1920s >> 1929 >> no-301-september-1929

The Plimsoll Line

“Only the older generation remembers the long struggle conducted by Samuel Plimsoll—to whom at last a memorial is to be erected on the Embankment Gardens—to make legal his famous safety load line, now marked on the sides of every British Ship.”—(Daily Chronicle, August 16.)

Though we do not advocate dependence on others where workers’ interests are at issue, and though we are not hero-worshippers, we can appreciate the sterling worth of men like this champion of the seamen’s cause. Inseparable from the history of Plimsoll’s struggle is the record of a dastardly deed worth recounting, inasmuch as it shows the mercenary nature of capitalist society. Plimsoll was no mere notoriety seeker, but one of the men of his day who could rise above place and pelf. He had a wholesome respect for the working class, especially that hard-working and long-suffering section who sail the seas. In his book, “Our Seamen,” he says :—

“Riches seem in so many cases to smother the manliness of their possessors . . . their sympathies are reserved for the sufferings of their own class and also the woes of their own class. They seldom tend downward, and they are far more likely to admire an act of courage than to admire the constantly exercised fortitude and the tenderness which are the daily characteristics of a British worker’s life—and of the workmen all over the world as well.”

Entering the House of Commons in 1871, Samuel Plimsoll met with bitter hostility from the vested shipping interests and was ejected from the House for denouncing the ship-owners as “cold-blooded murderers.” Hear the words of an eye-witness on the occasion :—

“Most of the house and most of the front benches were as ignorant as bull calves of the ways of the merchant service.

Mr. Plimsoll was a very quiet and quaker-like man. Perhaps there was not a fighting man in the house to back him except half-a-dozen Irishmen. Did he sit down in silent funk? Did he admit that the lives of British seamen were of no urgent importance? I can see the brave man now as I saw him then. In half-a-dozen strides he was in front of the mace at the table. With clenched fist and furious voice he threatened and he denounced, “Were the sailors to go down in coffin ships during another winter’s storms when the Bill could be passed this session. By God! It must be passed, though all the murdering insurers of rotten ships were there to stop it.” It was no use shouting, “Order, order,” or “Send for the Sergeant-at-Arms”; Samuel Plimsoll all along meant to save the sailormen and he called out to all England to have the Plimsoll mark made law.”—(Quoted by the Sphere, August 17th, 1929, from the writings of F. H. O’Donnel, 1913.)

As a result of this agitation, and the consequent feeling aroused, by one man mark you, the Government was forced to push through a temporary bill. So strongly did the vested interests resist the interference with their “right” to murder helpless seamen that it was not until 1890 that the Load Line was fixed by Act of Parliament.

And now for the dastardly deed referred to. In 1906 came the great Liberal Government, with 54 Labour members, and Lloyd George, President of the Board of Trade. Among its wealthy members and supporters were the following shipping magnates :— Lord Pirrie, director of Harland & Wolff’s, White Star Line and other shipping companies ; Lord Furness, director of six shipping concerns; Sir Owen Phillip, Mark Palmer, Lord Joicey, Lord Rendel, Sir Walter Runciman, Sir William Bowring, R. D. Holt, Lord Mulburnholme, Russel Lea, Hon. J. A. Pease, and so on, and so on, profit without end. Now will you need to ask why David Lloyd George, ambassador of God Almighty Capital, amended the Merchant Shipping Act, permitting vessels that could least afford to load deeper to do so, to the extent of 7 and 8 inches. The object was to save the ship-owners from the expense of building extra vessels, and the result was very soon apparent in the number of founderings and the consequent enornous loss of life. Numbers of ships went out to sea and were never heard of again. But in this day there was no Samuel Plimsoll, though there were 54 Labour members, who, for the most part, sat silent through it all. Greatly to their credit the late Keir Hardie and H. M. Hyndman carried on a vigorous campaign of protest, the latter even challenged Lloyd George to prosecute for the accusations he levied against him, but the Welsh lawyer was too busy “climbing.” We live in a commercial age, and the object of these lines is to call attention to the rottenness of a society in which the noble deeds of the dead can be turned to account, and even honoured, by those who batten and fatten on the living.


(Socialist Standard, September 1929)

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