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Today, on the date of his birth, we remember Samuel Plimsoll and the fight he undertook to improve and save the lives of sailors. Plimsoll was born on February 10, 1824, in Bristol, England. In 1868, he became a member of the House of Commons in the English Parliament, where he focused on sailor and ship safety. This led to the creation of the Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships in 1872, to find evidence and recommend changes. The following year, Plimsoll published Our Seamen.
Plimsoll pushed for load lines—which show how low a ship can rest in water without risking sinking—to be painted on ships, so it would be less likely they would be overloaded. Load lines had started being used earlier in the nineteenth century. British trade was expanding at the time, which led to a greater number of ships sinking, and to an eye turned to the need for safety. There first was a push to get load lines on ships in the 1830s. By mid-century, many sailors were being charged with desertion and imprisoned for refusing to sail in what they believed were "coffin ships"—dangerous ships unfit to sail.
On account of Plimsoll's efforts, the Merchant Shipping Act, also known as the Unseaworthy Ships Bill, was passed in 1876, which addressed the problem of overloaded ships. The bill stipulated that a mark must be placed on the hull of a ship that showed where the waterline would be when the ship reached maximum cargo capacity. The load line became known as the Plimsoll Line or the Plimsoll Mark. A loophole in the legislation was that it didn't stipulate that the line had to be in the right spot, even though a line was required. It wasn't until the 1890s that the Board of Trade standardized the line to the correct spot. The Plimsoll Line is now recognized around the world. It has expanded to a series of lines that indicate the safe waterline mark for different types of cargo and water type. The line changes depending on salinity, ocean region, temperature, and season.
Samuel Plimsoll stepped down as a member of Parliament in 1880. He died on June 3, 1898. Not only has his name continued to be associated with the Plimsoll Line, but it also has been associated with tennis shoes. Plimsolls have a canvas top, a rubber sole, and originally had a band of rubber dividing the two—which resembled a Plimsoll Line. The shoes date back to the 1830s when they were called sand shoes. They gained their new name in the 1870s. Plimsoll is still a shoe brand in England today, although many other brands of canvas-topped and rubber-soled shoes around the world are informally referred to as plimsolls. From load lines that saved lives to tennis shoes, Samuel Plimsoll has had quite an influence, and we remember and celebrate him today, on National Plimsoll Day.
How to Observe Plimsoll Day
Some ways you could spend the day include:
- Visit the National Maritime Museum in England or a maritime museum in the United States.
- Visit Samuel Plimsoll's grave.
- Watch a short video about the Plimsoll Line.
- Go to a harbor and look for Plimsoll Lines on boats.
- Get a pair of Plimsolls or another brand of shoes with a canvas top and rubber-soled bottom.