11 Jun /13

Plimsoll/Plimsoll Line

Health and safety campaigners often make as many enemies as admirers, and Samuel Plimsoll had to fight a bitter battle to make nineteenth century shipbuilders toe the line. Plimsoll, a respected Member of Parliament, argued that the simple act of putting a mark on the side of a ship to guard against overloading would be a life saver. There was no logical argument against him, but was opposed by owners who saw easy profits in overloading cargo ships. Even worse were the owners who sent out “coffin ships”, splintering wrecks that would sink with tragic loss of life but huge insurance payments.

Plimsoll campaigned for six years, and enjoyed the support of William Gladstone and Florence Nightingale. In the end, overwhelming public backing forced Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to include his proposals in a Merchant Shipping Bill.

Thirty years after his death, Plimsoll gained further fame when the popular rubber soled shoes were given his name. It was thought that the line separating the sole and the canvas upper resembled the overloading mark on the side of a ship. The man whose persistence kicked down the door of injustice might have been amused to see his name attached to an item of footwear.