Samuel Plimsoll

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Samuel Plimsoll
Born(1824-02-10)10 February 1824
Died3 June 1898(1898-06-03) (aged 74)
OccupationMP; social reformer
Known for Plimsoll line

Samuel Plimsoll (10 February 1824 – 3 June 1898) was an English politician and social reformer, now best remembered for having devised the Plimsoll line (a line on a ship's hull indicating the maximum safe draft, and therefore the minimum freeboard for the vessel in various operating conditions).

Freeboard (nautical) distance from the waterline to the upper deck level of a ship

In sailing and boating, a vessel's freeboard is the distance from the waterline to the upper deck level, measured at the lowest point of sheer where water can enter the boat or ship. In commercial vessels, the latter criterion measured relative to the ship's load line, regardless of deck arrangements, is the mandated and regulated meaning.


Early life

Samuel Plimsoll was born in Bristol and soon moved to Whiteley Wood Hall, Sheffield, also spending part of his childhood in Penrith, Cumberland. Leaving school at an early age, he became a clerk at Rawson's Brewery, and rose to be manager.

Bristol City and county in England

Bristol is a city and county in South West England with a population of 459,300. The wider district has the 10th-largest population in England. The urban area population of 724,000 is the 8th-largest in the UK. The city borders North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, with the cities of Bath and Gloucester to the south-east and north-east, respectively. South Wales lies across the Severn estuary.

Whiteley Wood Hall

Whiteley Wood Hall was an English country house which was demolished in 1959. It stood off Common Lane in the Fulwood area of Sheffield, England. The hall’s stables and associated buildings are still standing and along with the surrounding grounds now serve as an outdoor activities centre for Girlguiding Sheffield. The stables are a Grade II listed building.

Sheffield City and Metropolitan borough in England

Sheffield is a city and metropolitan borough in South Yorkshire, England. Historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, its name derives from the River Sheaf, which runs through the city. With some of its southern suburbs annexed from Derbyshire, the city has grown from its largely industrial roots to encompass a wider economic base. The population of the City of Sheffield is 577,800 (mid-2017 est.) and it is one of the eight largest regional English cities that make up the Core Cities Group. Sheffield is the third-largest English district by population. The metropolitan population of Sheffield is 1,569,000.

In 1853, he attempted to become a coal merchant in London. He failed and was reduced to destitution. He himself told how for a time he lived in a common lodging for seven shillings and two pence a week.

Through this experience, he learnt to sympathise with the struggles of the poor, and when his good fortune returned, he resolved to devote his time to improving their condition.

His efforts were directed especially against what were known as "coffin ships": unseaworthy and overloaded vessels, often heavily insured, in which unscrupulous owners risked the lives of their crews.

Coffin ship is the name given to any ship that has been overinsured and is therefore worth more to its owners sunk than afloat. These were hazardous places to work in the days before effective maritime safety regulation. They were generally eliminated in the 1870s with the success of reforms championed by British MP Samuel Plimsoll.

Political career

In 1867, Plimsoll was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Derby, and endeavoured in vain to pass a bill dealing with the subject of a safe load line on ships. The main problem was the number of powerful ship-owning MPs in Parliament.

Liberal Party (UK) political party of the United Kingdom, 1859–1988

The Liberal Party was one of the two major parties in the United Kingdom with the opposing Conservative Party in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The party arose from an alliance of Whigs and free trade Peelites and Radicals favourable to the ideals of the American and French Revolutions in the 1850s. By the end of the 19th century, it had formed four governments under William Gladstone. Despite being divided over the issue of Irish Home Rule, the party returned to government in 1905 and then won a landslide victory in the following year's general election.

Derby is a former United Kingdom Parliamentary constituency. It was a constituency of the House of Commons of the Parliament of England, then of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800 and of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1950. It was represented by two members of parliament. It was divided into the single-member constituencies of Derby North and Derby South in 1950.

In 1872, he published a work entitled Our Seamen, which became well known throughout the country. Accordingly, on Plimsoll's motion in 1873, a Royal Commission was appointed, and in 1875 a government bill was introduced, which Plimsoll, though regarding it as inadequate, resolved to accept.

On 22 July, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, announced that the bill would be dropped. Plimsoll lost his self-control, applied the term "villains" to members of the House, and shook his fist in the Speaker's face. [1]

Benjamin Disraeli British Conservative Prime Minister

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield,, was a British statesman of the Conservative Party who twice served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He played a central role in the creation of the modern Conservative Party, defining its policies and its broad outreach. Disraeli is remembered for his influential voice in world affairs, his political battles with the Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone, and his one-nation conservatism or "Tory democracy". He made the Conservatives the party most identified with the glory and power of the British Empire. He is the only British prime minister to have been of Jewish birth. He was also a novelist, publishing works of fiction even as prime minister.

Speaker of the House of Commons (United Kingdom) Presiding officer of the United Kingdoms lower chamber of Parliament

The Speaker of the House of Commons is the presiding officer of the House of Commons, the United Kingdom's nominally lower, but more influential, chamber of Parliament. John Bercow was elected Speaker on 22 June 2009, following the resignation of Michael Martin. He was since re-elected, unopposed, three times, following the general elections in 2010, 2015 and 2017.

Disraeli moved that he be reprimanded, but on the suggestion of Lord Hartington agreed to adjourn the matter for a week to allow Plimsoll time for thought.

Load Line Mark and Lines and Timber Load Line Mark and Lines for power driven merchant vessels Load line.jpg
Load Line Mark and Lines and Timber Load Line Mark and Lines for power driven merchant vessels

Eventually Plimsoll made an apology. Many people, however, shared his view that the bill had been stifled by the pressure of the shipowners, and popular feeling forced the government to pass a bill which in the following year was amended into the Merchant Shipping Act.

Memorial to Samuel Plimsoll on Victoria Embankment, London Memorial To Samuel Plimsoll.jpg
Memorial to Samuel Plimsoll on Victoria Embankment, London

This gave stringent powers of inspection to the Board of Trade, and the mark that indicates the safe limit to which a ship may be loaded became generally known as Plimsoll's mark or line.

Plimsoll was re-elected for Derby at the general election of 1880 by a great majority, but gave up his seat to William Vernon Harcourt, believing that the latter, as Home Secretary, could advance sailors' interests more effectively than any private member.

Offered a seat by 30 constituencies, Plimsoll was an unsuccessful candidate in Sheffield Central in 1885. He did not re-enter the house, and later became estranged from the Liberal leaders by what he regarded as their breach of faith in neglecting the question of shipping reform.

He was for some years the honorary president of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union, and drew attention to the horrors of the cattle-ships, where animals were transported under appalling and over-crowded conditions.

Later life

Later, he visited the United States to try to secure the adoption of a less bitter tone towards England in the historical textbooks used in American schools. He died in Folkestone on 3 June 1898, and is buried in St Martin's churchyard, Cheriton, Kent.


Plimsoll married his first wife, Eliza Ann, daughter of Hugh Railton of Chapeltown, near Sheffield, in 1858. In Census 1871 they were enumerated in Hastings where Eliza Ann is recorded as being blind in her right eye and deaf in her left ear. She died in Australia in 1882. There were no children by this marriage. He married his second wife, Harriet Frankish, daughter of Mr. Joseph Armitage Wade, J.P., of Hull and Hornsea, in 1885. By this marriage there were six children, of whom a son, Samuel Richard Cobden Plimsoll, and two daughters survived him. [2]


Posthumous portrait of Plimsoll, executed by Reginald Henry Campbell in the late 19th century Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898) RMG BHC2956.tiff
Posthumous portrait of Plimsoll, executed by Reginald Henry Campbell in the late 19th century

In 1873, the Samuel Plimsoll, an iron hulled full-rigged merchant sailing ship, was launched at the shipyard of Walter Hood & Co. in Aberdeen, Scotland for the Aberdeen White Star Line (G. Thompson & Co.). She was assigned the official British Reg. No. 65097 and the signal MKDH. In 1899, she caught fire in the Thames River and had to be scuttled, but was refloated and repaired in 1900. In 1902, she was severely dismasted and damaged on voyage to Port Chalmers, Australia. Towed to Sydney and subsequently to Fremantle, she was reduced to hulk status the following year. [3] [4]

In the 1920s, Plimsoll shoes were named for their similarity in appearance to the Plimsoll line on boats.

In Whitehall Garden, a Victoria Embankment garden, there is a monument to Samuel Plimsoll in front of the railings.

British writer Nicolette Jones published The Plimsoll Sensation, a highly acclaimed biography – getting the idea for it from living in 1995 in Plimsoll Road in Finsbury Park, north London, but knowing hardly anything about whom it was named after.

Samuel Plimsoll appears in the third series of the BBC historical television drama The Onedin Line , portrayed by actor David Garfield.

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  2. Orme 1901.
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 21 August 2011. Retrieved 25 August 2016.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)

Wikisource-logo.svg  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain :  Orme, Eliza (1901). "Plimsoll, Samuel". Dictionary of National Biography (1st supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co.

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
William Thomas Cox
Michael Thomas Bass
Member of Parliament for Derby
With: Michael Thomas Bass
Succeeded by
Sir William Vernon Harcourt
Michael Thomas Bass