a fascinating story of a great Victorian philanthropist, who gave his name to the safe loading horizontal line bisecting a circle painted on every ship's side.

Plimsoll was derided and humiliated by vested shipping interests, but was hailed a national hero and nearly derailed Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Two crucial issues were at stake. Firstly, the over-loading of cargo ships, and secondly the scandal of the "coffin ships", says Nicolette Jones, Plimsoll's biographer.

As a journalist, her interest was kindled when she moved into Plimsoll Road, north London, in 1995.

"It took decades for agreement to what sounds like a rather boring health and safety measure - simply putting a mark on ships' sides to stop overloading," she says.

This was complicated by an insurance scam in which unscrupulous shipowners bought rotten ships, repainted, renamed and reinsured them.

These "coffin ships" were sent to sea in the murderous expectation they would founder and their crews drown, so insurance would be paid.

"There were allegations that these ships were being sent out made of wood so rotten it could be scooped out by hand," says Nicolette.

"Some ships were so overloaded that the main deck was awash in the slightest waves."

Legislating against these practices would seem commonsense, but Plimsoll was loathed by certain shipowners.

His copper-bottomed life-long enemy was a Liverpool shipowner called Edward Bates, based at the Albert Dock.

Bates, an MP, did well from shipping and occupied a fine house at Bellefield (Everton FC's former training ground).

"He was a penny-pinching, belligerent businessman. Bates's fleet were reputed as being very dodgy, with lots of cases of scurvy," says Nicolette.

"His great-great-granddaughter told me he's still known as 'Scurvy Bates' in their family.

They're not proud of him."

Plimsoll campaigned for six years and wrote the book Our Seamen, in 1873, which was distributed to 600,000 people.

But legislation kept being deferred in the House of Commons to appease shipowners and the book resulted in 13 libel cases against Plimsoll.

The biggest action, a test case, was tried at St George's Hall, Liverpool. It resulted in a shipowner, Norwood, losing to Plimsoll, causing others to withdraw.

"Norwood was not one of the worst offenders, but Plimsoll described in his book how this shipowner discharged cargo at sea so his vessel could get over the Mersey Bar," says Nicolette.

"In 1871, a Board of Trade report that revealed that 856 ships went down within 10 miles of the British coast in moderate conditions. There were many honourable shipowners who supported Plimsoll, as he was quick to recognise."

One was James Hall, who originally proposed the Plimsoll Mark, who was a Newcastle shipowner whose cause Plimsoll took up. Ultimately, in summer, 1875, Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli refused to put through this legislation until the next session.

Plimsoll lost his temper and accused other MPs of being "villains who colluded with murderers outside the House".

When demanded that he should name names, he responded: "I want to ask if Mr Bates is the same Edward Bates who lost six ships last year?"

Having named Edward Bates, he was asked to leave the Commons chamber and told to apologise a week later.

But during that week there were huge nationwide pro- Plimsoll demonstrations, including in Liverpool, at St George's Hall. "Plimsoll apologised to the House, but not to Bates, who was still trying to oust him from Parliament a decade later," said Nicolette.

"Typically, when faced with a whistleblower, the opposition questioned their mental stability and Plimsoll was referred to as 'the sincere but hysterical member for Derby'.

"Later, Bates was accused of electoral corruption and his relatives told me he hired gangs of thugs to beat up Plimsoll on the steps of Plymouth Town Hall."

But there were Liverpool heroes, too, who demonstrated on Plimsoll's side in favour of his ideas and against Disraeli.

"Disraeli underestimated the public enthusiasm for Plimsoll who had toured the country for years," says Nicolette.

Plimsoll mobilised formidable support from the likes of William Gladstone (Liberal leader from a famous Liverpool family) and Florence Nightingale.

The national outcry was so extreme, that Disraeli feared for his own political future. Letters exist in which he admitted he might be finished by the furore.

Cartoons in Britain and the US depicted Disraeli doing penance, brought to his knees by public opinion.

He had to rush through a stopgap Merchant Shipping Bill which fulfilled some of the requirements.

"Afterwards, he claimed the public had helped him to achieve something he couldn't have done, proving that spin doctoring is nothing new," says Nicolette.

"Arguments against legislation seem familiar to today, about foreign competition and the amount of red tape.

"It's the same as in any profitissue situation where people are being exploited, such as sweat shops or cockle-pickers."

NICOLETTE JONES will give a free illustrated talk on The Plimsoll Sensation at Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool, at 7pm, on Thurs, Mar 13.

Her biography, The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea, Abacus, pounds 9.99


Author Nicolette Jones; and, inset, the simple idea that saved so many lives
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 11, 2008
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