Coffin Ships and The Plimsoll Line: Safety at Sea

November 2021

In this episode Dr Sam Willis explores the troubling history of safety at sea. In the eighteenth century seafaring was a very dangerous business indeed: not only were navigation and safety systems limited but unscrupulous owners of merchant ships would deliberately send ships to sea over-laden, but with enormous insurance raised on the vessel. These became known as ‘Coffin Ships’. To make matters worse, sailors who had signed up for a voyage but then refused to sail in such vessels could be sent to prison. Appalled by such public flouting of responsibility one man – Samuel Plimsoll – took it upon himself to reform safety at sea, taking on the entire maritime establishment. Plimsoll eventually succeeded, but only after numerous knock-backs from politicians in the grip of maritime merchant interest. His solution to the problem, the ‘Plimsoll Line’ – being a safe load-line marked on the hull of a ship – changed seafaring forever and also marked a significant moment in popular democracy when the will of the British public – in this case for the protection of their mariners – was heard. To find out more, Sam speaks with Nicolette Jones, author of the multiple-award winning book ‘The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea.’

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. In this episode I explore the troubling history of safety at sea, and we start by going back in time 200 years. In the 18th century, seafaring was a very dangerous business, indeed. Not only were navigation and safety systems limited, but unscrupulous owners of merchant ships would deliberately send ships to sea overladen, but with enormous insurance raised on the vessel, these became known as coffin ships. To make matters worse, sailors who had signed up for a voyage, but then refuse to sail in such vessels could be sent to prison. Appalled with such public flouting of responsibility, one man took it upon himself to reform the entire question of safety at sea, taking on the entire maritime establishment in doing so. Samuel Plimsoll eventually succeeded, but only after numerous knock backs from politicians in the grip of maritime merchant interest. His solution to the problem, the Plimsoll line, being a safe load line marked on the hull of a ship changed to seafaring forever and also marked a significant moment in popular democracy. The will of the British public, in this case for the protection of their mariners, was heard. To find out more. I spoke with the excellent Nicolette Jones, author of the multiple award winning book, “The Plimsoll Sensation, the great campaign to save lives at sea”. Here is Nicolette. Nicolette, tell me about why life was dangerous at sea.

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Why life was dangerous at sea. Well, in 1871, a Board of Trade report revealed that 856 ships had gone down within 10 miles of the British coast, in conditions that were no worse than a strong breeze. What we know is that the reasons for this were several, one was overloading, hence the idea of plimsoll’s load line. The other was that ships were sent to see in poor condition, they weren’t inspected before they went to sea. And they could be, there was insured insurance scam, allegedly that people could insure a ship for a great deal of money. And in fact, it was more or less a floating wreck that had been renamed and repainted if it had already been in trouble at sea. And then the owners could claim a great deal of money, they could even lie about what the cargo was. And pretend it was something more valuable that in fact had been. And so everybody profited when a ship went down except the sailors who died. And there was, at the time, the estimate was about 500 lives a year being lost, that could have been saved. And so Plimsoll, Samuel Plimsoll arrived on the scene, scandalised by the state of the shipping industry.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It seems to me that I’m always astonished by this with coming from a maritime country that the place was run by a bunch of crooks.

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Well, of course, there were people who believed that Samuel Plimsoll exaggerated the abuses of the shipping industry. And of course, they were honourable ship owners. But there’s always the temptation when you increase the profits if you increase the risk. And if the people who are taking the risk are not the people who get the profits. We know this in other walks of life,  that the tendency is always to increase the risk. To think well, if we just loaded a bit more cargo, we’d make twice as much money. And therefore we’re going to do that. And last time it was all right. You know, this time, the sea conditions are stormier and the ship goes down. There was there were also other considerations like the fact that once you’d signed up for a ship, if you then decide look, took a look at it and decided it wasn’t sea worthy. You could spend three months in prison for breach of contract. So there were a lot of sailors who decided to go to prison instead of going to see in ships that they saw. There’s one case where several sailors were imprisoned. The ship sailed and went down in the Bay of Biscay and three sailors were drowned. There was another ship in which a bunch of several crews chose prison rather than sail it and eventually the owner scrambled around and got a crew that were entirely boys under the age of 17. And when the ship sailed, they all died. It went down. So, so there were all kinds of issues for those that fell foul of this that they were they were afraid to lose the livelihood for their families. If they didn’t  go to sea they ended up in prison instead. So yeah, it was and there were some cases that were reported where the ships were so deep in the water. One woman reported saying goodbye to her husband on a ship. And she said she then stepped up to the rowing boat that laid alongside from the deck of the ship, this is transatlantic or ships that were in the open sea. We’re travelling like canal boats that deep in the water. Yeah.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s such a powerful story, because it kind of generates a real self of sorry, generates a real sense of indignation when you hear it. Its seafaring was so dangerous anyway, because of the navigational problems because of the technology. Yes. But then you find out that people were, were deliberately sending unseaworthy ships to sea. And one of the reasons I like about this story is it kind of forms a bridge between the present and the past, you get a sense of just how cross or kind of unbelievable, this whole situation was, and how cross Plimsoll got about it. So let’s hear a little about Samuel Plimsoll, the man who, who decided to wage a war against this malpractice

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Yes, well, he was not a nautical man. In fact, his detractors made fun of the fact that he’d never been to sea and he didn’t really know anything about shipping. They argued. They spoofs of his speeches made him refer to the Cinque port of Newport Pagnell put sort of fake nautical terms in his mouth like a vast, heaving, as if he was somebody who’s constantly making up his connection, he was MP for a land bound constituency, for Derby. So it was fair enough to say that he didn’t have a great deal of experience of this. He was originally a coal merchant. That’s how he made his fortune. And, but he, he, for complicated reasons he’d been he’d been known as the miners friend, before he became known as the sailors friend. He was very involved in fundraising for mining catastrophes and to help the widows of miners who died in pit disasters. But there was conflict with trade unions in the pit that his father-in-law owned. And it became complicated for him to be very involved on the side of the miners. And I think he was looking for another cause when the shipping cause came to his attention. He met a man called James Hall, who was a ship owner in Newcastle, who was trying to promote the idea of a load line and Plimsoll said, “I’ll take that cause into the House of Commons for you.” He claimed later that he and his wife, Eliza had a sort of revelation on a beach at Redcar, when he came through a storm, which, in which four other ships went down. And he and Eliza apparently on the beach when he dedicated the rest of their lives to the safety of the sailor, because the ships that had sunk had been ships that were merchant ships, uninspected by authorities, whereas his ship was a passenger ship, and those had to be properly examined. So this was about cargo ships. This is about merchant ships particularly.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s interesting you say that he had a kind of Revelation, I do get a strong sense of religious fervour coming through with Plimsoll, is that is it fair to say that he was he was a very religious man. And, you know, he was, there was there’s quite a lot of hymn singing going along, as well as saving sailors lives.

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Yes he was, indeed he was a Congregationalist, which is his dissenting branch of Christianity, in which it was believed very strongly and individual responsibility and good works. He came from a family where they would invite the poor in off the street to dine. So his religious fervour which, as you say, was very strong, was very much based around the fact that you had to act to help other people. And so, yes, he was very much motivated by religion. He quoted religious motives in his speeches. But it was, it was about social justice, sort of in the in the vocabulary, if you like of the Victorian era in which that was always couched in Christian responsibility. But because he was Congregationalist, he was also in some ways a rebel because this was an unconventional branch of religion. And so it was possible to be both very pious and also to be rather well, literally Nonconformist, to be to be somebody who was, was setting himself against the status quo and the authorities, the current authorities.

     

    Sam Willis 

    The mention of his wife Eliza is interesting as well, because I mean, so many people focus on Plimsoll and what he did. But she was a very powerful lady behind him, wasn’t she?

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    I think the Plimsoll line should be regarded as a commemoration of both Samuel and Eliza, his first wife, who was really the driving force behind all this, it was, it was Eliza, who said, Go and talk to James Hall about his  load line. It was Eliza, who made all kinds of sacrifices and helped promote the cause. And it was in some ways, a moderating influence on Plimsoll, who was a rather impassioned man and I think she was quite level headed by comparison, and organised. So yes, Eliza Plimsoll was the mine owner’s step-daughter, was, you know, powerfully responsible for all the important decisions in his life? Really? So yes, I think, I think it’s, it’s, it’s her commemoration as much as his she was recognised by sailors in several ports, but every time they presented her with some token of their esteem, Plimsoll would make a speech on her behalf. She was never, it wasn’t the thing, I suppose for women to speak for themselves. So we know what Eliza thought, only as reported by her husband.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, it’s interesting to be aware of that, though, isn’t it and being able to actually piece it together and wonder whether you get a true a true reflection of what she actually thought or whether he was tweaking things as he went along?

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Well, when she died, she got very enthusiastic obituaries of her own in which people talked about how dedicated she was to the cause and how important she had been. And of course, she had a very significant role. At the point when, we’re jumping ahead a bit here, but Disraeli’s government finally postponed Plimsoll’s merchant shipping legislation, once too often after many years of campaigning, and Plimsoll lost his temper in the House of Commons called everybody cheats, and murderers. And Eliza in the ladies gallery anticipating the fact that this might be delayed again, had a protest that she scattered on the onto the press gallery, which was immediately below the lady’s gallery. And so it was front page news over on all the newspapers the following day. And that gave rise to an agitation nationally that led in effect to Disraeli being forced to introduce a merchant shipping bill. But if Eliza hadn’t been there, strategically dropping the flyers onto the journalists, it might never have quite gone the same way.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That mention of politics is interesting, because there’s a big underlying theme here, of the power of the people versus the power of the politicians. And I think one of the remarkable stories about this is you’ve got you’ve got Plimsoll, banging on a ballot saying that this is unfair, you’re all murderers, and then the politicians doing their best to obstruct or most of the politicians are doing their best to obstruct legislation, which is clearly in everyone’s best interest. How did you find that dealing with that issue?

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Isn’t it odd really how we know this throughout history that there are quite a lot of bits of legislation that are obviously in everybody’s interests, that there’s a great deal of resistance to, you know, people didn’t like seat belts when they came in? They didn’t want to stop sending chimney sweep small children up chimneys? The things that we think, how did anybody resist that? You know, history may say, How did anybody resist the idea of wearing masks in shops during a pandemic? You know, there are things that we do that are for the general good. And nevertheless, there are always people who don’t like it. I think what the politicians objected to at the time, and the ship owners, and they were often the same people, a lot of politicians owned ships. That was one of the issues. One of the things they objected to was just red tape. They didn’t like the idea that there was government interference in anything they did. And of course, that’s similarly something we hear when people introduce when government introduces legislation to kind of nanny state that people don’t want to be told what to do in their own interests. But the other thing was, was all about foreign competition, that they felt that if they weren’t allowed to load up to a certain point, then foreign ships would be taking over the business because they could transport more. Again, something that we hear, you know, when people say in sweatshops, what we have to pay people as little as this because otherwise we won’t be competitive. So the issues are extraordinarily timeless, I found but if it yes, this is very much a story of the machinations in the corridors of power of Plimsoll taking on Disraeli of originally Gladstone. And then after a change of government Disraeli, though he was a Liberal MP himself, and, and politicians with vested interests, taking the other side.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So what actually happened? I mean, his proposals were blocked several times weren’t they?

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    They were when he first introduced his merchant shipping bill in 1871. The opposition came out of the woodwork and it was clear that he wasn’t going to have an easy ride. So what he did was turn to the nation for support. He wrote a book called “Our Seamen an Appeal”, which was a sort of chronicle of all the abuses of the shipping industry, and an analysis of the way shipping insurance worked and so on, that allowed these nefarious practices to take place. 600,000 copies were distributed through trade unions, the Times serialised, a great deal of it, and it at that point did but he became a sort of cause celeb, in which the nation got behind him. So this did this and a great deal of campaigning around it, a lot of public meetings and so on, did lead to the establishment of a royal commission to look into shipping abuses, which he was delighted about. But after a year, they didn’t recommend a load line. So he was sort of back to square one. And so then, as I say, there was a build up to this moment this debacle in there in the House of Commons, in which Plimsoll finally lost his temper because things had been deferred  yet again. After that scene in which, you know, he called MPs villains who were colluding with the murderers outside the house. And he, you know, had to storm out of the house, he was he was sent out of the chamber and so on. That was that was huge news and on both sides of the Atlantic, actually all through Europe even. And it led to demonstrations in the streets, and the squares of Britain and Disraeli feared for his political future. But eventually, a stop gap merchant shipping bill was introduced as a consequence of this agitation. Unfortunately, it didn’t set a fixed load line, it allowed ship owners, this is partly because of an amendment in the House of Lords. But it allowed ship-owners to put the load line where they wanted. And one Cardiff ship owner captain put it on the funnel of his ship as a gesture of rebellion, so we didn’t really secure anything that that didn’t happen till till 1890 When Joseph Chamberlain, son of Neville Chamberlain, or rather sorry, father of Neville Chamberlain “Peace in our Time” Chamberlain. He was president of the Board of Trade, and he introduced a fixed load line eventually. But this by this point, Plimsoll was actually out of Parliament. He had handed over his seat to William Harcourt who was the Home Secretary who had lost his seat.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let’s talk about the load line itself. And can we just can you just describe it for people who have not who can’t kind of see it in their mind’s eye?

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Well, it was two things really, it was a so called ladder, which was different levels for different conditions, which were Tropical Fresh Water, Tropical, Fresh Water, Summer, Winter, and Winter North Atlantic. Those were the distinctions on a sort of a ladder of steps of levels of which, which will show the level of the limit of maximum submergence basically on the ship. So obviously, tropical fresh was deeper in the water than winter North Atlantic. Because you had to adjust according to conditions.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So the theory there is Winter North Atlantic, it’s a bigger lumpier sea, you need to have more of your vessel out of the water.

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    You need more freeboard. Exactly.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That makes me think that people have whoever came up with that idea hasn’t been in a storm in the Caribbean. With a really weird name for it.

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Yes. That is that is an issue actually, I’m sure that there are parts of the world with hurricanes where it’s it needs to be different. But that’s that was the original ladder and with it was the roundel the eye, the prints will mark which was a circle with a line through the middle. That looks like the London Underground line sign and was in fact, the inspiration of the London Underground sign. Because Charles Peck who designed it, originally, the sign was places on the London Underground where a blob with a name through the middle. Pick who did a redesign, extended that line through the middle so that it looked like the Plimsoll mark, because by then, the whole Plimsoll campaign stood for safety and integrity and honesty, and democracy. And so to use the Plimsoll Mark was to bring with it certain values that had been established by the by the campaign. So yes, so that’s what it was, it was it was a mark on all ships, not in fact, established internationally until astonishingly about the 1960s. I mean, they were in the early 20th century; some countries were still introducing load line. In the 1930s, there was quite a widespread agreement. I think that’s when the Americans got involved. Originally, it was a it was a line that specified that anybody any ship coming into a British port, had to have a load line. So that was a way of making it not just a British law, but something that applied elsewhere. But there is still breaches today, of the of load line regulations. Yes. So you know, it’s it, because the same thing is true. But if you can make more money by loading a bit deeper, people are going to see if they can get away to the risk. That hasn’t changed.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Hmm, that’s very shocking, isn’t it? I thought was a really interesting thing is after Plimsolls death. Lloyd George, and the Board of Trade changed the rules, yes, they raised the level of the line. So that cargo vessels could increase their capacity by 5%.  Properly turning in his grave, I should think

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    that’s right. And they had to get around again, with a bit of a campaign to try and try and remind everybody that what mattered I mean, it was the load line has had to be defended really ever since it was first established. And it has changed several times. And of course, developments in the nature of ships allow people to argue that a ship of a particular kind needs a load line at a different level. So these things are constantly revised. But you know, they’re still important. And we still hear stories of overloaded ships and the way in which people die. Certainly ferries, you hear stories of overloaded ferries, but it’s also true of other kinds of cargo.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And what’s the link with shoes, people might be thinking, Oh Plimsolls, what’s going on there?

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Well, what’s going on there is that at the height of his fame in 1876, after the merchant ship shipping bill was introduced, a chap called Phillip Lace who was in shoes I rather like the idea, Lace who is in shoes. Introduced to name sand shoes, which had been introduced to walk on the beach on bank holidays, which has also just been introduced to call them Plimsolls, because they were canvas above and rubber below. And so they could only safely be immersed in water up to a certain point, like a merchant ship. So it was a kind of n that everybody would recognise. And so as it happened, Plimsoll had an office near Elephant and Castle that was just around the corner from a shoe shop. And there was a display of Plimsolls in the window, you know, on sand, and he would pass it and enjoy it on his way into his office. So, so yes, there is a connection. People are often astonished to find that there really is a link, but they were they were so named in 1876.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wonderful, sorry. I mean, last question. I always like to ask any author this. I’m always intrigued. Why did you write a book about Plimsoll?

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Yes, well, that’s a very good question. And you think that it might be because say I had a PhD in maritime history, but I have to confess that it’s because I lived in Plimsoll road. Not much of a qualification. But it’s why it’s so obsessively researched this book, because I had to had to justify doing it by being absolutely sure about what I was finding out. Yes, I moved into our house and Plimsoll Road, there was a pub a few doors down for me with a pub sign on it that had a ship on it. But stuck over the ship was a sort of Plimsoll or other something a bit more like a baseball boot. And when the pub changed hands and the sign went, I had this sort of mad impulse in the night that I would quite like to see what was underneath the Plimsoll and I went and bought the pub, which is to the pub sign, not the pub that would have been expensive which is in my back garden, with the boot stripped off and had the Plimsoll ladder, tropical fresh, fresh summer, winter, Winter North Atlantic and Samuel Plimsolls name and dates. And that’s when I started to research it. I thought it might make an interesting article for a local paper. And it turned into such a huge story of the shipwrecks and the political machinations and the and the national demonstrations, and I’m afraid it became a book, quite a substantial book.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Very good book. It’s very good. But I think there’s a lesson there, isn’t it all sort of the unexpected influence of maritime history in our environment, in our surroundings, if only you know where to look?

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    Indeed, indeed, he is commemorated in more places. There are a lot of streets that are Plimsoll Roads around the country and Plimsoll Streets and Plimsoll Ways. So I’m quite lucky. Nobody had beaten me to it.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, thank you very much for talking to me today.

     

    Nicolette Jones 

    It’s a great pleasure. Thank you very much.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Now, as a special edition, we also have a little song for you. This is a recording of one Bill Cameron singing the traditional song, ‘Here’s success to Mr. Plimsoll’, recorded back in 1956, in the Scilly Isles, and now there’s a location familiar with danger at sea.

     

    Bill Cameron 

    Here’s success to Mister Plimsoll, a sailor’s friend, you all must know, He proved that many of our ship owners, religious men profess to be. They go to church to pray for sailors, whilst they have rotten ships at sea. Now they go and buy old worn out vessels and paint them up again as good is new. And they’ll sell them for double of their value and sail them in another name. And when they get out upon the ocean, the timbers then to pieces fly. And are left to the mercy of the waters and that’s why our British Seamen die.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening. And now I need to as traditional beg you all for help. Firstly, please tell everyone you know about this podcast. Secondly, please if you’re not already a member, join the Society for Nautical Research you could do so @snr.org.uk Your annual subscription will go towards paying for this podcast. It will help us continue to publish the mariners mirror quarterly journal that we’ve been publishing for our members for over a century and it will help us preserve our maritime past

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