Samuel Plimsoll: Pioneer of shipping reforms

Posted in Boats, Engineering, Politics, Sea, Ships on Thursday, 3 March 2011

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This edited article about Samuel Plimsoll originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 912 published on 14 July 1979. 

You might not expect a coal merchant to pioneer illustrated journalism, invent mechanical handling devices, and gain immortality with a mark on ships. But that was the achievement of Samuel Plimsoll.

Samuel Plimsoll. A pioneer of shipping reforms

Samuel Plimsoll. A pioneer of shipping reforms

Born in Bristol on 10th February, 1824, the son of a Customs officer, Plimsoll started his career as an office boy in a Sheffield solicitor’s office. Later he worked as a junior clerk in a brewery. But, by the time he was in his late twenties, there was germinating in his mind a plan by which he hoped to become a coal merchant.

He had noted that the Midland Railway had almost a monopoly of the overland carriage of coal to London and he saw the Great Northern Railway as a potential rival coal carrier, providing that he could arrange the supplies of coal and find customers for it in London.

However, his plans were shelved until after his marriage at Ecclesfield on 1st October, 1857 to Miss Eliza Ann Railton, who belonged to a well-to-do Yorkshire family which included mine-owners and iron-founders.

As if anticipating his future status, Plimsoll signed the marriage register as “gas coal merchant” of Hatton Garden, London. But which gas companies he supplied with coals is not known.

Where and how he sold coals is also obscure; but that he did sell considerable quantities is not in doubt, for the Great Northern Railway carried big supplies for him from collieries in South Yorkshire and Durham.

Plimsoll constructed a loading bay at Doncaster and impoverished himself by purchasing privately at £80 each his own coal wagons. But he had married a family that operated four collieries, and a rosy career in the coal trade seemed assured.

Plimsoll was dismayed by the breakages which occurred to coal during the loading and unloading of railway wagons. The coal merchant had to pay the colliery for the resulting unsaleable dust and also the railway for carrying it. If this damage could be avoided, a saving would accrue to the merchants. But what could be done?

The answer was simple. The coal could be slid down a chute into sacks. And if the chute was made of strong bars very close together then all the dust, to which the customers objected, would fall through. To put his ideas into action, Plimsoll applied for a patent covering “an invention for facilitating the unloading and transferring from railway wagons to carts and barges etc. the coals and other matters with which they may be loaded and for storing the same.” Thus the sifting process, in use today, was born.

The complete specification not only covered chutes or hoppers beneath wagons, but also a special adaptation of railway track with one rail lower than the other. The railway wagons would rest on the track at a steep angle to enable the coals to slide by gravity to the lower side of the wagon. The coal would fall through hinged trap doors fitted in the bottom or sides.

This idea seems never to have been used, but the rest of the patent was undoubtedly the foundation of Samuel Plimsoll’s success. With London eating up coals like a ravenous monster, and a considerable saving in each ton of coal for those merchants using his invention, Plimsoll saw himself in a key position in the trade.

Entering into an arrangement with the Great Northern Railway, he acquired the use of land near King’s Cross station where he built an up-to-date coal delivery depot.

So efficient and advanced was this depot that the railway company bought it from Plimsoll on 17th October, 1865.

Plimsoll made a fine profit and was able to lease the depot for 28 years. He made a charge for weighing, bagging and transferring coals from wagons to carts which was very profitable.

Plimsoll also built depots at two other London sites as well as taking out further coal appliance patents. One was for coaling steamships, but it does not appear to have been successful. By putting his coal depots in London he struck a staggering blow at the little wooden colliers carrying coals down the East Coast to London. But there is nothing to suggest that at this time he had more than a passing interest in ships.

With the coal business running smoothly under an able manager, Plimsoll turned his mind to politics as an outlet for his energies. After an initial failure, he was elected Member of Parliament for Derby in 1868.

Shipping malpractices were rife at this time. Vessels were overloaded and many were unseaworthy. A ship-owner, James Hall, pointed out in a letter to The Times on 17th October, 1867, that a 500-ton vessel, nearly 30 years old, had been loaded in July with 700 tons of coal for Shanghai. The vessel had been taking on water from the time of its loading and, despite every effort, it had to be abandoned a short way out.

Quickly offering Hall his support in Parliament, Plimsoll worked tenaciously collecting material about the hardships and conditions at sea. Photographs of as much of this work as possible were published. Plimsoll thus became one of the pioneers of pictorial journalism.

Plimsoll was simple in his demands on his fellow MPs. He merely wanted a line, a draught mark, painted on the ship’s side to show the level to which a ship could be loaded.

The Board of Trade, a government department, had already noted that out of the full total of vessels lost in the seven years ending in 1871, colliers accounted for nearly half. Most were lost off the East Coast when carrying coal to the south. Reporting on the losses of 1868, they said “about half of it is represented by the unseaworthy, overladen and ill-found vessels of the collier class chiefly employed in the coasting trade”.

The coal-shippers had powerful friends at Westminster and, to Plimsoll’s disgust, Parliament refused in 1875 to consider his Merchant Shipping Bill and, in anger, he pulled a copy of it from his pocket and flung it at them. He then disappeared from the political arena for some time after expressing his intention to “unmask the villains who sit in the House.”

Torn between public opinion which supported Plimsoll’s proposals and private, but doubtless powerful intestests who would have none of it, the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, conducted through Parliament his Merchant Shipping Act of 1876. This conceded Plimsoll his load line but allowed the owners to fix its position on their ships.

Plimsoll, aided by his supporters in Parliament, spent the next 14 years making evident the hypocrisy of this decision and finally getting the Board of Trade to become responsible for fixing the position of this line.

His objective achieved, Plimsoll suffered a rapid decline in health and died at Folkestone on 3rd June, 1898. Thus began an era of greater security at sea – thanks to Plimsoll and his line of safety.

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