Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 22, 1875 --- The Sailor's Friend

A wild scene unfolds on the floor of the House of Commons when Prime Minister Disraeli announces that - in the few days left in the session - there will not be time to act on the Merchant Shipping Reform Bill. The Radical MP for Derby, Joseph Plimsoll, known across England as "the sailor's friend," rises immediately. In what the official record describes as a state of "great excitement," Plimsoll - knowing all too well that several shipowners and builders sit on the Tory benches behind Mr. Disraeli -vows, "I will unmask the villains who have sent brave men to death and destruction."

For years, Plimsoll had sought tighter safety regulations for the merchant shipping fleet, most notably a law to stop the often-disastrous practice of overloading. He charges that greedy shipowners - "speculative scoundrels" - knowingly operate unseaworthy ships, trusting that the insurance will cover them if the vessel is lost and pity the crew. He singles out Edward Bates, a shipowner and Tory MP from Plymouth, who'd lost seven ships in just the previous two years! In the ensuing tumult, Plimsoll refuses to withdraw the word "villain." Disraeli, with stated reluctance, asks the Speaker to reprimand Plimsoll for his "disorderly behavior." Plimsoll leaves with a final shout: "Do you know that thousands are dying for this?"

In the words of a fellow member: "The strain of overwork to which his benevolence and enthusiasm had impelled him, rendered him quite unable to meet the present disappointment calmly." Sympathetic toward his goals, The Spectator nonetheless decried such tantrums: "not a state of mind to be imitated, or even admired."

Plimsoll returned to the House a week later to apologise. If his outburst had been planned, it worked. Before adjourning, Parliament adopted a requirement that all ships be painted with a line at the maximum load level. Inevitably, it became known as the "Plimsoll line."

Sketch from the Penny Illustrated Paper: "The Perils of Our Sea-Men"

No comments:

Post a Comment