Samuel Plimsoll MP, the Seaman's Friend, was addicted to philanthropy and invested much of his wealth and health in a campaign against 'coffin ships'.
Memories of Penrith Beacon
Brought up in Penrith's Foster Street, Samuel attended Mrs Jenny Dalton's infant school in Little Dockray and was taught by the curate.
His enduring childhood memory was the view from the Beacon: 'a glorious panorama... the wide plain... closed by the dark hills of Ullswater on the west, and by the dim ridges of Scotland to the north.'
The eighth of 13 children, Samuel was just 16 when his father died, leaving him to look after 5 younger siblings.
Energetic in commerce, he made good money sending coal from Newcastle to London. Coal ships plied the waters up and down the east coast of England carrying his 'black diamonds' to power the capital's economy.
A Great Injustice
Destitution after rivals ruined his business instilled him with love for the underdog, the poor and the exploited. Plimsoll followed evangelical campaigners Wilberforce and Shaftesbury in finding moral certainty in his deep Christian faith. Injustice of any kind aroused powerful emotions in his heart and there was no greater injustice in Victorian England than that suffered by seamen and their widowed families.
In 1868, at Sheffield's Fulwood Chapel he announced he would 'do all in his power to put an end to the unseaworthy ships owned by the greedy and the unscrupulous.' The plight of Britain's sailors, forced by threat of prison to embark on perilous voyages in overloaded, overinsured and unseaworthy vessels, had become his personal crusade.
Five Hundred Lives Lost
500 lives were being unnecessarily lost at sea every winter but the politicians appeared uninterested. Plimsoll, elected to the House of Commons, tried to have a law passed but it was talked out by ship-owning MPs and their cronies.
Then in Bridlington's great gale 23 rotten ships were wrecked and over 70 seamen died including 6 crewing the local lifeboat. Onlookers clustered on the pier and seawall in despair as vessel after vessel foundered. Newspapers reported a harrowing scene as seamen perished within sight and hearing of pitying crowds who were powerless to save them.
As the ships went down the public's ire and interest were aroused.
Plimsoll used every means available to promote the cause: displaying sailors' grieving widows in public, distributing 600,000 copies of his detailed diatribe 'Our Seamen' to expose villainous shipowners, demanding (and getting) a Royal Commission into the subject, rousing the 3,000 strong audience at the Exeter Hall's Great Plimsoll Meeting and 'repackaging the poor for middle class consumers.'
He built a campaigning alliance of the great and the good, counting eleven MPs, six Lords, a pair of Admirals and four Sea Captains among his supporters. Riding a wave of public opinion, with the popular press to the fore and the establishment behind him Samuel was confident that Parliament could prevaricate no longer.
Opponents sued for libel over statements in his book but the judges, sympathetic to Plimsoll's cause, dismissed the cases.
Villains in the House
All seemed set fair for Parliament to act until Prime Minister Disraeli dropped the proposals.
Plimsoll lost his temper in the House, called its Members a bunch of 'villains' and shook his fist in the Speaker's face. Disraeli moved to reprimand him, but was persuaded to adjourn the matter for a week. Outwardly contrite, Plimsoll apologised but inwardly he resolved to redouble his efforts.
He introduced new parliamentary and political techniques that subsequently became commonplace. Photos of angry constituents at local meetings were used to persuade MPs. Protests were coordinated around Britain. What his son later described as 'an army of paid agitators' was raised.
His wife Eliza, the love of his life and a constant support and co-campaigner, addressed thousands of envelopes to churches entreating them to lobby MPs.
The new tactics worked, public opinion thundered on Plimsoll's side and it was Disraeli who was finally forced to back down. The passing of the 1875 Merchant Shipping Act marked the beginning of the end for coffin ships.
From then on - and to this day - vessels had to display the Plimsoll Mark, a loadline, painted clearly on their hulls, showing how deep they could safely sit in the water and preventing overloading.
The safe depth varies with a ship’s dimensions, the cargo it carries, the season and the density of the water encountered in port and at sea.
Each water type has its own indicator.
The Mark inspired the London Transport logo.
Plimsoll's tireless campaigning won him the affection of working people in coastal ports and inland. In Liverpool he enjoyed especially strong support: the public there subscribed £500 which he used to fund a lifeboat. Named after him it saved over 200 lives in 6 years.
When the Liverpool Rubber Company produced a first rubber-soled, canvas-upper shoe that could safely be immersed in a puddle up to a certain depth before leaking it was inevitably named after Samuel.
Plimsoll never lost his Cumbrian connections. Returning to Penrith in his thirties he was dismayed at finding fir trees obscuring his beloved Beacon vista so he persuaded the Earl of Lonsdale to fell them. Around the same time he was prominent in protests over public access from Keswick up Spooney Green Lane to the fell at Latrigg.
Widowed and Remarried
Constant exposure to the elements while observing vessels setting sail from English ports weakened Eliza and Samuel's health. They spent time together in warmer climates but Samuel was back in London promoting plans for a fish market when Eliza was taken ill in Australia. Tragically she died and was buried before he could be at her side. Stricken with grief Samuel had Eliza's body exhumed and brought back to London to rest in Highgate Cemetary.
Later he was remarried, to Harriet Wade (he 61, she 34), who gave birth to four children. She admired his moral vigour and he carried on campaigning on all fronts - the taxes levied on the Maltese people's victuals, the barbarity of cattle transport from America to Britain and maritime industrial relations.
His last great endeavour was to redeem our relationship with America, soured since independence 120 years earlier. Touring that great country he persuaded US Commissioner for Education to withdraw anti-British history books from schools, giving rise to the 'special relationship' still celebrated today.
When he died in 1898 he left £40,000 to Harriet and the children but his legacy to seafarers was beyond price.
Today streets across the length and breadth of England bear his name.