Seaman’s saviour — Frank McNally on the eponymous Samuel Plimsoll, born 200 years ago this weekend

An era in which ships were routinely sent to sea overloaded and undermanned

The English politician and reformer Samuel Plimsoll, who was born 200 years ago this weekend, is today synonymous with the safe loading lines on ships he helped bring into law.

He is also accidentally commemorated by plimsoll shoes, so nicknamed because a horizontal band between their uppers and rubber soles resembled the load lines, and perhaps because water above that mark might be bad news for shoe wearers too.

Less well known is that it was the same Plimsoll (1824–1898) who popularised a term that has since become central to Irish cultural memory: “coffin ship”.

Although the reality behind it was all too common during the Famine years, the phrase itself was not. It wasn’t until the 1870s that Plimsoll’s campaign for safer shipping standards made it popular, whereupon Irish nationalists retrofitted it to the earlier calamity.


The term was later adopted by many Irish writers and balladeers, including the Pogues in their classic emigration song, Thousands Are Sailing.

Plimsoll’s was an era in Britain and Ireland where ships were routinely sent to sea overloaded and undermanned, so that only in perfect weather conditions would they have any chance to complete the journey.

But they were also often overinsured too so that some unscrupulous proprietors were at best indifferent to their fate. At worst, as one commentator put it years later: “Many of these vessels were sent to sea by owners actually hoping that they would founder, for the sake of the insurance.”

Half the ships that sank in British waters during the 1860s did so because of overloading or unseaworthiness, while in in 1873, half of those that sank in European waters were English owned.

The phenomenon was common enough to feature in an Arthur Conan Doyle novel, The Firm of Girdlestone, and in Henrik Ibsen’s play, The Pillars of Society.

Plimsoll was an MP for Derby when he published a campaigning book titled Our Seaman, which led to a royal commission on shipping safety and, in 1875, a government Bill.

But the shipping lobby was too well represented in parliament for the measure to succeed easily. When prime minister Benjamin Disraeli dropped it under pressure, an enraged Plimsoll denounced as “villains” the politicians who had conspired to kill it and shook his fist at the speaker, earning temporary notoriety.

He had won the public’s sympathy, however. The Freeman’s Journal in Dublin chided him gently in an editorial for his unparliamentary language and gestures, but added:

“It is a touching and a rare spectacle to see in the midst of a selfish age a man so saturated with the enthusiasm of humanity, so given up soul and body to the cause of his fellow man, that he utterly breaks down and bursts into a noble frenzy . . . If his eyes have been closed to the lessons of prudence, it was because his mental vision was always filled with the spectres of drowned men.”

Of his cause, the paper went on: “It is now ascertained beyond aye or no that the horrible charges made by Mr Plimsoll are . . . only too well founded in the main, that ‘ship knackers’ do exist, that an unholy trade is driven in ‘coffin ships’, that brave men are daily sent to their death in wretched worn-out hulks, which go down in the first storm.”

The campaign eventually resulted in the 1876 Merchant Shipping Act, which made safe loading lines mandatory.

These were based on the Archimedes principle, that a laden vessel will displace the equivalent in water of the weight of ship and cargo combined.

But as the late Brendan McWilliams once explained elsewhere in these pages: “Cold water is heavier than warm water and salt water is heavier than fresh, so a ship can safely carry more cargo during the winter months than it can in summer, and more cargo over a salty ocean than in a freshwater estuary.”

Plimsoll lines therefore use such abbreviations as “TF” (tropical fresh water) and “WNA” (winter north Atlantic). There is also an “IS” (“Indian summer”), referring to the ocean and unrelated to the phrase for an outbreak of unseasonable heat in autumn.

Changes to the plimsoll line may, by the way, have been a feature in one of the more famous wrecks of modern history, the Edmund Fitzgerald, sunk in November 1975 on Lake Superior and immortalised in a ballad by Gordon Lightfoot.

With a cargo of iron ore, as the song says, “it left fully loaded for Cleveland”. But between launch and sinking, the ship’s load line had been raised just over a metre, making it sit lower beneath the waves and increasing the frequency and quantity of water that could flood the decks in a storm.