Drawing the Line at Safety

Alan Thomas takes a look Samuel Plimsoll, the nineteenth century reformer who left his mark on ships all over the world.

The Zeebrugge ferry disaster has made current again the crucial question of freeboard. The safe height of a ship above water was a principal concern of Samuel Plimsoll the nineteenth-century reformer who has literally left his mark on the sides of ships the world over. Other questions arising from the operation of Channel ferries recall Plimsoll's anxieties about the danger of capsize from deck- loading and the shifting of bulk cargo in unsectioned holds.

Histories of nineteenth-century reform have made familiar the technical terms of such remedies as 'load-lines' and 'shifting boards' which stem from his agitation. Perhaps what has been obscured is the fundamental nature of Plimsoll's protest which certainly involved technical matters but was firmly directed against the negligence of some shipowners and the indifference of government. This deadly combination, as he regarded it, permitted a continual high loss of life among ship's crews at sea, a loss regarded by the Board of Trade as regrettable but unavoidable. Plimsoll insisted it could be avoided, or seriously reduced, with proper regulation.

It must be government regulation, he argued, since the insurance market had demonstrated that it did not possess the power to make shipping safe". A contemporary demonstration of the same weakness occurred on a global scale in 1980. Following the worst year of shipping losses ever in peacetime, Lloyd’s underwriters asked for greater stringency in the application of safety standards and appealed to IMCO, the maritime arm of the United Nations, for action.

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