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Horizons article 12 February 2024

Plimsoll at 200: the legacy beyond the load line

  • Maritime rules and safety
  • Lloyd's Register Foundation
Issue 68

Samuel Plimsoll was born on 10 February 1824, but his work to improve safety at sea is still relevant today

By Nicolette Jones – writer, journalist, broadcaster and author of ‘The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea’.

This year we celebrate the birth of Samuel Plimsoll, born two hundred years ago and whose lasting legacy of the load line, or Plimsoll Line, continues to save countless lives at sea today.

Together with his wife Eliza, Plimsoll – then Member of Parliament for the UK city of Derby – led a decades-long legal, social, and political battle for justice against the dangerous practice of overloading of ships.  Overloading impacts crews' ability to operate vessels safely, and before the introduction of the load line during the 1870s, sailings often resulted in fatalities.

Despite the optional use of the ‘Lloyd’s Rule’ introduced in 1835, that required three inches of freeboard per foot of depth, transatlantic ships leaving UK ports were often loaded as deep in the water as canal boats. One contemporary report given by a sailor’s widow during an enquiry after the loss of her husband’s ship, explains how, after saying farewell onboard, she stepped up, rather than down, from the deck to a rowing boat that lay alongside.

The issuance of international load line certificates is an enduring part of the Plimsoll legacy, but was a long campaign met with resistance along the way.

Whilst the load line became compulsory for all ships entering British ports from 1876, owners could position the line themselves. Rules governing the line were finally fixed by independent authorities in 1890. Load lines were governed in this way until 1966, when sixty nations adopted the International Convention of Load Lines (last amended in 2019). Since then, the number of signatories to the convention has grown to 162.

It is hard to quantify just how many lives may have been saved over the years by the tireless work of Eliza and Samuel Plimsoll. We know from Board of Trade reports that in 1871 a total of 856 ships went down within 10 miles of the British coast in conditions that were no worse than a strong breeze. Overloading and unseaworthiness caused some 500 seamen a year to drown. We can only extrapolate from those 500 British lives a year the impact of a global load line measured over 134 years.

During his campaigns, Plimsoll suffered vilification and libel cases – some from fellow MPs – which almost ruined him, but he earned the support of the nation, while Eliza’s catalytic work was recognised with tributes in several British cities and abroad. One characteristic testimonial in praise of Plimsoll from seamen in Hamburg, as featured in Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s groundbreaking Rewriting Women into Maritime project, refers to ‘your dear wife to whom we look with reverence as your untiring coadjutor in your great and ennobling work trying to prevent shipwrecks and loss of life, widows’ tears and orphans’ cries’.

The load line continues to be challenged despite the proven success. The pressure is always to increase cargo – and therefore profitability – either by adjusting the line (as happened in 1906, when the Winter North Atlantic level was removed, to be later reinstated for vessels 328 feet or less in length), or by flouting the rules. European and Canadian authorities reported 3,197 breaches of the load line regulations internationally as recently as 2005.

The most worrying contraventions today, according to Lloyd’s Register experts, are on domestic ferries in some parts of the world where loading is insufficiently regulated internally.

Modern tragedies caused by overloading – such as the loss of 304 people, including 250 schoolchildren, on the MV Sewol ferry in South Korea in 2014 – echo all too closely the nineteenth-century shipwrecks that fuelled Plimsoll’s campaigns for change. When, for instance, the SS London went down in 1866 and 270 people drowned, the passengers put plaintive messages to their loved ones in bottles, some of which were found. Schoolchildren who died on the Korean ferry texted similar messages to their parents on their phones. The technology differed; the heartbreak was the same.

For maritime safety campaigners today, ‘learning from the past’ – as encapsulated by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation initiative of the same name – is critical. Plimsoll taught subsequent reformers that public opinion is powerful. That moral issues are straightforward. That action to protect others is obligatory. And that persistence pays off.

There are still hurdles. Standardised regulations can still be met with resistance, despite a high level of cooperation with the shipping registers. The issue of cargo liquefaction, for example, recalls commercial pressure on Plimsoll over deck loading and the dangers of loose freight that shifts and unbalances a ship. The same pressure (compounded by the time necessary for tests) works against empowering ship masters to refuse cargo over the

History repeats itself because an underlying issue endures: those people who made the profit were not the same people who took the risk. Wherever and whenever such a division appears, there is a tendency for the danger to increase.

The Plimsolls faced down their opponents, whose arguments have a timeless quality. There were objections to red tape, fears of foreign competition, shifted blame and political manoeuvres, as well as vested interest. Every one of these sounds familiar to a modern ear.

Plimsoll’s pertinence applies not only to maritime matters. Safety regulations in many sectors encounter challenges such as those Plimsoll once fought to change on behalf of seafarers. The same separation of profit and risk lies behind so much suffering in our time. Think of the use of unsafe cladding at Grenfell Tower in London, where 72 people died by fire in 2017. Or health service employees given inadequate personal protection equipment during the pandemic. It not difficult to find examples of people prepared to make money by risking the safety of others.

If Plimsoll were here today, he would still find himself very busy indeed.