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Plimsoll, the Seaman’s Friend, Campaigned Against ‘Coffin Ships’

In the mid-1800s working as a seaman in Great Britain was a dangerous job. Shady ship owners tried to maximize profits by overloading their ships. These ships often sank in bad weather, allowing the ship owners to make an even greater profit on the over-insured ships. In the year 1873-74 around the coastline of the United Kingdom 411 ships sank and 506 people died. Overloading and poor repair made some ships so dangerous that they became known as “coffin ships.” Sailors refused to go board these “coffin ships” and were often imprisoned for desertion. Between 1870 and 1872 alone, 1,628 sailors were incarcerated for this "crime."

Then in 1868 a young British politician named Samuel Plimsoll applied his biblical faith to a current injustice. Plimsoll announced that he would “do all in his power to put an end to the unseaworthy ships owned by the greedy and the unscrupulous.” As a member of the House of Commons he tried to have a law passed, but ship-owning politicians and their ship-owner cronies rejected the law. Then a massive storm wrecked 23 ships, leaving 70 seaman and six rescuers dead. Onlookers clustered on the pier in despair as vessel after vessel foundered.

With the public’s new attention on the injustice of ship overloading, Plimsoll fought to promote the cause. He displayed sailors' grieving widows in public and distributing 600,000 copies of a book exposing the vile practices of the ship owners.

Finally, under his leadership, Parliament passed the 1875 Merchant Shipping Act which 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 prevent overloading. The new practice saved thousands of lives of seaman who were caught in an unjust situation.

Source: Dawn and Derek Hurton, “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',” Beneath The Beacon, (Summer, 2018)

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